Proof Training Keeps You
In Control In Unusual Situations

This article discusses how proof training can help eliminate the dangers even the most obedient dog can face when in a provocative situation.

This training will ensure that he deals with the situation the way you expect him to.

Proof Training Prevents Fatalities

by Vicky Stever

It had started out to be a great weekend. My Brittany had qualified in his "insurance leg" in Novice A, taking third out of 54 entries. I was elated. He'd earned his companion dog title in three shows, and won two firsts and a third in four trials. To celebrate, we rose early Sunday morning to play ball in the the nearly empty motel parking lot.

Then it happened. From behind a parked car, a startled sparrow flushed in front of Brit's nose, and the chase was on. Ignoring my shouts, he raced across the access road in front of the motel, and leaped over the cement barrier bordering the interstate highway.

Panic-stricken, I screamed his name as he darted through four lanes of 55 miles per hour traffic. By then, confused and frightened, my prize-winning obedience dog just kept running — on I-44 into downtown Tulsa.

What could have been a tragedy wasn't. Somehow Brit recovered his wits and negotiated a safe return. He crept to me slowly, head down. We both knew he'd disobeyed, but there didn't seem to be a useful correction, and I was too relieved to be angry. Yet the incident raised disturbing questions. What had happened to my reliable off-lead dog? How could I make sure this never happened again?

"Some of the worst-behaved dogs I've seen," a show handler once told me, "are obedience dogs out of the ring."

Why the inconsistency between an obedience-titled dog and an obedient dog? Has competition training so emphasized the pattern of ring work that the practicality of the exercises is lost? What good is training if the dog won't obey in all situations? What are our obedience titles worth?

I determined that my first CD would be my last "empty title." The solution to my problem was proof training.

Proof Training

Most serious trainers are familiar with the concept of proof training — conditioning a dog to perform in less-than-ideal circumstances. It's a type of mental stress test, asking for concentration in difficult surroundings.

Proof training provokes disobedience in a controlled environment so that the dog may be corrected, and therefore learn.

Conditioning the dog to ignore distractions helps to prevent disobedience in similar unplanned situations.

The dog learns to obey no matter what is going on around it.

Use imagination to create unusual tests, because the unusual will happen.

Run through the training area shouting and clapping your hands. Turn out the lights and work in the dark.

Bounce a ball. Toss shoes and soda cans across the floor. Wear funny hats and costumes.

It's a refreshing break of routine for everyone, and dogs that can obey in these situations are steady dogs. They assume every distraction is just another trick and they're not going to fall for it!

While a failure in the trial ring is not a life-or-death trauma, a failure in obedience outside the trial ring could very well be fatal. A dog that will not reliably come when called, heel off lead and stay, runs a terrible risk of injury or death.

As responsible dog owners, we have two choices; never take our dogs from the security of our own homes, or effectively train them to function daily in the outside world.

"Real Life" Obedience

Classroom training can give you a head start, but proof training has to be done in the "real world." You must train your dog to be trustworthy outside the artificial conditions of the ring or class.

Your first step is to know your own dog. Know his weaknesses as a dog, as a member of his breed, and as a unique individual. Perhaps his Achilles' heel is horses, cats, cars, bicycles, garbage cans, meter readers, or all of the above! Learn the temptations he can't resist, and drill on these unmercifully.

Some breeds have problems overcoming natural impulses [in order] to give you their full attention. Sporting breeds, for example, have been bred to find, flush and retrieve birds, and are easily distracted when birds are present.

The object of proof training is not to smother this in-bred trait, but to remind the dog that you are in control, and you are the one who decides what activity will be pursued.

A case in point is an OTCh. Pointer who was distracted during a competition by a pigeon flying across the ring. The dog froze to mark the pigeon's progress, and waited until it was gone to complete her exercise. Although she resisted the urge to chase the bird, she couldn't totally ignore it.

Proof training had not destroyed her natural instincts, for this dog also performed well in field work. She had simply been trained to respond first to commands, rather than to her own instincts.

