What is proofing in dog training?
Proofing is a concept that I find myself talking about a lot with my clients. It often seems to be when we’re discussing recall, but is actually relevant to all aspects of a dog’s training and is something that many owners seem to be unaware of as being important.
As humans, we can take prior knowledge and apply it to novel situations, without being fully aware that we are doing it. For example, having practiced a skill at school, we can go home or into a different scenario and carry out the exact same procedures again. Dogs’ brains unfortunately do not work like this, which is why if they have only ever learnt commands in the house or the garden, they are unlikely to be as obedient out on a walk, as this is an entirely different environment with a much greater level of distraction.
Proofing refers to exposing dogs to increasing distraction levels during training, until the desired behaviour is generalised – this means that the dog will respond and perform it in any location.
Recall is a good example of where this is especially important: unfortunately, many people make the mistake of seeing that their dog has good recall at home and in the garden, and then jump straight into letting them loose on walks. Unfortunately this is where the recall often breaks down, as the dog is faced with many new and exciting distractions and is less inclined to return to their owner.
Proofing the recall can be a lengthy process, but starting off on the right foot with a young puppy is far better than having to retrain an adolescent dog further down the line! Beginning in low distraction environments and gradually moving further afield into more challenging places (on a long-line to begin with, to ensure safety) is the best way to begin. In our classes at VIPPIES, we use the other dogs in the class to provide distraction by walking or playing near to the dog being recalled, and practice on long-lines out on group walks – but this is only done once the basics of recall are firmly in place.
Management is also important in creating a good recall: understanding your dog and avoiding placing them in situations in which they are likely to have a failed recall is essential. We should always be aiming to set the dog up for success, and throwing them in at the deep end is likely to not only damage the recall command, but the trust between dog and handler as well.
Patience during these early stages will pay off massively, even if it means keeping the dog on a lead for longer than you would like to initially. Proofing can be applied to all training; even basic commands will improve with practice in different environments, and as an owner you will reap the benefits for years to come.