Testing out your dogs skills and your training abilities in the competition obedience ring is a great way to see how you’ve done, but even if you don’t want to compete (many people don’t) you can still occasionally “test” yourself and your dog to see how you’re doing.
Dr. Ian Dunbar, the veterinary behaviorist who popularized both puppy classes and positive reinforcement-based training, uses the “test, train, test” method to ensure that your dog is in fact making progress with its training. With this method, you first “test” the dog to see how it’s doing in any particular situation. For example, you might walk the dog down the block and see how often it remains in good leash-walking position versus how many times it pulls ahead. Take note of the number of times (using numbers rather than vague descriptors such as “she did pretty good”) and note them. Then, go into your training period. Maybe two or four weeks? After this period is over, “test” again – walk down the same block, and count the number of times the dog was in good leash position. Has this number increased? If so, you have actual data that your training is working – keep at it! If not, then you should look into changing some things, put that into practice, and test again further down the road.
If you want to try this, keep your tests small and focused on the things you’re actually working on. So the questions wouldn’t be “Dog behaved himself at the park, yes or no?” but “Did he respond to come when called off medium-level distraction? High-level distraction? Could he sit-stay while another dog played fetch in the distance? Did he unload politely from the car?” The more specific you are, the more helpful the “test.”
After you’ve done your initial test, you now have to actually work on the things your dog missed! Don’t just give up and say “He didn’t come when called.” You now can continue working with your dog, but this time you have data! If the data says your dog has improved, then just continue with what you’re doing. If your dog hasn’t improved, then figure out why. Maybe you need a new training method or maybe you just need to improve the one you’ve got (look at your timing, reward structure, difficulty levels etc.) Don’t test too often – maybe once a month or so. The vast majority of your time should be spent training.