Proof-trained Beagles will still run rabbits, and Border Collies will still herd livestock. Dobermans will still bark at intruders, and Brittanys will still chase birds. But, with the proper conditioning, they will relinquish these activities when you find them unacceptable or dangerous. That's the purpose of proof training.

To begin your real-life training, select an exercise you are sure your dog knows perfectly (for example, sit-stay). Now devise a temptation you think will persuade him to disobey.

Don't make this test too easy; you really want him to flunk a few times so you can show him what you want. Try to anticipate his reaction so you can be ready with an appropriate correction.

For example, as a sit-stay distraction, place a cat in front of your sitting dog. Tell the dog to stay, take a firm grip on the lead, and have a helper shoo the cat away. If the dog tries to chase, correct him, and repeat the command to stay. Repeat the exercise until he doesn't try to pursue the cat.

If he doesn't lunge at the cat, he has passed the first test. Praise him for obeying, and make the test more difficult. Remove the lead. Increase your distance from the dog. Chase the cat away yourself by shouting and clapping your hands. Step out of sight, leaving the dog and cat alone together. (Note that this requires a very patient cat!) Use different temptations, especially those that appeal to your dog.

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Start cautiously, and work up slowly on each temptation, achieving reliability at each level of difficulty. Don't attempt too much too quickly, or you may be disappointed at your lack of success.

Proof training is like physical exercise; a gradual conditioning builds strength. You'll have a real sense of accomplishment when you return from an out-of-sight stay to find your dog sitting staunchly, while the cat preens tantalizingly within reach!

Avoid the "training collar syndrome," when the dog believes he won't be corrected if he's not wearing his chain collar. Dogs do associate different activities with their different collars, and they tend to be exclusive in their association. "When I'm wearing my hunting collar, I don't have to come all the way in when called. When I'm wearing my show collar, no one dares correct me." Practice obedience with every collar.

Certainly most disobedience occurs off-lead and out-of-collar, so this is where you should concentrate your work. Remove a dog's collar, and he'll wriggle and shake himself. "Free at last," his body language is saying!

Your dog must believe that obedience is required at all times, even when you can't physically control him. Go back through your successful proof-trained exercises without the benefit of collar and lead, just to be certain he is reliable. Train your dog in places where he often disobeys. If your city dog becomes "deaf and blind" on your country outings, take time to train in those surroundings. If, for example, he chases livestock, hold a training session in the pasture or barnyard.

Work until he understands he must pay attention and obey you in that very spot. Now release him, and let him begin his pursuit. Can you call him away? Congratulations! Does he ignore you? Time for more proof training.

Incorporating proof training into everyday living requires the same pattern of correction and praise as competition training. When your dog gives in to temptation, he won't learn to resist unless he is corrected immediately.

Don't hesitate to correct him because you're embarrassed to "make a scene" in public. Don't hesitate to praise him in the high, silly "Good boy!" voice he loves, just because someone might hear you. Remember, you're doing this for him.

One important element remains. Dogs will be dogs, not obedient robots, and we wouldn't want them to be otherwise. Some obedience problems can't be conquered with proof training. There may be some temptations your dog can never be trusted to resist, and it's your responsibility to know those, and protect him from them.

Objectively evaluate your dog's reliability. Don't be blinded to potential dangers by ego, laziness, or overconfidence.

There is no end to proof training; it goes on every day of your dog's life. New situations constantly arise that you will need to teach him about. It isn't easy, but the rewards are many, and the alternatives deadly.

Put forth the extra effort to proof train your dog for practical obedience, and you'll enjoy a true companion who can share your life safely and sanely. The obedience degrees you earn can represent genuine achievement; don't settle for an empty title.

Reprinted from DOG WORLD, April, 1986

The sooner you begin proof training, the sooner you'll be able to control unusual or provocative situations.

Keeping your dog under control will result in less risk of injury and more peace of mind.

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