A Dog’s Perspective: Generalization

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I am often asked why dogs behave well in some situations but poorly in others, and what exactly can be done to allow them to demonstrate their good manners more consistently. You have undoubtedly heard me talk about the importance of taking the dog’s perspective into account when training. This is precisely what makes training simple, effective, and permanent. If we want to reliably teach a dog to behave a certain way or perform a particular behavior on cue, it behooves us to first look at how they view the world and exactly how they learn.

From the perspective of learning, generalization can be described as an extension of a concept (or behavior) from a familiar situation to a less familiar situation. To give an exaggerated example, a dog may understand the cue “Sit” and do so diligently when it is requested of him at home. Given that he has had lots of practice and has been rewarded for sitting at home in the past, this is a familiar situation. If this same dog were asked to sit outdoors, and had never been asked to do so in this environment before – there is a good chance he would not understand what is expected of him. The reason for this is that his behavior of sitting has not been generalized to the unfamiliar outdoor situation appropriately.

So why does this happen? Dogs are associative learners and the way that they acquire new knowledge depends on making connections between events and sensory cues. These cues are most often visual (hand signals, body language) and auditory (verbal). In addition, learning is driven by cause-and-effect, hence why creating a positive consequence through rewards is conducive to training. However, as dogs make decisions in their everyday life, such as whether or not to respond to a given cue – they take into consideration how similar or different the current situation is in comparison to what their store of past experience contains. By expanding this bank of experience – we increase the likelihood that we get a positive response, and thus elevate the dog’s generalization of the learned concept.

There are a myriad of things to consider when something isn’t working in training. In fact, I have a checklist that I like to run through which often points to the area that needs attention. Sometimes the issue is with setting the criteria correctly or working with the right type of reinforcement. However, quite often I have noticed that improper generalization is to blame. The mistake is common and quite reasonable. Dogs are incredibly intelligent creatures and when given consistent training become avid learners. It is therefore sensible and easy to underestimate how much generalization is truly needed.

Generalizing behaviors thoroughly is a critical aspect of training, and one that is easily overlooked by even the most experienced trainers. Since much of how well a dog learns on a given day can depend on unknowable factors (like how hungry or tired the dog may be), there is no shame in miscalculating this piece of the equation. In addition, I would like to point out that generalization does not necessarily pertain to ‘environment’, and can actually embody a number of different variations in the training situation. Here are some of them:

  • Location: what room the training takes place in, the set-up of the furniture, the presence of other objects or distractions that define the environment. It is essential to practice in a number of different locations, preferably increasing the difficulty level incrementally. A busy park with all of its enticing sights, sounds, and smells is going to be far more challenging than the very familiar and unexciting living room. However, the driveway may be the perfect middle ground between those two extremes for some dogs. Also, keep in mind that you may need to lower the dog’s reinforcement criteria when you make the location more challenging to help him ‘catch up’. For example, if a dog has trouble focusing and responding to “come here” in a distracting park – you may need to make it easier for them and reward them at first for simply making eye contact (an example of this can be found in this video).
  • The dog and trainer’s physical position relative to one another: dogs learn features of their training environment very specifically, and need to be taught to expand what they’ve learned. This is why it’s important to practice from different angles, body positions, and so on. Asking a dog to ‘sit’ while you stand in front of him or while siting next to them may be two very different things to a dog. In addition, make sure that you are giving your dog an adequate number of repetitions in each variation (and for some dogs this may be as much as 20-30 trials).
  • Presence of training equipment: Whether you are using a clicker or a treat pouch is important information that a dog will remember. It is important to properly fade those tools out of the training, and/or practice with them set aside to prevent your dog from assuming they need to be present at all times and becoming dependent upon them. You will see examples of how to do this in almost all of my videos during the ‘fading’ portion of training.

Ultimately, generalization will become easier and more natural for a dog over time – assuming that they are given the opportunity to practice what they have been taught with a sufficient amount of variability and repetition. The real challenge of training a dog is committing to practice in real world settings, but if you want to have solid reliability, there is no substitute for it. Perhaps it is most important to be systematic and patient in your approach. Most trainers (including myself) desire to progress much faster than is optimal – and if there is one major lesson I’d like you to take away from this, it would be to work from the perspective of making small and gradual advances and taking the time to let an idea fully absorb before moving forward. After all, the proverbial journey matters most in developing a good relationship than simply arriving at your destination.

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With a background in psychology and behaviorism, I have combined my professional expertise and experience to promote positive dog training. As a strong supporter of a scientifically informed approach to training dogs, I produce educational dog training content to help people train their dogs more effectively.

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16 comments on “A Dog’s Perspective: Generalization
  1. Julie says:

    A wonderful and helpful post. It is easy to only look at training from our own perspective. You provide great tricks and information. Thank you.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Intelligent analysis of the dog’s point of view. However, your style is sometimes too wordy for me both in writing and speaking. My attention drifts in and out, like a dog distracted by outside stimuli!
    Perhaps I would respond better to shorter sentences/training sessions 😉

  3. David says:

    As a first time dog owner, your videos and posts have been invaluable to my development as a considerate and patient trainer. This excellent post is just another example. Clyde and I are both very grateful.

  4. Andy gregory says:

    My dog is fearful and wont always except food rewards do you have any advice for us?

    • tab289 says:

      If your dog is too fearful to accept food in only given situations, I would be curious if perhaps he/she is being overwhelmed by criteria. Training needs to be challenging so that it can promote growth and learning, but not so much that it becomes incapacitating. You may need to find an ‘easier’ task, and work your way up from there.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Very good, thank you. However, like my dog, I am easily distracted and need training in short, easily assimilated chunks. I often find your sessions long and wordy. Short, precise sentences and clear visual information combine to provide a positive learning experience for me (and my dog)!

