This is Part 3 of a series covering the three major stages of skill building in dog training.
So, you've worked through your proofing plan and you've reached the finish line! At this point, your dog is able to reliably perform the skill when cued, and can do so all the way up to your end-goal level of difficulty. Now it’s just time to maintain what you’ve built.
Practice continues to be important for life to keep the skill fresh and usable. This might mean that you will need to plan ways to incorporate surprise cues into your daily or weekly routine forever. Alternatively, most folks can get practice simply by regularly using the skill as a part of their dog’s lifestyle. We can often transition away from dedicated practice and use the skill exclusively as a tool to make life better for us and for our dogs. Hooray!
This means that you are also free to request the behavior any time, any place, as long as it’s a context you mastered while proofing. Use it when you need it!
Now that the skill is fully proofed and your dog is no longer learning new ways to use it, you may also begin to wean down on rewards. This might mean that you reward only half of the time that your dog performs the behavior, or that you begin to reward with kibbles rather than dog treats. There are also cases in which it’s best not to adjust the reward system; this is a very individualized part of the plan.
The maintenance phase is a great place to be! Just be mindful to keep enough practice and reinforcement in your routine, and those hard-earned skills will stick around.