Proofing: Is It Fair?
Proofing in dog training is a conversation you have with your dog. It’s important! It’s the place where tasks are clarified, and differentiated from tricks that are optional. It’s NOT about rehearsing the formal exercise. It’s the place where you help your dog rehearse how he will face the challenges he may encounter in the ring, and you both gain confidence in the dog’s ability to cope with the unexpected. But many trainers avoid proofing because they are afraid to put their dogs in the position of committing errors.
That fear is a sign of a hole in the training relationship and the communication system. It’s time to face the fear.
Proofing is NOT fair…IF you have not actually taught the necessary skills so the dog has a correct choice available to make. It is not fair IF you are not aware of your dog’s current skills and weaknesses enough to set up the scenario so that there are a limited number of choices at the moment, and put yourself in the position to mark an incorrect choice, and immediately help the dog make another. Proofing is not fair IF the only thing you do when an error happens is punish the dog, and fail to show him the other option, followed by repeating the set up with appropriate help on the next repetition. But if you do the work and set the scene to make it a teaching moment, proofing is the process that will allow your dog to meet its full potential.
There are thousands of small proofs that folks have come up with; but rather than write a book about it, let me give you a few guidelines that some of you have read before, but could use some reminders about.
- Proof small skills for distraction resistance. A very simple but powerful one is name recognition. Begin with neutral distractions, like a small pill bottle that you can toss out in random directions. With the dog on leash, toss the bottle and allow the dog to look at it, although the leash is on and the dog should not be allowed to chase it. Let the dog look for a few seconds, and then say the dog’s name. If your training is current on this skill (and THIS one needs recharging often for many reasons!), the dog should snap his head around pretty fast. If he doesn’t, that’s a clue that you need to do this exercise much more often. But when he does look back, praise, reward, and repeat; keep repeating until the head snap is immediate, or the dog actually starts ignoring the distraction. Then look for less neutral distractions, and build up to highly distracting situations. For Trix, that is a walk in our back yard near the trees where the ground squirrels have condominiums built underneath, or along our little frontage road with traffic or a herd of cattle going by. This applies to ANY behavior you teach your dog. The reality is that sometimes they are going to look away, but their ears still work. I’d use the dog’s name to get its attention before a command, hence the name response proofing; but sometimes you can see that you only have 90% of the brainwaves even if the dog is facing you. So the goal is to get to the point that you still have functional obedience even when there are challenges that your dog is well aware of. Responses may not be fast or entirely correct technically, and you should push for better with more work; but functional is good!
- Use geography in your favor. For proofing to be useful, the dog has to be close enough to a distraction to be aware of it, but you don’t have to be so close that the challenge is impossible to resist. This is very individual. For most dogs, 6 to 8 feet away from toys on the ground is enough; but I met one dog who was crazed for several minutes about toys place 20 feet away, and it took three failures and frustration moments for the dog to decide to try the “right” thing instead.
- Use graduated challenges. In addition to distance, consider what the skill you are proofing will require the dog to do relative to the distraction. In general I believe that the easiest choice is leaving a distraction. As soon as the dog makes that choice, his every move should take him further from the hazard and closer to the objective of the command, so that temptation reduces with progress. A recall away from a target or toy is an example. Second on my choice ladder is stopping short of a distraction. A recall to me with a temptation behind me by several feet is an example. Temptation increases as the exercise progresses, but I have control of the outcome. A retrieve with the dumbbell 10 or more feet short of a toy is another example, and I would control the outcome by having the toy in an ex pen or a Flexi on the dog. Moving past a distraction to complete a task is, to me, the biggest challenge. I want the dog comfortable with the former two levels first, so that this final challenge is one he is equipped to handle. And this challenge may need some distance from the line of travel used wisely.
- When proofing, recognize choices that are not in the technical description of an exercise, but actually indicate effort. It is common in retrieve proofing at the level of asking a dog to pass a temptation for dogs to either flinch on command and not move, or to cautiously go way wide of the temptation, well off of the ideal direct line to the dumbbell. Not moving at all is a choice to avoid having to face the challenge by not moving in that direction. Moving way wide shows understanding of the task AND a distinct effort to stay out of trouble. Refusing to move requires at least another command, and maybe some guidance on leash to prove that it can be done, or perhaps is a message that the temptation is, for this dog, too close to the path to the task at this moment. But moving widely should be praised and celebrated, and you’ll likely find that with repetition, the path out and back will straighten out as the dog gains confidence.