  6. Roger Smith says:

    This reinforces what my wife observed. Our GSD will respond and act sharp and clean when on a lead inside or outside in most all situations. But off lead he will not respond as quickly or competely as he does with a lead attached in the house or yard. So I have started from the beginning reinforcing all training and commands off-lead thankfully we have a fenced in yard. By sharing this it has opened my eyes to a expanded form of all around training. He has associated lead to commands. He is responding very quickly. Age of GSD 2yr. 8mo. Thank-You

  7. Monica says:

    My min. Schnauzer did all his training very well in the classroom and at home. But if he gets off leash he WILL not come back. I have had to drive up and down my street calling for him to go for a ride before he will come.

  8. Amy says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for all of your videos and info! I’ve had my first puppy for about a month now, and didn’t know where to start before I found you on YouTube. Your right, there’s not enough quality information for this sort of thing readily available for society, and there are far too many people out there with dogs that don’t know enough about them to give them what they need. Thanks for getting my dog AND me excited for training! Your great at what you do, keep up the good work!

  9. Connie Whitesell says:

    Thank you for your website and videos. Three days ago we adopted a shelter dog whom we knew had behavioral issues. He was about to be euthanized. He is an intelligent, extremely loving golden retriever mix. He had been a stray for an unknown length of time and is pitifully, pitifully thin. We knew that he had food agression as well as snarling and snapping when he feels cornered or threatened. He hasn’t bitten anyone. A single walk during which I tried to implement the simple pack-leader paradigm our vet suggested, increased his fear afraid of me, and made him cower whenever I approached, so I dropped that approach. He is responding very well to positive training. He picked up the hand signals I use with my other dogs very quickly, and I feel pretty certain that by minimizing his exposure to situations that trigger his negative reactions and at the same time desensitizing him to those triggers, he’ll be okay. I’m starting very basic. Again, thanks for your good sense and clear demonstrations.

  10. Stacy says:

    Do you know of/or have any advice for play biting? My 11 month old german shepherd likes to nip at any children who come over when they are playing in the yard. She is 80lbs already and can be quite intimidating. I’m worried she will accidently nip too hard. She doesn’t bite at my son just other kids.

  11. Hasti says:

    Hi,
    I have a 7 months old bicolor GSD, recently she got her first period. She used to live in our balcony for 5 months, since she is bigger now we moved her to our backyard, she now is in her house or smth and she cant see us anymore till we go to her( the door is closed). Since we moved her to backyard she started crying, she keeps crying like crazy all day long, she never stops and makes everybody mad and crazy. I tried ignoring her when she cries and treat her when she is silent but it didnt work, its been few days I had to tape her mouth to stop her screaming so loudly or I’m gonna loose her.
    So PLEASE PLEASE help me.

    Thanks

    • Za says:

      Hi there! Not a trainer but that sounds like severe separation anxiety and there are many resources out there to help with that. Basically we bred dogs (especially sherpards!) to bond very tightly with people and want to be around us constantly, so expecting a dog to be ok being separated from her people for a majority of the time without complaint is unreasonable. Working her into being alone little by little is best–short periods of separation (minutes) while she has an especially wonderful treat (marrow bone, special toys, etc) will help her not freak out about isolation. Also be sure she’s getting enough exercise WITH you. An hour or two of walking or running per day at minimum! It’s necesary for bonding and her own mental/physical health. This kind of thing needs to be addressed swiftly before the dog becomes so anxious that they start licking and chewing on themselves. Also be aware that like a phobia in humans, every time you expose the dog to the full brunt of long term separation, you re-traumatize them and make it that much harder to train out. Good luck!!

  12. NELLY says:

    I have a dog who responds rather well at home, but not when we are outside. Training him where there are many distractions is very challenging, as food no longer interests him, when curiously the rest of the time that’s all he thinks about.

    He doesn’t like to fetch, and is not as playful as he used to. He seems to only engage in playing in the evening, and for shorts sessions. Although the distraction problem has always existed, his lack of interest for play happened after our other dog died. He went through a very depressed phase, he got better after we got another dog a couple of months later, but he’s changed. He is now acting like the older brother, and he is rarely initiating games, more like getting forced into it by our younger dog.

    I just don’t know how to motivate him.

  13. Feather says:

    Thank you! It’s been 20 years since my last dog died; she was a much loved 80 pound boxer/bull terrier cross. I did not intend to have another dog…it’s a dharma thing. Two and a half months months ago I adopted a dog that was still in the garbage box in which it had been left at the shelter. Only it’s face, white around the eyes, snarling, was visible. There was a steady growl and attendants didn’t know gender, only that it was too small to be in an overcrowded shelter with no dog under 50 pounds. They simply handed me the box, thanked me profusely, and left on a 4-day holiday. The next morning, after the stinky little thing had been coaxed out to eat and drink, then grabbed and bathed, a vet clarified the picture.

    The dog that was emaciated is now a healthy 7 pounds, 3 ounces; a mostly Yorkie, probably Chihuahua mix, female, just a year old. My babies weren’t that little at birth! I was terrified of breaking it’s fragile little body, inside of which is tne spirit of a bull terrier. I began by making all the common mistakes and a few new ones. I’m determined to have a happy, well-behaved companion. You help tremendously, because I’m the sort who finds your articles and YouTube videos just wordy enough to support me in helping her to become a healthy, secure little being. We’re going to make it…we’ll learn from each other. And I thank you for your part in this picture.

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