How to Proof Training Behaviors in Dogs

Have you had the following experience with your dog? You’ve trained her to sit on cue, and she does it perfectly every time at home. But when you’re out in public, not so much. People are often puzzled about why their dogs, who appear to have been trained to respond to a cue (like “sit” or “stay” or “come”) perform the behavior in one situation but not in another.

The problem is that the behavior has not been proofed. “Proofing,” in dog training parlance, means practicing a behavior in different environments and situations, until your dog generalizes the desired behavior and can do it anywhere, even with distractions.

Why have your dog proof a behavior?

Most dogs can easily learn and perform behaviors at home or in places that are familiar to them. When we take them out into the rest of the world, however, there are novel sights and sounds. Dogs are very good at discrimination, but they don’t generalize all that well. Your dog will recognize, for instance, that the front door is different from the back door. But if presented with a new, unfamiliar door (say, at a neighbor’s house), he may not initially know that it’s a door.

When learning a behavior, dogs take note of their entire environment and associate the behavior with that environment. But when that environment changes, they are no longer sure of the behavior that is being asked of them. That’s why you need to proof the behavior.

How do you have your dog proof a behavior?

Before you can start proofing a behavior, you need to teach your dog the behavior and make sure he is fluent in it. Your dog is fluent in the behavior if:

  • He does the behavior immediately upon getting the cue.
  • He does not offer the behavior without being cued.
  • He does not offer the behavior in response to some other cue.
  • He does not offer any other behavior in response to the cue.

Once your dog is fluent in a particular behavior, you can start proofing it. This is considered the generalization stage of the learning process because the dog is learning to perform the behavior in all settings. When you proof a behavior, think about applying the three D’s, as appropriate for the specific behavior you are training:

  • Duration: Can the dog perform the behavior for an extended period of time or different periods of time?
  • Distance: Can the dog perform the behavior with the handler 6, 10 or 20 feet away?
  • Distraction: Can the dog perform the behavior when there are new and interesting objects or activities around him?

You can think of different ways to proof a behavior by asking yourself this question: “Can my dog do the behavior if …?”

Tips for successful proofing in dogs

Here are some ways to help make proofing more effective:

  • When you are proofing a behavior, only change one variable at a time. For example, if you decide to proof the behavior of “sit-stay” using the variable of distance, work only on increasing the distance with your dog during that training session. Don’t also change the handler or the environment. Changing several variables at a time can make it too hard for your dog to learn effectively.
  • Use higher-value treats, especially when introducing distractions. To keep your dog’s attention, you will need to be more interesting and inviting than the world around you. If you don’t know what treats your dog would find especially enticing, experiment to see what she likes best. Lunchmeat, cheese and peanut butter are all popular choices.
  • When you get the behavior you want, be generous with treats and praise. Your dog will be more motivated to learn and find training more fun if she is continually being reinforced.
  • To set your dog up for success, be realistic with your expectations. Failure to do a behavior is OK, but if it happens too many times, your dog may become frustrated. Go slowly, stay relaxed and only increase the challenge once your dog can do a behavior correctly about 80 percent of the time in that particular scenario.
  • Don’t forget to proof the handler. Change up handlers and handler positions. Will your dog do the behavior for someone else? Will she do the behavior if you are sitting down rather than standing?

One great benefit of proofing is that your dog is learning to learn. You’ll find that once a dog has generalized a few behaviors through proofing, subsequent behaviors are typically generalized quicker.

Remember, practice makes perfect, and with enough practice in different contexts, you can be confident that your dog has fully learned the behavior and can perform it in any environment. In short, taking the time to proof behaviors will give you confidence that your dog will perform the desired behavior when it really counts.

Additional ideas for proofing behaviors

If you want more ideas for how to train and proof specific behaviors, check out the training plans in the “Basic Training & Socialization” section, including Look At That (LAT): Dog Training Plan and Teaching 'Sit': Dog Training Plan.