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Trial Readiness Part 4: Proofing

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In the first three parts of this series, we’ve considered what it takes to have a dog well prepared to attend a dog competition.  We’ve covered the importance of creating high quality behaviors, generalizing those behaviors to new environments, and training our dogs to love being inside of a competition ring.  Now we’ll consider Proofing.

Proofing means teaching a dog to perform correctly even under adverse conditions.  Generalization is a specific type of proofing which is often (but not always ) environmentally focused.  Now we’ll consider generic proofing which pretty much covers any type of adversity that you can think up!

Traditionally, proofing meant setting the dog up to fail and then following up with a correction for failure to perform.  Over time the dog got the message; no matter how attractive another dog, person, cookie, smell, etc., you must keep working.  That worked reasonably well for sturdy dogs with good recovery and low levels of worry, but not so well for less driven dogs, sensitive dogs and dogs with behavior issues.  Not to mention, some handlers weren’t very comfortable “making” another being do much of anything, let alone random tricks for a dog competition.

 As a result, the word “proofing” has acquired a somewhat negative connotation for many trainers who shun compulsion.  And while I’d agree that the method described above is outdated and unnecessary, the importance of teaching your dog to function under adversity is still critical.  A dog that cannot perform under adversity is going to have a relatively short competition career.

The phrase “to proof” does accurately describe an element of competition training that cannot be ignored.   Here are two fundamental differences; +r trainers set dogs up to succeed and then reward those good choices instead of setting dogs up to fail and punishing them, and +r trainers control the environment, not the dog (whenever possible).  For obvious reasons, a dog’s enthusiasm and self confidence stay much higher when they are repeatedly set up to succeed rather than to fail.  Failing is stressful and builds worry into training.  Success is uplifting and builds confidence.  

So how do we do it?

1) Start with appropriate challenges and increase them as your dog gains experience.

2) control the proof, not the dog

3) be prepared to administer consequences for all choices; good and bad.

Here’s an example:

Like most puppies, Brito is very interested in interacting with dogs, especially if “something is going on”, but a competition dog must learn to focus even with other dogs nearby.   An early proofing session to help him with this reality was working Brito in my bedroom with my other dogs loose outside the closed door.   That is more challenging than working with the other dogs outside of the house.

Control the proof; not the dog:  Since the door was closed, Brito couldn’t join the other dogs, nor could he see what they were doing. I made no effort to prevent him from leaving me; it he wanted to stare at the door or sniff underneath, that was his choice. I knew that my cookies and toys were more valuable than sniffing under the door, and therefore I would win.  I don’t want to use external aids to control the dog (such as a leash, luring with a cookie, scolding, etc.) I’d much rather set up a situation which makes accessing the thing he wants impossible, and to make sure that I have a very valuable reward for when he returns to me to work.

Be prepared to administer consequences:  If Brito chose to leave training, he missed out on the delicious morsels or fun toys that I had access to.  That might not matter in the very beginning of a competition dog’s training career, but it will matter very much as the months go by and training time gains value.  Further, training time is limited time.  If his session was planned for three minutes, his detours do not extend that three minute session.  When the time is up, another dog is going to work and now Brito will be on the other side of the door.

In this manner, Brito quickly learned about “opportunity cost”.  He always has a choice about work, but exploring the alternatives won’t get him very far, and he’s losing out on delicious cookies and personal interaction. It’s very possible for a young dog to spend his three minute session staring at the door or sniffing under it – but when his turn is over and he realizes he never got to work, he will have learned an important training lesson; training is a privilege and not a right.  Another dog will now take his place.  If I selected my proof correctly for the dog’s stage of training, distractions will soon cause my dog to work very hard to focus on what we are doing together.

How about an intermediate dog?

Select an appropriate challenge.  A more challenging proof might be heeling while another dog works close by.

