June Enrichment Challenge: The Proof is in the Practice

It’s not uncommon for me to hear a pet parent say “Fluffy is able to respond to cue ‘Touch’ inside, but as soon as we go into the backyard, [pick one]: he doesn’t listen to me/ seems to have forgotten the cue/ seems distracted.” In this scenario, there may be different reasons that Fluffy is less responsive when you say a cue outside; today I’m going to focus on just one explanation: we haven’t sufficiently proofed the cue. 

How often are you expecting your pet to respond to a cue and perform a behavior under what I call “high stakes test conditions” when you’ve been practicing the behavior only or mostly under a “no stakes” set up? Think back to when you were learning multiplication tables. I think it was maybe 2nd or 3rd grade where we spent a lot of practice time both in the classroom and at home doing drills, such as: 1×2=2, 2×2=4, 3×2=6, etc. Maybe you remember this too. We practiced on worksheets on our own, practiced in unison responding to the teacher calling out 1×2=, 2×2= etc, practiced saying the tables aloud by ourselves. At some point, we were tested on how well we knew our multiplication tables but not before we did loads of practice under a variety of conditions. 

Let’s say I want to teach Boon the new cue “Drop” in case she picks up something I don’t want her to have in her mouth. I start by teaching in a quiet, no- or low-distraction space, usually inside. Here’s the thing: if we only practice the cue in the quiet space, then expect Boon to respond to the cue in the presence of distraction, at a distance much farther away, or with a new person, it’s unlikely she will be able to generalize what she’s learned and respond to the cue with the desired behavior. Dogs are terrible at generalizing, which is why Fluffy knows “Touch” in the quiet of their home, but not when we step outside and the birds are singing, there is the scent of a rabbit that ran past in the last hour, or even friends hanging out in deck chairs. Fluffy likely will not boop her nose to your hand in the context of all these environmental changes when she has only ever practiced inside in a quiet spot. To me, that would be like expecting Fluffy to mentally calculate and recite – on the spot – the product of 12X7 when we’ve only practiced writing out single digit multiplication (e.g. 1×2, 2×2) on a piece of paper so far.  

This process of teaching a learner how to perform a skill in increasingly complex contexts is called “proofing”. So how can we proof a learner’s response to a cue? By teaching the same cue through these five categories of contextual change.



Five Categories of Contextual Change

  1. Distraction(s) can come in lots of different forms. As I teach Boon the cue “Drop” I could add some other objects into our training space, or switch up the location of the furniture in that room, carry a ball, or have my partner walk by. Each of these distractions will differ in terms of level of difficulty. For example, having my partner walk by while Boon remains in listening/learning mode with me is more difficult than me carrying a ball when I say “Drop” because she will want to go say hi to my partner but could care less about the ball. So think about the low stakes to high stakes issue (or low value to high value) and gradually introduce distractions–first ones that are minor, then slowly expand to those that will be more difficult for your pet to ignore.
  2. Distance relates to how far away you can be from your pet when you give the cue and still get the behavior. Initially, I will be close to Boon when I cue her and then gradually I will practice moving farther away.
  3. Different people practicing the cue is another contextual category to proof. Can only you ask your pet for a behavior or can other people as well? In a lot of households there is often a primary person who takes on the role as pet trainer, yet we generally want our pets to respond to a cue regardless of who in the household is giving the cue. Your pet needs practice with these other people, too, not just the primary training person.
  4. Different places are often linked to distractions, as we generally start out in a quiet place to teach a new cue so that it’s easier for the learner to focus on acquiring the new skill. But since our pets usually need to be able to use those skills in lots of more distracting environments, it’s important to branch out and practice in many different places, which often coincide with new distractions. Expand your practice to other areas of the house, into the yard (back, front, alleyway), on a walk, in a park, in the car – ok, so right now I’m reminding myself of Dr. Seuss, where he lists all the places and conditions where he will not eat green eggs and ham: “I would not eat them in a car, in the dark, in a lark, etc” – to proof a cue in gradually less familiar, and more distracting, places. We DO want to practice in a variety of locations so Boon will understand, regardless of where we are when she hears the cue “Drop”, it means spit out what’s in her mouth.
  5. Duration may be less applicable to the behavior we want performed with the cue “Drop”, but it will pertain to other skills where you want your pet to be able to maintain a behavior for any length of time, like “Stay”. Again remember we start with learning the behavior (e.g. stay in one spot) first, and then build up duration (e.g. be able to stay there for 1 minute).


Another important point is not to throw all of the “Ds” at your pet at the same time; instead, if you increase one criterion (e.g. like add a distraction), you should decrease other criterion (e.g. go back to less distance away from your pet when you cue).  

The next time Fluffy isn’t performing the behavior you just cued, ask yourself if you have given them practice with each of these areas and adequately prepped them for the test conditions. Recognize that you may not need or want to proof every behavior that you have on cue but be aware that the onus is on us to provide opportunities for our pet to practice in different contexts if we want them to be able to successfully perform the cued behavior in those different settings or situations.  


Now What?

  • Think of a cue you’ve practiced with your pet in one condition and reflect on whether you have practiced the cues with Distractions, Distance, Different People, Different Places, and Duration.
  • Pick one of the Ds to expand practice of the target cue in that area. Remember to expand on the D incrementally. For example, if you are working on Duration, start with a small step, like 2-3 seconds, so your learner can be successful. 


Happy Training! 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *