The Importance Of Dog Training Generalization

(updated 2020)

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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Training Your Dog For All Life Experiences

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 we often forget that dogs do not generalize well without lots of 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 eyebrow tweak or subtly holding tension in our shoulder, but your dog is keenly aware of these nuances. Not only visually, but via olfactory, spatially, tactilely, auditorily, temporally, seasonally & polarity.

A parent thinks their dog “knows” a behavior or cue when he has done a few hundred sits, downs, or stays in or around the house. However, what a parent hasn’t done is to ask for these behaviors outside of these environments. Without thoroughly generalizing all dog behaviors, your dog will be confused at what you are asking of them.

Behavioral scientists and certified professional dog trainers and behaviorists 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.

Further, 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.

It is incumbent upon you to make sure you are the most exciting, fun, and interesting reward to your dog, in order to compete with all of the other environmental, life rewards, and stimuli in the world. Also make sure to keep training sessions short, clear, concise, and fun in order to hold your dog’s interest. ]

Lastly, always end on a good dog training note when your dog does a wonderful iteration of whatever behavior you request. After your dog has sat down 5 times in a row outside in a crowded distracting area, it’s very easy to push the envelope, and to think, I’ll just do one more exercise or request.

Don’t.

Take a break, keep training sessions short and sweet, and always end on a good note.

Is Your Dog Stubborn?

No. 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 and listen to us in all environments, he has to be taught by us by practicing lying down in all of these locations, contexts, and environments.

Pretty simply, the more practice your dog gets, the more proficient and confident they will become, just like us.

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 get rewarded and will do what works. They want to 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 fear-free in every environment.

Here is an excellent video from Eileen Anderson and her pups to illustrate a dog’s sensitivity to the subtlety of change. If you haven’t checked out Elieen’s blog, I would recommend doing so.

Don’t fret. 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 once again luring your dog with high-value foods, there is no problem with that. You will wean them off after the first iteration 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.

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