Proofing is the final step in training your dog in any new behavior. It involves practicing behaviors in a variety of situations with different levels of distraction. You want your dog to stay wherever and whenever you give the command, not just in the room where you trained it, and this takes practice.
Failing to proof behaviors is the reason why your dog may perform behaviors well in your living room, but seem to forget all its training the minute you leave the house.
Think Like a Dog
To understand why proofing is important, you must first be able to understand how your dog thinks. Dogs aren't able to generalize the way people do. This simply means that your dog may understand what "sit" means when you give the command in your kitchen, but he may not understand that it means the same thing later on, or in a different place.
Imagine you are sitting at your dinner table, and your mother says, "Get your elbows off the table!" When she says this, you understand that this is the rule for all tables. You need to keep your elbows off this table and the table at your aunt's house and the table in a restaurant.
But if you were able to tell your dog to get its paws off the table, it would understand only that it wasn't allowed to put its paws on this table. Dogs are not able to generalize, so they won't understand that the rule applies to every table.
When your dog is able to perform a behavior on command as perfectly at the dog park as it does it in your kitchen, you can consider the behavior proofed.
Add Distractions and Different Settings
When you begin training your dog to do something new, you usually start off in an area that's fairly quiet with very low distraction. Once your dog is able to respond quickly to a command in this setting, it is time to add some distractions and new settings. Do this slowly, and work on adding one new thing at a time.
Let's look at how you would proof the command "sit."
- Practice the command until your dog is able to respond to the "sit" command fairly quickly. Then begin to slowly add new things.
- You can start by adding some distraction. Have another family member come into the room. Practice several times, and then turn on the television while you practice. Slowly add more distracting things to his environment, like other dogs, running children, and loud noises. Do all this while practicing the "sit" command.
- Once your dog is able to sit quickly on command with some distraction, begin practicing in different places, such as another room, the backyard, and the neighbor's house.
- Keep each training session to about 10 minutes, and stay upbeat
- After you have practiced a behavior with different amounts of distraction and in a variety of locations, your dog should have a really good grasp of the behavior.
It should now be able to perform the behavior as well at any location as it does it in your living room. Once you've gotten to this point, the behavior is proofed.
If your dog is struggling with a behavior, after about 10 minutes have gone by, you're probably not going to get it to complete the action. End the training session with an easy command it already knows, so your dog doesn't feel like it's being punished.
Resume the training when the dog has had a break and can concentrate.
Problems with Proofing
One of the biggest mistakes owners make when training their dogs is inconsistency. If a dog is not allowed on the bed, but you occasionally let it come on the bed, you're not reinforcing the rule, and the dog will remember the instance when it was allowed on the bed.
This is how a lot of dogs learn to beg at the table. Someone, at some point, has dropped food on the floor or fed the dog from the table. The dog remembers that instance and will wait for it to occur again.
Being consistent with training also means being thorough. If you command your dog to sit, and it only sits for a few seconds, or gets halfway down on the floor but doesn't actually sit down, this is not behavior to reward. Instead, keep practicing the command until the dog sits and remains sitting until you reward it.