The Importance Of Dog Training Generalization
(Updated January 2023)
Generalization definition or 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.)
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 science shows 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 shoulders, 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 ask for these behaviors outside of these environments. Without thoroughly generalizing all dog behaviors, your dog will be confused about 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 in an equal number of environments, not a few dozen, hundred or even a few thousand correct responses in or around the home. 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 in that environment, 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.
Also of importance, it’s incumbent upon you to make sure you are the most exciting, fun, and interesting reward to your dog, to compete with all of the other environmental, life rewards, and stimuli in the world.
In addition, 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 think, I’ll just do one more exercise or request.
Take a break, keep training sessions short and sweet, and always end on a good note.
Does your dog listen and respond more reliably to your voice, body language, or both?
It is believed that dogs will first and foremost respond to your gestural body language cues before verbal cues.
However, new research focused on cue reliability in novel environments which is what generalization is about!
Recently in a research paper that came out on January 16th, 2023, researchers from the University of Florida, Dartmouth College, and JK Canine, wanted to answer these cue discrimination questions in multiple novel environments.
In their research “The Effects of Cue Modality on Reliability and Generalization of Training Outcomes with Domestic Dog” they test nine different dogs training in novel environments to see how well they responded to verbal cues, gestural cues and when combined together.
What they found was that dogs were most responsive in novel environments with the compound usage of verbal and gestural cues.
The takeaway is that when you are generalizing your dog’s behaviors in multiple environments, it is OK and maybe preferred to use not only your verbal cue but a gestural cue at the same time paired together. This “double cue”, so to speak, perhaps offers more information for a dog to understand in more distracting and new environments.
My Dog Is Stubborn
Is your dog really stubborn? Maybe but that’s likely not the issue. 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 these cue changes confuse your dog.
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. This is why for example that public access training for service dog training takes so long.
Pretty simply, the more practice your dog gets in all life environments, 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/reinforced 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, that’s not a problem.
You will wean them off luring them with food 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 simply a communication barrier and without the three C’s: Clear, concise, and consistent, canines (and humans) get confused.
Dog Training Experts
Do you have a dog training issue that you think is due to a lack of generalizing? Or a complex dog behavior issue that you can not figure out? Fill out this short form for an expert Certified Dog Behaviorist and Trainer in Los Angeles or anywhere in the world to help you with your dog’s training today.
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