What does proofing behaviors mean, anyway?

If I had a nickle for every time I heard, “but my dog knows how to sit at home!” I might become the world’s wealthiest dog trainer. My response is generally, “if your dog knows how to sit, why isn’t he doing it?”

It’s a rhetorical question. I know exactly why, and you need to also if you want reliable behavioral responses to cues. (Because I’m a nice dog trainer, I’ll give you a hint…your dog is not trying to be dominant, assert his authority, he is not “spiteful” or out to embarrass you, and he certainly doesn’t want to cause you frustration or grief of any sort.)

So what is the answer? It revolves around two key terms…generalizing and proofing.

If you frequent any dog training communities or clubs, you’ll often hear the statement, “dogs don’t generalize well.” What does this mean?

It means that “sit” in your kitchen doesn’t equate with sitting on the sidewalk, in class, when your kids are running around screaming, or your Aunt Ida unexpectedly drops by for a visit.

“Generalizing” in behaviorspeak/jargon means, “the ability to respond to a discriminative stimuli (cue) regardless of environmental influences.” (I’m sure there are better or more technical definitions, but for our purposes, this should do just fine.)

When I first attended clicker classes with my chow mix Mokie, my instructor (and now business partner, Abbie Tamber) really brought home the concept of what generalizing means. I was the student who said, “but my dogs knows how to *insert behavior here*…” and she said, ‘Has she done it 5,000 times?”

She hadn’t, and I said so. 5,000 times?! This woman must be insane. Abbie told me, “then she doesn’t ‘know’ it!” I must admit, I was a bit disgruntled.

5,000 times? Seriously?!

Seriously. Some service dog organizations will cue specific behavior thousands of times (as many as 8,000 times) before they consider a dog sufficiently “proofed,” at which time they will have enough confidence to assert “this dog knows the behavior.”

The number of repititions is not set in stone, and is in fact somewhat arbitrary. Once your dog is able to generalize a few behaviors through these proofing criteria, you’ll find that all subsequently taught behaviors tend to generalize more rapidly. In essence, your dog is learning to learn!

What is not arbitrary is the fact that for a behavior to be learned, it has to meet a number of criteria.

What are these criteria?

In short, they are:

* Distance
* Distraction
* Duration
* Precision
* Latency
* Speed

and in my book, Stimulus Control rounds out the septet of critical factors which will influence your dog’s ability to fluently respond to your cues in any environment.

In the series, you can expect a separate entry on each of the proofing criteria. For this introduction, I will provide a quick definition of each. In the later entries, expect more detailed information on how to proof for these aspects of fluency.

Distance: Just because your dog can respond to a cue directly in front of you does not mean he will “generalize” that the cue is still valid when he is ten, fifty, or two hundred yards away from you. If you want fluent responses at a distance, you must teach your dog to do so.

Distractions: While your dog may recall to you in your kitchen, she may not recall to you if she is off leash and spots a squirrel, deer, other dog, or even a leaf blowing in the wind. If you want your dog to respond to your cues in the middle of a construction zone, the dog park, or the pet store, you must proof for distractions!

Duration: Does your dog respond to a “down” cue and then pop right back up to a standing or sitting position? If you want your dog to offer an extended down until released, you must build duration for the behavior.

Precision: What is your vision of the ideal behavior? Proofing behaviors for precision is a fairly advanced process. Are you participating in competition obedience and getting crooked sits? To get that straight sit that you are seeking, you must concentrate on proofing for precision.

Latency: Have you ever cued a dog for a behavior and then waited….and waited…and waited for a behavioral response? You say “sit” and what seems like ages later, your dog’s bum hits the floor? Latency is the time lag between the cue delivery and the offering/initiation of a behavioral response from the dog. If you want your dog to sit as soon as you give the cue, you need to proof for latency!

Speed: The criteria of speed in relation to behavior is signified by the time lapse between when the animal starts the behavior and when the animal completes the behavior. Sometimes a student recalls a dog, and you see a dog walking back to them. If we need to pick up that speed, we must proof for it!

Stimulus Control: according to Karen Pryor, there are four fundamental aspects of stimulus control. They are as follows:

1) the dog offers the behavior in response to the cue
2) the dog does not offer some other behavior in response to the cue
3) the dog does not offer the behavior in the absence of the cue
4) the dog does not offer the behavior in response to another cue

I am hoping that this series of entries will help you all through the critical stages of proofing so that you know how to train any behavior your dog is performing to reliability in the environments and situations you and your canine will encounter.

If it all sounds impossible, relax. Not only is it possible, it’s probable and even better…it’s fun! Until the next entry in the series, happy clicking to you and your canines!

Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP
Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training

One thought on “What does proofing behaviors mean, anyway?

Comments are closed.