Monday, August 22, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Proofing

"Proofing," in dog training, is the concept of practicing a trained behavior in new and gradually-more-distracting environments until the dog can reliably perform it out in the Real World. It's a critical part of getting a foster pup ready for adoption, because adopters expect that a dog who's advertised as "knowing how to Sit and Stay" will be able to actually do these things out on the street, not just in the quiet of his own living room.

Fortunately, it's very simple to do. It just takes time, patience, and repetitions. A lot of repetitions.

I ended up accidentally recording a demonstration of proofing in action when I started making a series of short Youtube clips to show Gremlin's basic obedience training.

We started with "Sit." By the time I recorded this clip, she had a pretty good Sit inside the house. But when I took out the camera to record it, suddenly Gremlin's response became a lot slower and more unsure -- because having the camera blocking my face was a new, alien element that puzzled her mightily. Behold:

However, even though she was confused by the camera, she still performed the command. Bravo!

When you're proofing something (or somewhere) new, you can't expect the dog to execute a command as perfectly as she did in the old familiar place. Substantial compliance is all you're looking for, initially -- you can always raise criteria as the dog gains confidence. But in the beginning, even a halting performance deserves praise and treats.

So we spent the rest of that session getting used to the camera, and the next day I raised the proofing criteria by moving our practices to the condo hallway: a place that Gremlin was familiar with, having walked through it many times each day, but where she had not previously been asked to do anything.

Again, a little bit of hesitation and confusion (and an awfully lopsided Down that would win no awards in competition, but that's okay, perfect form isn't my goal here). But, again, she does it after a moment's pause.

And then, finally, I moved from the condo hallway to our local dog park -- a very distracting environment filled with freely roaming dogs (including Pongu!), other people, lots of things to smell/chase/bark at/play with -- and asked her for a Stay. And because we had gradually increased the difficulty of the practice sessions, Gremlin was able to maintain discipline even in the face of all those distractions. Could she have done it the first day? No, absolutely not. But by slowly adding to the environmental demands and building up her confidence, Gremlin was able to keep self-control even in the dog park.

What a good dog.

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