By Mary Horne, CPDT-KA
Competition Obedience Training Director
Thoughtful “proofing” is an important step toward achieving ring-ready reliability…. or behavioral reliability in any context. As the term implies, it is designed to check for errors (in this case, of understanding) and thus build the dog’s confidence, not diminish it. Some (in my opinion) take proofing to an unfair or absurd extreme. Others don’t do enough, for fear of causing the dog to fail.
Done well, proofing can be a fun and rewarding game for both dog and handler. “You can’t fake me out with that trick!” wags the well-proofed dog in the face of a distraction! It’s a happy moment when you see that light bulb go on.
Here are some important things to keep in mind when crafting your plan:
- Proofing is designed to build confidence, never (ever!) to scare or completely flummox the dog. Add elements of proofing in small enough steps that the dog has at least an 80% chance of performing the exercise correctly. Then increase difficulty or complexity, as needed.
- Proofing should begin once the dog has clearly demonstrated a solid understanding of the concept and mechanics of an exercise – or piece of an exercise – in a quiet environment. Proofing necessarily increases the difficulty of the task. Adding variables before the dog is able to perform the desired behavior with certainty and confidence will lead to confusion.
- Have a plan for dealing with “failures.” At a certain point, proofing will tend to cause errors. That’s good! Mistakes are an important part of learning. Helping our dogs understand what isn’t right helps clarify for them what is right. However, it’s critical to know exactly what you’re going to do when the error occurs and how you’ll set up the next repetition so your dog benefits from the experience.
Say, for example, you’re working on reliability for your dog’s “sit”. You could ask your dog to sit …
· In different locations - indoors, outdoors, at strip malls, parking lots, airports, dog shows, large open fields, small enclosed spaces, outside fenced dog parks, etc.
· On different substrates - grass, tile, woodchips, roads, raised surfaces (stone walls, picnic tables), plywood
· Around different sounds - crinkling baggies, applause, music, doors opening/closing, airplanes, wind, kids playing, taped noise (barking, dog show noise, babies, cats, etc.)
· Near other dogs – dogs doing recalls, retrieves, jumping, stays, dogs being removed from the line during group exercises, etc.
· With you in different orientations – you sit, lie down, face away, bend down … or at different distances from you
· Around staged distractions – placing a treat pouch, bits of paper, stuffed animals, covered food bowls on ground, hanging toys, putting smelly food on a table
· In proximity to other humans – people playing “judge”, following during heeling, standing behind dog setting up for recalls, wearing rain gear, neckties, sun hats, holding clipboard, “spectators” clapping, eating, on crutches, etc. ** Important note: Be certain to clearly instruct any human helpers on EXACTLY how you want them to help, and what to do if the dog isn’t successful. They need to know when to back off if your plan proves too difficult for your dog. Bad human help can be far worse than no human help!
Again, be certain none of these things scares your dog! If she worries that something bad is going to happen during an exercise, she will not be able to perform it with clarity and confidence.
Finding the right type and amount of proofing for each individual dog requires planning and care but is well-worth the effort. Have fun with it!