Updated: Jun 30, 2019
One of my least favorite subjects in school was math. I was reasonably good at it, but I always resented the implication that I needed to show and check my work. I preferred to take shortcuts by solving problems in my head and turning exams in as soon as possible, even if it meant I would be docked a few points for leaving the space below my answers blank. I didn’t care.
Dogs are no different when it comes to training. They will always take shortcuts and the fastest path to a reward, unless we proof our work.
From a dog’s point of view, why wait on us to calmly walk toward an intriguing smell when pulling on the leash gets them there faster? Likewise, why wait for us to return after giving a “stay” cue when a treat or attention will come faster if they just chase after us?
Owners commonly misdiagnose these moments, often remarking: “my dog knows its cues but is just stubborn and chooses not to respond to them.”
Every time I hear this claim, I can feel all of my former math teachers standing over my desk with a smile stretching as long as the Nile.
“That’s because you didn’t check your work,” they rebuff.
A dog does not truly know a cue until it can be reliably performed for anyone, anywhere, at any distance, and for any designated period of time. In other words, a dog does not truly know a cue until it can be reliably performed under any set of circumstances.
The amount of time a dog does or does not engage in a cued behavior, duration is normally the first and easiest of the proofing tests. The degree of difficulty and length of duration varies from cue to cue. For example, a strong “stay” may initially require a dog to hold its position for only a few seconds as it works incrementally up to several minutes, while a “come” may begin slowly and is considered proofed when a dog can perform it at faster speeds.
Remember that dogs will always take the fastest path to a reward. If they learn how to anticipate a sequence, they are more likely to skip some middle steps to get to the reward faster. This is commonly seen when we increase durations at equal intervals (i.e. "stay" for one second, then two, three, four, etc.). Instead, try breaking up the pattern by randomizing your intervals (i.e. "stay" for one second, then five, three, ten, two, etc.) to help teach your dog that the fastest path to a reward is to follow your instructions. It is up to us to teach them how to perform cues faster or longer by proofing all behaviors for the desired period of time.
Once duration has been mastered, dogs must learn to reliably perform a cue no matter where their handler is positioned. Like with duration, proofing for distance varies by cue. For example, a solid “Leave It” is most difficult in close encounters, while “stays” and “comes” tend to prove more difficult the further away from the handler a dog gets.
But again, dogs will always take the fastest path to a reward, and it is up to us to teach them how to perform cues at any distance.
In training, the ability to differentiate between verbal and nonverbal cues is referred to as discrimination. At its most basic level, this means understanding the difference between the word or gesture for “sit” and the word or gesture for “down.” Dogs that have developed more advanced discrimination skills, however, can be taught to differentiate between locations (bedroom vs. kitchen), people (mom vs. dad) or scents (birch vs. clover) among other things. One of my favorite games to play with my dog is a discrimination exercise. First I ask for a “stand,” then a “sit,” “down” and “stand” again. It’s a puppy push-up! By mixing in hand signals with my verbal cues, this becomes a physically and mentally stimulating game.
Remember that dogs will always take the fastest path to a reward. If they learn how to anticipate a sequence, they are more likely to skip some middle steps to get to the reward faster. This works in our favor when shaping complex sequences like “go to your bed and stay when the doorbell rings,” but this can provide for some challenges when proofing other behaviors.
Without a doubt, the most difficult proofing test for any cue is whether or not a dog can perform in the presence of distractions. This is for two reasons: 1) distractions are interesting and 2) we often forget about the other Ds when introducing distractions.
Consider this example. I enjoy watching TV. I also enjoy writing blog posts about dog training. But I have a hard time writing with the TV on in the background. It’s too distracting for me, and I make frequent mistakes. I do know, however, that I can focus enough on my writing if I have the TV on but muted. This was not always the case, though. When I was younger, I had to be alone and in complete silence to focus on my writing. Working up to this point was a gradual process.
Dogs are no different. They need us to help prioritize their focus and build off incremental steps. So remember, when we make one aspect of training more difficult, we need to make another easier.
It’s silly of us to expect a dog that knows how to “stay” in one place inside the house for 60 seconds to immediately be able to do the same thing outside with dozens of different sights, sounds, and smells around. In this scenario, we made learning more difficult for the dog by introducing distractions, so we need to make learning easier by reducing how long we expect the dog to “stay” when we first move training outside. In other words, as distractions get harder, duration gets easier.
Always remember that proofing cues and behaviors is an incremental process that requires a commitment to consistency, and every dog (and human!) approaches this at a different pace. If you and your dog seem to be struggling with proofing, take a look at your learning criteria. Chances are your dog isn’t being stubborn, you are simply asking for too much too soon from your four-legged friend. So slow down, don't be afraid to take a step back, and always remember that when in doubt refer to your ABCs.
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