You have trained an exercise, start to finish, and your dog understands his responsibilities and how to perform them. Yay! Now you feel ready to start proofing…but guess what, you should have begun proofing a long time ago!
By introducing proofing during the early phases of training, your dog learns to work through pressure when things are “easy” and the rewards are still on a high reinforcement schedule.
For example, let’s say you are teaching heeling and still have your dog on a visible cookie. Instead of training every day in your quiet yard, start working short bursts of heeling in busier environments like parks or storefronts. Reward effort and attention when your dog ignores the environment and stays connected to you! However, while a piece of hot dog may work at home, you may need to up the ante in these environments (maybe roasted chicken or steak!). With the visible cookie, you can help your dog stay in precise heel position, without any form of correction or pressure. You can also reward quickly when your dog gives you the extra effort needed to stay in precise heel position or remains completely engaged.
Proofing can even be started with retrieve exercises before the retrieve item is even introduced! But how? Take the directed retrieve exercise…most people start teaching this exercise by teaching the dog to mark a cookie on a plate. Why not start introducing distractions when the dog is simply running out to eat a cookie, without worrying about a glove pickup, turn, hold or a front? By doing this, you have eliminated attaching any negative emotions to the retrieve object, which could carry over into the ring. The dog is immediately rewarded (with the cookie on the plate) for ignoring the distraction and he gains confidence by being able to control his response to the distraction. Meaning, you will not negatively impact your glove retrieve if you have to provide extra encouragement to your dog to run out and get the cookie if he is worried about the distraction. This is the “teaching” phase, you are teaching him HOW to be correct. Distractions could include people and/or dogs standing on the other side of the ring gate, someone sitting in a chair nearby, someone playing with their dog, etc.
And, occasionally, even after I have completely trained an exercise, I will still break down a certain aspect of the exercise if my dog develops a problem or a source of confusion. Currently, my young Springer has decided jumping in the high jump is so much fun, he wants to do it on EVERY retrieve….whether it is on the flat or over the jump. While he goes directly to the dumbbell on the retrieve on the flat, he will actually turn and LOOK for the high jump on the return. Most people’s opinion would be to put him on a flexi and control his return. The problem with this is that “I” am doing all the work. He is not making a conscious effort to come directly back to me, I am making it for him.
At first I just moved up after sending him, to help take the jump out of the picture, but it was not giving me the carry over I wanted. So, back to a cookie we went. Of course, when the camera is rolling, he does not even think about taking the jump; but that is okay…it just means extra rewards for coming back correctly. Even though I am proofing one particular component, my criteria for everything else remains in place. Kazee is required to set up promptly and correctly, wait for me to send him, return promptly and get his front. I could drop the front requirement for this drill; however, we have been really working very hard on fronts lately in preparation for the open ring and I wanted to keep this requirement in place. Had I wanted to skip fronts, I would have let him jump up on me to get his cookie or have tossed the cookie backwards between my legs.
Again, when proofing at any stage, your current criteria should remain consistent. If your criteria for marking a cookie on a plate means the dog quickly drops his head and focuses on the plate when indicated, this does not change. Distractions should always start mild and increase as your dog becomes confident and understands his job. And your DOG controls the level of distraction. Just because YOU think a distraction should be easily handled by your dog, it does not mean your dog thinks the same way. If he looks like he is having difficulty, adjust the proofing or the difficulty and increase your reinforcement rate. Remember to give honest praise for his effort. Tell your dog when he is being super brave or smart…and MEAN IT! Praise is the one thing you can use in training and the ring, so build its value as much as possible.
And, you should never feel bad about having to go backwards to help your dog understand something. Lowering difficulty is not the same as lowering criteria. It is our jobs, as handlers, to help make the components of each exercise crystal clear to our dog. Build confidence at each stage by showing your dog how to be successful, and you will be a stronger team in the end.
As always, train hard, but play harder.