Control the Proof:  If your dog loses attention, have the other dog stop moving – it’s not much fun to stare at a dog that is simply sitting and eating cookies.  If your dog actually leaves you, quickly place the OTHER dog in an ex-pen (which you placed there) with his owner – who feeds his dog constantly.  Your dog can circle the pen (I’m assuming a non-aggressive dog and a distraction dog that is happy to sit in a pen and eat treats).  Keep in mind that the error started at the point where your dog lost attention, so I’d suggest that this is the point of failure.  Don’t wait for your dog to actually leave to begin addressing the error.

Always be prepared to administer consequences.  What will you do if your dog loses attention?  I’d consider backing up and starting that chain over.  What if he leaves you and tries to visit?  Maybe the first time you’ll allow him to figure it out on his own and return to training – if the other dog has been moved to an ex-pen and is being continuously fed, there will be no interaction.  If it happens again, maybe the second time you’ll quietly walk up and take him gently by the collar – to be returned to his crate.  And if this has been an ongoing issue, maybe you’ll have someone else return your dog to his crate while you continue to train another dog, ending his lesson for the day altogether.  If you don’t have another dog, train an imaginary one (see the Fred blog for some help with this idea).

Ending work is a severe consequence if you’ve found motivators that your dog cares for and if you’ve taken care to ensure that training time is valuable.

Why not control the dog with a leash, a “leave it” cue, or possibly by calling them back to work? Because that makes you endlessly responsible for controlling your dog’s behavior and it doesn’t hold up very well without a leash or under stressful conditions where your options are limited.  We need the dog to learn to control his own behavior.   The proof should “cue” the dog; once you’ve set up the proof then simply let the dog choose.  If they choose well then they’ll have a fantastic training session with you.  Choose poorly and your training session may well end.   No more work means no more treats, toys and personal interaction.  If your dog does not consider that a negative consequence, then there is something fundamentally wrong with your training plan.

How about an OTCH dog working on staying extra sharp in the ring?

At that point you can pretty much go all out if you’ve been building up your dog’s tolerance for distraction slowly and over time.  I expect my fully trained dogs to be able to perform with any dog doing any thing in the area, regardless of the dog’s intensity level. If they succeed on a more extreme proof then I must have something to offer which is significantly greater than average.  That’s not the time for a jackpot of kibble; that’s when I bring out a bowl of tripe.   And if they fail?  I’ll gently remove them from training, and another dog will be allowed to take their place.  It works quite well.

Obviously your dog will fail some of your attempts at proofing.  Failing once or twice is actually healthy because it gives your dog a chance to discover that their behavior has consequences, but repeated failure is a problem and suggests that something needs to change.  Remember that you can “tweak” the intensity of the proof, the value of the reinforcer, or the challenge of the exercise.  

I tend to start proofing training extremely early but I’m not in any hurry to use hard consequences (removal from training) because my primary goal in early training is to make my dog love training more than anything.  The better a job I do, the less likely the dog is to want to engage with an alternative when the proofs become more challenging.

Too time consuming for you?  No access to helpers?  No matches nearby?  Training is time consuming.  All methods of training, whether based in positive reinforcement or not, require time. They also require additional helpers and frequent road trips.  If you do not have these things, then you’ll struggle badly at trial time, regardless of your training method.  Creative training can minimize the amount of help you need, but will never eliminate it.  

Experienced handlers put the time in to create a trial ready dog; less experienced handlers often spend the dog’s career solving the problems that developed from poor foundation skills and competing before the dog was ready. Take your time – do your work well and you’ll reap a variety of long term benefits.

So now you have a dog that is well trained on the exercises, can perform them almost anywhere, loves the inside of the ring and is strong under distraction.  Is it time to enter the dog show?

Not quite.  Now its time to familiarize your dog with working under dramatically reduced levels of classic reinforcers (food and toys).  In part 5 of this series, we’ll take a look at reducing reinforcement.

For those of you who are “visual” learners, here’s a video of a student’s dog working on proofing.  Notice the corrections for errors – backing up and repeating the effort.  This dog is “intermediate” in terms of experience.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

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