Generalization in Dog Training

What is dog training generalization and why is it so important?

Generalizing a dog’s behavior is the process of reproducing the desired behavior in various environments, settings, and conditions different from the initially trained behavior in the original environment. Generalization is also known as cross contextualization and proofing (with distractions).

Contagious yawning dog

This sounds boring! No wait, it’s not!

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Why is training your dog in the multitudes of life experiences so vital?

When you train a dog in your home, you want the dog to be able to perform the learned cues in all walks of life, yet people often forget that dogs do not generalize well without practice, in every desired scenario. Dogs are masters of specificity and studying your every move, so much so that we are often unaware of a slight brow tweak or subtly holding tension in our shoulder, but your dog is keenly aware of these nuances. Not only visually, but olfactory, spatially, tactilely, auditorily, temporally seasonally & polarity.

Often pet parents think their dog “knows” a behavior or cue when the dog has done a few sits, downs or stays without thoroughly generalizing these behaviors. Behavioral scientists and certified professional dog trainers measure conditioning histories for simple behaviors in the tens of thousands of trials, not a few dozen, hundred or even a few thousand correct responses. Still think your dog “knows” how to sit?

I often hear frustrated clients tell me, “He was doing this fine a few minutes ago in the living room, and now he refuses to sit in the bedroom.” Or, “My dog will lie down on cue in the den but not on the driveway or the balcony.” Sound familiar? Contrary to popular belief, there is no grand conspiracy; your dog is not obstinate, revengeful or dominant. Most of the time the culprit is that he has not learned what you are asking of him, your bond is not strong enough and/or there are simply more rewarding things for him to do other than to listen to you. Your dog’s confusion may derive from the mechanics of your dog training, but most often, your dog simply has no clue what you are asking him to do because you are in a new environment, circumstance or setting. In other words, you have not generalized the behavior you are asking your pup to perform.

Remember to KISS (keep it simple stupid) when dog training. It is incumbent upon you to make sure you are the most exciting, fun and interesting reward to be with, in order to compete with all of the other environmental and life rewards and stimuli in the world and to keep training sessions short, clear, concise and fun.

Dogs are incredible at specificity but not at generalizing. So your bedroom carpet is very different from your tile bathroom and your cement kitchen floor…etc. Dogs even notice subtle nuances that people take for granted and do not pick up such as polarity, time, subtle body posture changes, chemical differences in our bodies, clothes we wear, time of year…etc. These nuances are realized by our dogs and hence the meaning of our cue changes. Although we want our dog to lie down in and listen to us in all environments, he has to be taught by practicing in all of these locations and circumstances. The more practice your dog gets, the more proficient and confident they will become, just like us.

dog on chair

What the heck is this thing!

Never punish your dog for not doing your bidding when you believe he “should know” what you mean. Instead, look in the mirror and ask the teacher where did you go wrong? Your dog wants to please you, have pleasant, rewarding experiences and avoid, stress, force, intimidation, pain, and fear, as all sentient beings do. So take a deep breath and remember to train your dog, pain, stress, intimidation, and force-free in every environment. Here is an excellent video from Eileen Anderson and her pups to illustrate a dogs sensitivity to the subtlety of change. If you haven’t checked out Elieen’s blog, I would recommend doing so.

Your dog may catch on quicker if they already know a behavior in one environment when practicing in a new environment, however, treat each new setting as a new behavior and start from the beginning. If that requires luring with high-value foods, there is no problem with that. You will wean them off just as you successfully did in other environments. You mustn’t think your beloved pup is revengeful, stubborn or mean. There is a simply a communication barrier and without the three C’s: Clear, concise and consistent, canines (and humans) get confused.

Stupid dog owner

You should have generalized & taught me outside stupid.

Don’t get frustrated when dog training. Los Angeles and life can be stressful-don’t let the joys of learning with your pet become a stressful experience and do not hesitate to call us for help if you are overwhelmed or have a perplexing behavior or training issue.