- Errors are gifts to you! They tell you a lot about how your dog thinks. They tell you what the dog actually knows rather than what you think you taught. They are your chance to say, “Oh, I see what you’re thinking, and I understand; but here’s what I want you to consider instead.” Eventually, you will know how your dog will respond before you start training, and your proofing efforts will go better because of improved management.
- Caution is NOT a bad thing. Some people cave in during proofing when the dog hesitates or drops speed or looks a tiny bit stressed. Hello! There is thinking going on! That’s a good thing. It tells you that the dog is now aware that you have some different concepts in mind, and he’s trying to figure them out and cope with them. That is NOT the time to distract the dog from his thought processes with a game. Instead, calmly support his efforts, help as much as he needs, and repeat until he begins to show confidence. THEN you can have a party. If you break into a fiesta every time your dog shows stress, your dog will learn quickly to show stress postures anytime he doesn’t know for sure what you want so that you will party rather than push him to use his brain. But if you gently but insistently help him learn to problem solve, he will learn to thrive on challenges, just as we enjoy puzzles or games that give us challenges.
- Not every error you see in the ring needs to be proofed relative to the particular exercise. Two folks once came to a class with a dog who had flunked the broad jump the past weekend when a door slammed as the dog was on the way to the jump, and the dog startled and froze. Instead of doing any counterconditioning to the sound of door slamming at greater distances, they repeatedly focused on the broad jump, with the second person slamming the door every time the dog started to take off. It got ugly, and there was no improvement on that night. They were not my students, and I knew they were there with instructions that differed from my approach, so I finally just had to tell them that it was somebody else’s turn. But this is an example of seeing the failed exercise as the problem rather than the dog’s response to the sound. This soured the dog on the broad jump for a while, and did nothing to desensitize the dog to the startling sound. I believe it would have been better to add distance between the dog and a door, and have somebody open and close it repeatedly while rewarding any focus offered. When the dog could relax and ignore the sound a bit better, the trainer could have asked for simple behaviors, then worked up to recalls, and then maybe segue back to the exercise where the error occurred in the ring. But I want the distraction to start BEFORE the exercise and continue through it, rather than be a bad surprise during the exercise that could convince superstitious dogs that approaching the broad jump was a bad idea. (And trust me, ALL dogs are superstitious!)
- Keep it simple. Let’s say your dog flunks articles at an outdoor show because he’s busy looking at birds or squirrels in the surrounding trees. Yes, you do need to teach him to resist those temptations as well as you can. But the scent discrimination exercise is MUCH too complicated a sequence to use for that challenge, and there is way too much room for fallout as a result of confrontation and corrections in the context of that exercise. So when you need to have the “I don’t care how much you love ____________ , when we’re working you need to ignore it!” conversation with your dog, start out simply, so that the dog only has to make one or two decisions. Stays, recalls, and name response are good starting points. Single item retrieves is a higher level that is still fair with no reason for a lot of bad fallout. Complicated exercises should be reserved for when your dog understands the proofing game and is confident about it on the much simpler exercises.
- Increase challenges gradually. For example, some dogs are extremely aware of spaces between the boards of the broad jump. One proof is to remove a board or two and teach the dog to jump the whole distance delineated by two boards, even though there is a lot of open space between them. Doing it once to question your dog about his understanding of the exercise is fine; but if you already know that answer, it’s better to work up to this, by starting with two boards close together, and gradually move them apart as the dog succeeds at jumping them. At some point the dog will decide to step in the space, so plan for that. Try a rolled up piece of craft paper placed in the space so it looks like something to stand on, but crumples when stepped on. Add more as needed as you gradually expand the distance the dog needs to clear over a week or two of training.
- Have your response to an error planned out. Remember this is a teaching opportunity, so be ready to teach! EXPECT errors when proofing, and make your move at the outset of the error. Sometimes all you need is an “oops” cue and a repetition of the original command. But sometimes you have to go to the dog, who has succumbed to temptation, and actually say visually and verbally and physically, “No! That is a leave it!” Then repeat the recall right from there, or point out the dumbbell he was supposed to fetch, and use the collar to get the dog moving in the right direction. Whatever you do, standing still and languishing in a state of dismay is not constructive.