My Dog Only Listens at Home!

A dog behaving outdoors

Three weeks ago I went over the basics for teaching a focus cue. Two weeks ago I covered the same for building a recall. In each, I promised that I'd cover the concept of proofing "in the future." Welcome to the future! Let's talk about proofing.

What does proofing mean?

Proofing is getting a behavior to occur no matter what the environment or situation surrounding the given cue. Sometimes you may hear a trainer refer to the "three Ds" of proofing or of difficulty. These are "distance," "distraction," and "duration." There are other measures of criteria that can be important for proofing a behavior, but these three are the big ones and are applicable to just about every common behavior. It's worth getting a thorough understanding of the differences between these three. Distance is a measure of the distance between you and your dog. For example, how far away is your dog when you say "come?" Duration is how long the behavior persists. How long will your dog stare at you when you say "look?" Lastly, distraction is a bit of a catch-all for the environment in which a behavior is attempted. I personally don't like lumping all distractions together when creating a training plan because they can vary so much, but for this discussion, a bit of lumping will suffice. Distractions can include (but are not limited to) other people, other dogs, cars, scents, sounds, internal states (hormonal state, pain, etc), and anything that might compete with your attention when you're trying to get a behavior from your dog. 

How do you do it? 

The proofing phase of learning takes place after the acquisition phase. The previous articles about focus and recall only went through acquisition steps, because those steps can be cookie-cutter applied to just about every dog. The motivation used, the exact methodology (shaping, luring, capture, targeting, etc) can all vary, but the basic premise is always the same and can be laid out neatly in a helpful "tips" format. Proofing isn't so neat and orderly in the generalized case. There's a lot of "what about?"s that pop up. I'll be talking about proofing in the abstract general case to convey the concepts, it's up to you and your trainer to implement a sound proofing strategy for you and your dog. The first major point about proofing is the first sentence of this paragraph. It comes after the acquisition phase. If you try to start proofing when your dog is still confused as to what a cue even means, you're going to cause a lot of frustration for everyone involved and your training will suffer for it. Make sure your dog is "passing the quiz" of your cue before you start proofing.

The next most important thing about proofing is splitting. Splitting refers to setting your criteria in small pieces and individually training each piece before integrating them. Sometimes the integration is automatic, sometimes it is deliberate and methodical. I'll give two examples. First, with a stay, it's a must that you build duration before attempting distance. If you tell your dog to stay and then begin to walk away, that automatically adds both distance and distraction. That's not splitting. That's lumping. That way leads to frustration and misery and poorly learned behaviors. This is an example of automatic integration, though, because once you have mastered the duration aspect without walking away, adding distance will automatically add some level of duration (because you can't teleport... probably). A trainer friend of mine recently proofed a recall against the distraction of bears. In true splitting fashion, she used a bear pelt, bear sounds, and bear urine as three distinct stimuli. This accomplished splitting, and it also made it so that she didn't have to practice with a real bear as a distraction (a dangerous proposition). In this case, she could deliberately and methodically combine the different aspects of her bear facsimile until it resembled the real thing closely enough to transfer to safe walks in the woods. Splitting the different kinds of criteria prevents confusion.

Difficulty can lead to frustration

Splitting doesn't just mean separating out the three Ds, but also taking baby steps. When setting criteria, always ask "what's the smallest increment I could add to the current difficulty level?" Especially in the beginning. For example, when adding distance to a recall you might set your minimum increment at one foot, or half a pace, or some small distance from your dog. When incrementing distance or duration, dogs are typically capable of adding more difficulty after mastery of either your minimum established increment or half again as much as their current level of mastery. Example: if you've been building your "look" duration one second at a time and you're at ten seconds, you can safely proceed to somewhere between eleven and fifteen seconds as your next difficulty level. If you're ever not sure? Err on the side of making things too easy. Splitting your criteria into baby steps does two things: it maintains a strong rate of reinforcement and prevents frustration in your dog from large jumps in difficulty (imagine attempting three-dimensional vector calculus the day after you learn addition). 

