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You might have taught your dog to sit perfectly while inside your home with no distractions, but what about in the garden? Or on a walk? Or when you have lots of new guests in the house? How does your dog perform then?
This is a problem many dog owners face. They think their precious pup has learned an arsenal of commands, but out in the real world they seem to forget every last one of them.
If this sounds like your dog, know they’re not doing it because they’re willful or disobedient, you just haven’t yet taught them what they need to know to follow a command in any location and under any circumstances.
Using the concepts of proofing and generalization, you can teach your dog to perform any behaviors you’ve previously taught them in more or less any situation.
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What Is Generalization?
Generalization is the ability of a dog to take a behavior or concept they already know in a familiar situation and be able to apply it in a less familiar one.
For example, you take your dog to the same dog park every day and their recall off-leash is perfect, then one day you take them for a hike somewhere they’ve never been before and, once again, their off-leash recall is impeccable.
This would be a good example of generalization. You dog has taken a behavior they already know and “generalized” it to include an unfamiliar situation.
How Do Dogs Learn Generalization?
This is the important part. Your dog doesn’t innately know how to generalize, they have to be taught.
If you want your dog to respond to commands in any situation (and you do, trust us!) you’ll need to teach them to generalize commands through a process known as “proofing.”
What Is Proofing?
As we touched on above, proofing is – in essence – the process you need to go through to ensure your dog knows how to generalize and will respond to a command in a new and unusual situation.
Proofing your dog means they will respond to a command under any circumstances. Even if they’re in an unfamiliar place or something distracting is happening that they’ve never experienced before.
You can’t truly say your dog has learned a command until the behavior has been proofed. Therefore, this should be a vital step you go through with every command you teach. Unfortunately, many dog owners neglect to do this.
The bad news is it does take quite a lot of time and dedication to proof each command. But the good news is it’s not a complicated process and it does get quicker and easier as your dog learns and you both progress.
How Do You Proof A Behavior?
If you’ve already taught your dog to offer a behavior in response to a command, then you also know how to proof a behavior. Essentially, you need to teach your dog to respond to that command again from the ground up, but in a new situation.
Let’s say you’re trying to proof the sit command. Your dog already responds perfectly inside your house, so the next step would be to go out into your garden and start teaching them to sit from the beginning.
The exact process for doing this will vary depending on how you choose to train your dog, but we’d always recommend a positive reinforcement method, in which you reward your dog for successfully responding to a command and avoid any punishments.
Once your canine companion has mastered sit in the garden, you can repeat the process again, but this time out on a walk in a familiar place. And then out on a walk in an unfamiliar place. And then with distractions, such as other dogs running around or someone playing with a ball nearby.
And so on and so forth, practicing in new and increasingly difficult situations until you feel as though you’ve taught your pooch to respond to the command in any situation they’re likely to encounter.
Won’t It Take Forever?
No, not at all! Let’s be honest here, it’s a fairly time-consuming process, and it requires patience and dedication, but it’s not as bad as you might initially think!
Although dogs aren’t natural generalizers, they do get the hang of it eventually. Once you’ve proofed a couple of behaviors, by teaching your dog to generalize them in a variety of situations, you’ll find they learn to generalize new behaviors much faster!
We describe it as teaching a command from scratch in a new situation. However, if your dog already knows how to sit (or stay, or lie, or come when called… you get the picture), learning to perform the same behavior under new circumstances is quicker than learning it for the first time.
We can’t tell you exactly how long it’s going to take, as it will vary depending on how quickly your dog learns. Labradors are intelligent dogs and are generally fast learners, for instance. However, your mileage may vary.
When Do You Know A Behavior Is Proofed?
Although it’s hard to say how long it’s going to take for you to proof a behavior, there are some arbitrary markers that will tell you when your dog has really learned a command.
Once you can say the following are true of your dog in regards to a particular behavior, you can move on to the next.
- Distance: Your dog should be able to obey a command not only when you’re by their side, but also when you’re 10, 20, 50, or 100 yards away. While this might not seem too important, when you’re out on an off-leash walk it could be vital for your dog to obey a command at a distance if you see a hazard up ahead.
- Distraction: When a behavior is properly proofed, your pup will respond to your command even when there are fun and exciting distractions nearby. If you’re worried about proofing your dog for distractions in real-world situations, we’d recommend enlisting a helper human and/or a helper dog to provide distractions.
- Duration: With some behaviors, you need duration. For instance, your canine companion should be able to remain in a “sit” or “down” position until you (verbally) release them.
- Precision: Does your dog offer you the behavior that matches to the command you gave? They should sit when you say “sit,” not lie down, give her paw, or anything else.
- Latency: This is the amount of time it takes between when you give the command and when your dog starts to perform the behavior. Ideally latency should be zero, but you can settle for a few seconds. In some situations, responding to a command quickly could be extremely important for your pup’s safety.
- Speed: This refers to the amount of time it takes for your dog to perform a behavior from start to finish. In many cases, this might not be relevant unless you want your dog to perform in obedience trials or agility, but for some behaviors (such as recall) speed can be important.
Once you understand how dogs generalize (or don’t generalize, as the case may be), you can see why proofing your dog’s behaviors is so important.
While it might seem like a lot of work, you could end up in a situation where your dog having a firmly proofed behavior is essential for keeping them safe.
Putting in the extra training hours is definitely worth it. Besides, once you’ve firmly proofed a few different behaviors, your dog’s generalization skills will have improved and the process will go much more smoothly.