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Proofing Trained Behaviors

Updated on June 20, 2014
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The Newfoundland Club of America - responsible for the preservation, protection and welfare of the Newfoundland Dog in America since 1930.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Problem solving to help dog trainers work through difficulties after activities are learned. Once the basics are understood every dog goes through a learning period where they test the parameters of each exercise. Proofing makes sure that your dog knows what is expected for his contributions to the working team.

By Cheryl Dondino, originally published in NewfTide 2000, reprinted with permission.

Partnerships mean cooperation
Partnerships mean cooperation

A lot has been written about training methods used to teach a dog a new command, skill or exercise. People have discussed whether to use food, force, praise, withhold praise, etc. to get a dog to learn something. With puppies we talk more about how to teach the puppy to want to do things for you and to want to play the games we create.

Less is said about what happens when the dog knows a command or an exercise, and then decides not to obey on a given day. At some point, when your Newfy fully understands how to hold his bumper coming out of the water, where heel position is off leash, how to turn a corner with the cart, how to come quickly when you call him to you from playing during free time, he will turn a deaf ear to your commands. This usually happens when the treats become more random, or maybe when the leash comes off. I actually prefer not to enter a test or trial until we reach the point where this happens and then work through it. This is where the rubber meets the road. It is a test of your dog's understanding of his role in relationship to you as his pack leader. It also sets the stage for how he (and you) will act on other exercises when you get to this point.

Heel Work
Heel Work

How you respond to his first bout of stubbornness (and any that follow) on exercises when you are positive he knows what he is supposed to do will affect how much farther you can go together. This is true not only about the individual exercise, but also whether you can take your teamwork to another level or not on the whole as well as in other areas. Those of us who train have heard it all and have also been tempted to use it all on our own dogs. "He can't follow or do this today because; so I won't insist he do it."

We make excuses for our dogs verbally, and also by our own nonverbal responses. An owner might walk slower because his dog has decided to lag because there aren't constant treats or pats on the leg being offered, he might go out and get the cushion for his dog because he isn't "in to" getting it today; he's tired, he's bored easily, someone else is using a bumper he likes better next to us, he can't stop when I command him to when pulling a cart today because he was distracted so I have to stop him eventually with my body. All these are rationalizations we use to avoid confrontation with our trained dog. We don't want to push back when they give us their first stubborn, "I won't do it until you bribe me" day. Sometimes we hold entire conversations with our dogs concerning their lack of follow through on a command, forgetting that dogs aren't capable of reasoning or active discussion on the topic at hand. This is a turning point in your relationship when it happens.

Communication - when a team is in sync
Communication - when a team is in sync

Again, I'm not talking about teaching a dog something new, or even reinforcing until he has it down pat. I'm talking about what happens when the dog tells us for the first time that he won't do something he knows very well how to do. There are as many ways of getting a dog's attention and then insisting he follow through as there are teaching methods for new exercises. Some are harsh and end up damaging the dog's trust in his owner. Some are ineffective because they border on going back to the bribe stage to avoid the issue, or might be based on "begging" the dog to obey.

My own opinion is that, the least amount of force to get the job done is the best way to handle stubbornness; but that the dog must give you effort towards compliance with the command. Sometimes I stop the dog, get refocused and then insist on the follow-through. Sometimes it seems to me that the dog is having a mental lapse as far as what to do. In that case, I work the command with the dog and then insist he do it a second time himself, following instructions in response to my command so that he is compliant with my commands. It's that "I'll do it with you if you need my help, more than one time, if necessary; I'm there for you; but now you need to do it on your own this one time" way of responding to the problem.

Water Work highlights the bond between dog and handler
Water Work highlights the bond between dog and handler

We don't do our dogs any favors when we aren't consistent about whether they need to obey. This is true whether or not we are working towards a title with our dog; and especially true concerning manners training. Dogs that don't need to obey us until we start yelling, give the sixth command, get out the bribes, count to three (ever hear parents threaten their children using the counting to three method?), or just give up are not happy dogs who know their place in our homes or in the homes of our friends or when taking part in a club activity. Dogs who are in charge by being the one to decide whether a command you have given them needs to obeyed now or ever on any given day cannot be counted on for their consistency and miss out on the beauty of a partnership with you and a long journey of mutually satisfying work with you.

Think about this when you get to the proofing stage in your home, or in working towards a working event. Try to catch yourself before making excuses and concentrate on solving the challenge you are facing . . . together . . . with the highest possible standard your intelligent Newfoundland is capable of reaching . . . as a team.

© 2012 Newfoundland Club of America

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