Compensate for increases in one variable by adjusting the others. When you're integrating stimuli, the total difficulty tends to be higher than the sum of the parts. Using "stay" as an example, you might assume that if your dog can handle a ten-second stay and you'd like to start adding distance that you could add a minimum distance interval of one step away, making your total difficulty one step distance plus ten seconds of duration. And your dog might be capable of that. Probably not. It's a much better idea to add that one step and keep the duration much shorter. Anyone who's taken a group class with me will know about my chant of "one step, one... one step, two... one step, three..." when talking about combining distance and duration like this. In general, there is usually a single type of stimulus that makes sense to proof first (in stay it's duration, in recall it's distance). Sometimes it isn't so clear-cut and you can just pick something that makes sense to you. Get good at that type of difficulty. Then when you add a new type of difficulty, you can compensate for the jump in one kind by lowering the other kind to maintain a slow and steady progression in total difficulty. 

When it comes to environment changes, splitting can be thought of using the stone in a pond model. Usually, we teach a new behavior in our house. You can move away from your house slowly the same way ripples move away from the central splash when you toss a pebble in a pond. Here's an example of the environmental (distraction) progression you might use for a behavior:

  • Master the behavior in the initial environment (your kitchen, for example)
  • Practice the behavior to mastery in the other rooms of your house.
  • Practice the behavior to mastery outdoors near your house in the least distracting area (I've been to houses near a busy street where the front yard is distracting and the backyard is boring, and I've been to houses near the woods with no traffic out front - your situation is unique, analyze it). 
  • Practice the behavior to mastery outdoors but still within the range of your property (in an urban environment apartment situation, translate this to perhaps "the hallway on your floor"). 
  • Practice to mastery outside of your comfort zone. This could be on the street just outside your building, or somewhere slightly off of your property. 
  • Practice to mastery down the street from where you live.
  • Practice to mastery a few blocks from home. 
  • Practice to mastery at the nearest park, keeping a distance from other people.
  • Practice to mastery at the park letting people get closer.
  • Practice to mastery at a park where there are other dogs at a distance.
  • Practice to mastery at a park allowing other dogs to come closer.

Notice how many steps are involved. Also, keep in mind that this example isn't perfect and could use tweaking based on individual circumstances. Maybe you live somewhere where "right outside your home" is incredibly distracting for some reason, but a nearby area is very low-key. Adjust. Be flexible. Understand your situation and how you can apply the principles of splitting. Also, notice the repeated "practice to mastery" at each step. You may need to start a "focus" behavior completely over at the lure when you change environment and that's okay! 


A lot can go wrong with proofing, but it's usually not irreparable damage. In fact, it's fair to say you will make mistakes. Mistakes should be avoided when you can predict them and learned from when you can't. If you're struggling, stop training and collect yourself. It's okay to end on a bad note if the alternative is frustration to the point that you and your dog both hate working together. Come back at it when you're feeling better and figure out what went wrong and how to do better.

Puppies resisting a tasty treat

If you attempt a new difficulty level and your dog fails, check your criteria setting. Did you take too big a jump in difficulty? Did you fail to compensate for a jump in one type of criteria by lowering another? Did something else happen at the same time (I've attempted an increase in distance at the same moment a squirrel decided to run by that I didn't see coming - oops)? If you're not sure what made the new attempt too difficult, stop. Don't keep practicing at something your dog can't do. And remember, it isn't that they hate you and are trying to make your life difficult. They aren't ready for what you're asking. It's your job to figure out why. 

If you're careful about splitting and proper criteria setting, proofing behaviors can be a lot of fun. As always, though, it's a great idea to get professional help especially if it's your first time or if you're struggling with something specific. 

Benjamin is the owner of Good Doggy Saratoga. You can follow him on Facebook.
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