Does your dog have perfect recall inside but selective memory at the park? Or does he know the “wait” command yet won’t stop running around if you have guests? Teaching a dog to respond to a command is one thing. Getting him to generalize this command to all situations takes time, patience and the correct training technique.
The good news is that “proofing” your dog’s training isn’t as difficult or time-consuming as it sounds. In this article, I’m going to show you how to proof any command, so you can have more trust in your dog’s response.
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Why Dogs are Bad at Generalizing
It seems obvious to humans that if a dog knows the command “sit,” he should respond in any environment. This isn’t the case though – and it’s because dogs aren’t great at generalizing.
Generalization is when a dog learns something in one environment (i.e. in your living room) and applies it to a different situation without being explicitly taught.
A good example is recall training. Many owners teach their dogs to respond to being recalled in the home. They then take the dog to the park, and are surprised when it completely ignores their commands. This dog has not learned to generalize a command, as he thinks the command “come” only applies in the home.
On the other hand, a dog that’s been taught to generalize a command responds even in an environment they haven’t been before. You could take this dog to the park, beach or anywhere else, and he would still respond.
Dogs do have some natural ability to generalize, but it mostly needs to be taught. That’s where proofing comes in.
What is Proofing & Fluency Training
Proofing, which is sometimes known as fluency training, is a process you can use to teach your dog to respond in any situation.
At its basic level, proofing involves teaching your dog the same command but in gradually harder circumstances. While you might start in your living room, you could eventually be teaching it in a park that’s full of distractions. Before long, the dog can generalize the command to all circumstances.
Until a behavior has been proofed, you can’t say your dog truly “knows” it. Therefore, proofing is an essential part of the training process that shouldn’t be skipped.
Proofing a behavior also has consequences for your dog’s well-being. A properly trained dog is enjoyable to take on walks or trips, so owners are naturally more willing for their pet to accompany them. This makes it more likely that the dog gets the physical and mental stimulation they need. Dogs with poor training, however, can often be stressful to manage away from the home.
How to Proof a Behavior
The process below must be followed for every command you want to teach your dog. Just because a dog can generalize one command, doesn’t mean the same about others.
- Step 1: Start by teaching your dog a command, such as “Sit,” in a quiet environment without distractions. It’s usually best to train in short sessions, as many dogs find it hard to concentrate for long periods. Once your dog knows the command in this environment, move to the next step.
- Step 2: It’s now time to start adding distractions. These should be small at first, such as a family member walking through the room. Practice with a distraction until your dog responds reliably, then add a slightly bigger disturbance. Good examples could be turning on the radio (easy), allowing another animal in the room (more difficult) or having a family member bang on the window (hard).
- Step 3: By this stage, your dog should respond to the command even with multiple large distractions. The next stage is to try in different environments. I usually recommend using the following process: another room in your home, the back garden, a different house, pavement of a quiet road, pavement of a loud road, a quiet park and finally a busy park.
The process of proofing a behavior isn’t difficult, but you need to be patient. Each step can take multiple sessions – especially if your dog is easily distracted.
It’s vital your dog truly knows a command before you move onto a more difficult distraction or environment. Moving on too quickly, or using a distraction that’s too difficult, is setting your dog up for failure. For this reason, increase the difficulty of your training sessions gradually.
Once your dog can reliably respond in a variety of circumstances, he’ll understand that the command applies to any environment. Even if you take him somewhere new, he’ll still respond.
Proofing a command or behavior is the difference between a dog that’s truly trained, and one that’s only responsive in certain conditions. That’s why it’s important to spend extra time proofing your training.
Fortunately, proofing can be a fun bonding experience with your dog. You’ll see real progress quickly and it provides near-endless training opportunities. It’s also definitely worth the extra time!
Have you taught your dog proofing? Share your experiences below!
About the author: Rich has always been mad about dogs, so writing about them for a living is his dream job. When he’s not writing or spending time with his beloved pets, he also enjoys road cycling and sailing. You can find him on Twitter.