In dog and pet training, when it comes to setting your pet up for training success, ‘proofing’ behaviors you have trained is a very important step. Proofing is quite simply practicing behaviors in a variety of situations with varying levels of distraction.
Skipping this step is why you may have a dog who sits and stays in your living room, but won’t pay any attention to your cue when on a sidewalk or in a park. He has not learned to generalize what you taught him to diverse environments where there are competing reinforcers all around.
So, how do you ‘proof’ a behavior? (I will use sit as my example, with the assumption that you have already taught your dog to sit in a quiet environment with minimal distractions.)
Here is one way of beginning this process in a new environment, but not an over-the-top arousing environment: With a fistful of really great treats, take your dog outside where there are not other dogs around and or other highly arousing stimulus (like deer). Allow your dog to check out the environment and only when he begins to satiate on checkout out the environment and checks back in with you do you ask him to sit. Practice his sits about 10 to 20 times and then stop and go on to another activity. Then, later on – either later that day or the next – practice it again and notice if the amount of time it takes before he can focus on you shortens. With continued success, you can try new locations. Always only asking for the ‘sit’ when YOU know you can reliably predict your dog can focus well enough to achieve success.
Some other strategies for setting your dog up for success:
Increase the rate of reinforcement and the value of the reinforcement (think freeze dried liver or chicken or a tug toy) while temporarily lowering other criteria as you increase distractions. If you had built up to asking your dog to sit from 5 feet away in your living room, then you’ll want to start by standing or kneeling close to him outside, giving him many more treats in a short period of time.
In the beginning, keep the stimulus (like a group of people or person walking another dog) far enough away that your dog can continue to focus on you. Only increase the proximity between you and the stimulus when your dog is giving you feedback that he can still focus. That feedback is his ability to do the behavior you are asking of him and his interest in the food or other reinforcer. Always start where you know your dog can succeed; and if he cannot, then take that as your feedback that you need to get further away (and/or lower your criteria and/or have higher value reinforcers).
Once your dog is able to generalize a few behaviors through proofing, you’ll find that all subsequently taught behaviors tend to generalize more rapidly.
What training criteria are great to proof?
Duration. Will your dog stay seated until you offer him the release cue to do something else?
Distance from you. Does your dog sit when you ask him at only a foot away or also from 10 feet away?
Distractions. Does your dog sit in the back yard as well as a park?
Criteria. What do you want the end behavior to look like? Is that what it looks like?
Latency. Latency is the time between when you offer the cue and when the dog offers the behavior. Does your dog sit immediately when you ask?
Stimulus control. Does the dog sit every time you offer him the cue? And does he wait until you cue him to do the behavior?
Remember, learning will come much more quickly when the teacher gives a lesson plan filled with fun!
Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!