To ensure your dog doesn’t only “come” or “stay” in certain environments, add behaviour proofing to her training regime!
Does your dog always respond when called at home, but only sometimes at the dog park? Does she have a perfect “wait” cue in the yard, but seems to ignore the word on walks? Many people can relate to this frustration. There’s a reason why your dog doesn’t respond when you really need her to, though – and behaviour proofing is the way to fix it.
What is behaviour proofing and why is it necessary?
Behaviour proofing involves teaching your dog a particular cue in gradually more difficult environments or situations. The goal is to be certain that your dog will always respond, regardless of noises, smells and other distractions.
This is a vital step, because dogs aren’t good at generalization. Just because your dog knows she shouldn’t rush out the front door at home, for example, doesn’t mean she’ll realise the same applies at the door to a friend’s house.
Even if your dog understands a cue in a new environment, she’s less likely to follow it when there are lots of distractions – at least without specific practice. This is why you’ll often see puzzled people at dog parks who can’t understand why their usually reliable dogs won’t come back when called.
How to proof a behaviour
The first step in dog training is to teach a cue or behaviour in a calm quiet environment, such as inside your house. Only when your dog responds reliably and instantly to the cue do you need to start applying the concept of proofing.
Once your dog “knows” the cue inside the house, the next step is to practice in more difficult situations. An example progression might include:
- At home with no distractions (make sure your dog really knows the cue before moving on)
- At home with noise distractions
- At home with other people or animals nearby
- In the yard
- In the yard with other people or animals nearby
- In a quiet woodland without distractions
- At a dog park with lots of other dogs and people around
Each step is likely to take multiple practice sessions. You should move on only when your dog consistently responds in the current environment. Keep in mind, though, that environment isn’t the only proofing variable. The distance between you and your dog can also make a cue more difficult, so practice with gradually increased separations. Teaching the dog to hold a cue for longer (such as “stay”), or respond to a different handler, is also important.
Other tips for proofing a behaviour in your dog
- Don’t add multiple distractions or variables all at once. Instead, focus on making the cue more difficult in just one way, so your dog isn’t overwhelmed.
- Make sure you’re giving your dog a reasonable chance of success. If she’s highly excitable at the dog park, don’t practice cues there until you’ve proofed multiple environments with fewer distractions.
- Try to ensure your dog is calm before training sessions. An overexcited dog with lots of built-up stress will find it much harder to learn. Providing more exercise or mental stimulation during the day, perhaps with a puzzle feeder or a longer walk, can help with this.
- It’s also important that your dog enjoys each session. Remember to use lots of tasty treats and praise, so training becomes a fun and positive experience.
Proofing a behaviour is essential when training your dog. In fact, most trainers believe a dog only really “knows” a cue if he can respond immediately and reliably in all situations.
The proofing process can take time, but it’s worth the extra effort. Training is also a great way to bond with your dog and provide mental stimulation, so it’s a great activity for both of you.
Richard Cross has been writing about dogs for over ten years. He's currently editor of The Dog Clinic (thedogclinic.com), a website dedicated to positive training methods. When he's not writing, Richard enjoys long walks with his beloved Labrador and golden retriever.