This is Part 2 of a series covering the three major stages of skill building in dog training.
You've spent at least a few sessions introducing the skill, and your dog is a pro in repetitive sessions at home! Once your dog understands the association between the cue and the desired behavior, it’s time to proof the skill. “Proofing” in dog training means that you practice the skill in gradually more difficult contexts, building up to the desired end-goal difficulty.
Let's say your end goal for "sit" looks like:
We want your dog to be able to “sit” at the crosswalk with lots of other dogs, people and cars around, and we need them to hold that sit until the light changes.
That’s difficult! It’s certainly more advanced than performing a sit at home, with no distractions around, and holding the sit for just a second. In order to build up to the challenge of the more advanced “sit,” we must gradually add difficulty into our training practice.
We may continue to use repetitive sessions while adding in one element of difficulty at a time. We might level-up our basic “sit” at home by adding slight distractions in the background while we practice, or by practicing in the yard rather than inside the house, or by adding a few more seconds of duration to the “sit.”
We will also begin to practice a NEW form of training, separate from the repetitive sessions! Instead of setting up with our treats and repeating the drill over a few minutes, we may add in “surprise cues.” These function almost like a pop quiz for your dog. We pick a time to give the cue when the dog isn’t expecting a training session, and give them a chance to respond. When they respond, we “mark” the behavior and then get a reward for them! Rather than continuing to practice for minutes at a time, you’re all done after that one repetition. It’s great to sprinkle these “surprise cues” throughout the day. The idea is that we want your dog to be able to perform the behavior even outside of the predictable, repetitive sessions. This is how we teach our dogs to respond to cues in more realistic scenarios!
At this stage, it’s also important to begin incorporating the behavior into your daily routine. Find ways to make this new skill useful for your lifestyle with your dog! For example: it might be useful for your dog to “sit” for a moment while you remove his collar. Maybe it’s helpful if he “sits” to greet visitors. If you can find ways to utilize the skill regularly outside of planned practice, your dog’s skill will be much more robust! Importantly, you’ll still ONLY request the behavior at the levels you have already proofed. Don’t ask them for more than they can handle!
For some folks, they may just need that “sit” to work at home, and may only need their dog to do so around family members. They may be able to get through the proofing stage quickly; the end-goal is rather simple! For others with more advanced goals, the proofing stage will take far more planning and practice. By gradually adding difficulty, practicing with surprise cues, and plugging the skill into everyday life, your dog master the skill as you need it. Proofing is the key to reach the end-goal you have in mind.
Pro tip: While proofing, I recommend that you continue to reward the behavior each time your dog performs it.
Is your dog's skill level already reaching your end-goal, and you're not sure what to do next? Check out this post about the Maintenance stage of training!