Dog training is a journey, rather than a single event.
Every single skill you teach your dog, from sit, to come and from down to heel, needs to go through five stages.
Not until the fourth stage is complete, can you consider your dog to be ‘trained’ in that particular skill.
This fourth stage, known as ‘proofing’ is very special.
It is, in many ways, the most important training stage of all. Yet many many dog owners never even attempt it! Let’s take a closer look
How dogs differ from people
When teaching your dog new skills, it is tempting to assume that they learn in the same way that we do. And in some respects this is true.Just like us, dogs learn from the consequences of their behaviour.
Behaviours that are rewarded today, are more likely to be repeated tomorrow. And so on.
But in some respects, the learning abilities of dogs are quite different from ours. Especially with regard to discrimination and generalisation.
Your dog’s strength
Unlike most people, dogs are great discriminators. Your dog will notice tiny changes in your body posture, even down to your facial expression.
We can use this to our advantage. You can smile at your dog as he approaches you and he will take note and feel welcomed. You can blink or lick your lips to reassure him.
He will easily learn to follow your hand signals and even to discriminate between words that sound quite similar (heel and here for example)
Your dog’s weakness
On the other hand, dogs are very poor generalisers. We humans are great at generalising so we find this hard to understand.
If you learn to knit, or speak French in your own home, you’ll be able to do so in someone else’s home. Even in a foreign country.
Your dog is unlikely to learn to knit, but even with very simple skills like ‘sit’ dogs really struggle with this concept of generalisation.
If you teach your dog a ‘down’ in your kitchen and then take him into the garden and say ‘down’ – the chances are quite high that he won’t respond. Or at least not in the way that you want him to.
Understanding that a skill or response learned under one particular set of circumstances, also applies in another completely different set of circumstances, is a particularly human skill. Dogs generally lack this skill or are poor at it.
And this weakness, or rather our ignorance of it, gets them into a whole heap of trouble.
Because, for the most part, a dog’s inability to generalise is interpreted as naughtiness.
Re-teaching from the ground up
When you have taught your dog a basic skill, such as ‘sit’ in one location, you will need to re-teach the skill from the ground up, in several different locations (your garden, the park, the beach etc) before he grasps the universality of this new command.
The sad truth is, most people fail to do this.
Not only do changes in location cause dogs to fail to respond to the cues we have taught them at home, other changes in their environment do too.
So for example, your dog may respond nicely to a sit cue on your patio when you are alone, but fail to do so when there is a visitor or even another member of the family present.
Dogs have been labelled as wilful and stubborn, and punished since time immemorial for this simple misunderstanding.
But “what is the alternative” you ask “surely I can’t just let the dog get away with being naughty?”
The answer lies in the re-teaching process we call ‘proofing’
But won’t it take forever?
Proofing does take time. Re-teaching the command in each new situation is not a five minute job. But it doesn’t take forever, and unfortunately, the alternative is an untrained dog.
Obviously you would like your dog to obey your sit command at home and everywhere else, without going to this trouble, but it isn’t going to happen. No proofing = No obedience.
How do I proof my dog’s training?
Now for the practicalities. Essentially you need to start over with your training, for each skill, in each new situation. So, when you take your dog to the park, assume that he has no idea what the word ‘sit’ means.
Go through all the stages you went through at home, starting with great, high value rewards, and gradually replacing these with less valuable rewards as he catches on.
Lure him into the sit as if he is a puppy (Stage 1) and reward him profusely. Associate your cue with the sit (Stage 2). Ask him to sit when he is not distracted and reward profusely (Stage 3). Take your time.
Protect him from distractions in new locations. Use a long line and harness if necessary. Add distractions in carefully and gradually in stages too.
He will get quicker
This is not as onerous a task as it may seen. Your dog will get quicker.
He will relearn the skill faster each time, as long as you introduce complexity and distractions gradually.
Here’s the thing. The hard truth is, there are no ‘quick fixes’ to training a dog. The amazing improvements you see on quick fix TV shows are all sham. They don’t stand up to the test of time.
Real training has to be ‘proofed’ in careful stages or it will simply fall apart the first time you give your command and your dog wants to play with his friends or chase a bike.
You can do this. And I’ll be posting some practical exercises to help you.
Give it a little time
The best thing about dog training is that you get back exactly what you put in.
Take the time to proof your training, and you will be thrilled with the results and admired by all who know you.