Dogs & Generalizing
Dogs & Generalizing
You may or may not have heard that dogs are poor at generalizing and that you should practice in all different places. What exactly does this mean? Generalizing a behavior for your dog means teaching them that a cue means the same thing in any environment or scenario.
For example, “sit” means “put your bottom on the ground” in the kitchen by the cookie jar, at street corners, any time on a walk, while a Frisbee is sailing past, as a dog approaches, etc. This means you need to practice each and every scenario many times if you expect your dog to completely understand or generalize the behavior. Sound daunting or down right impossible?
Don’t get overly intimidated yet. Most people do not teach their dogs to generalize more than one or two behaviors and those are only so-so if really put to the test (see: http://perfect-pooch.com/does-your-dog-know-what-sit-means/). In reality, you only need to generalize to the degree that matters to you and your dog. Do you care if your dog can lie down on command in the kitchen if you cue it from upstairs? No? Then don’t train that scenario, but also never expect that your dog can do it if you don’t train it.
This sounds simple enough, but let’s take apart a more common case: a person in a pet store says “sit” to their 8 month old puppy who has taken a puppy class and done wonderfully when asked to sit in the past. The puppy does not sit. The owner repeats the command once or twice and maybe pulls lightly on the leash as their puppy strains towards something interesting. At this point the owner gets exasperated and wriggles a treat in front of the puppy’s nose or forcibly puts them into a seated position. Why would this wonderful puppy who has sat on command hundreds of times in the past not sit this time? He has not generalized the behavior.
Generalization needs to be done systematically and consistently and at a pace your dog can handle. For example, your dog is really good at performing a “down” (belly on the floor) on cue in your house. Great! You should have been rewarding 90% of correct responses until your dog performs correctly and quickly at least 85% of the time. Now your dog is proficient at a quick “down” on cue in your home and you can lower your reward rate slowly in that situation.
Change the picture slightly. Cue your dog to “down” in your home but with a ball rolling past (or any controlled distraction), do you still have a greater than 85% success rate? Probably not. Here is where generalizing comes into play for the average owner. Time and time again I see people cue their dog to “sit” in the lobby of a daycare or at the door of the daycare facility. I totally believe that your dog knows “sit” at home, in some other distracting areas, and maybe even at the vet (though the last one is a stretch). I do not generally believe the owner has approached the sit in the lobby cue the same way they approached teaching their dog to sit at home; rather they assumed their dog knows how to “sit” in a few places and therefore knows how to “sit” everywhere. Big mistake. Now what? The owner is frustrated, the dog is frustrated and potentially the dog has learned not only how to not “sit” in the lobby, but that sometimes interacting with the owner is really no fun and maybe next time not to even engage.
So what do you do if you have not taught a specific behavior in a specific scenario? Simple. Do not expect your dog to know what to do. Do not set your dog up to fail. Is there a chance they will perform correctly? Sure. If they do, you better be super proud and reward heavily. Every time. If they do not get it right, you may be creating a situation where your dog has learned something else- that you get frustrated and unpleasant and may not be worth working with. Instead, if you need your dog to do something and it’s in a new or distracting situation, find a way around it (manage, don’t train, in this case) or spend a few moments teaching your dog calmly what to do while rewarding good behavior.
An example would be when you are in the pet store and trying to check out at the register while your dog is leaning as far away as possible to investigate the person behind you. Is it worth it to cue a “sit” if there is a chance your dog will not do it? Not really. So you have two options: take a moment to get your dog’s attention, maybe lure a “sit,” praise, and reward; thus making this a training moment or you can simply step on your dog’s leash (about 12-18 inches from their collar giving them enough slack to stand, sit, or lie down), but not enough to get to anyone and be rewarded for pulling.
What you decide to do in these cases where you have not specifically trained the behavior will depend on how much time you have and how prepared you are to train. Generalization leads to the holy grail of dog training: a dog who can perform any cue in any situation, otherwise known as a “bomb proof” dog. Maybe you don’t need your dog to be fully proofed with every cue, but you probably do need to generalize some cues for your dog in some situations.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator