Generalizing: Unleashing the Key to Dog Training Success in Every Environment
By Joan Hunter Mayer
Would you like to learn how to encourage your dog to work with you wherever you happen to be? Then, one of the most important concepts you can remember is that of generalization. Generalizing means taking a skill your dog has grasped in one area and making sure they understand it in a variety of locations and situations.
Dogs learn things in very context-specific ways. While you may understand how to tie your shoes whether you’re in your kitchen, your backyard, or your office, your dog may struggle to understand that the cue you taught him in the living room also applies on the front porch, and out on a hike. While this may sound like a recipe for frustration on your end, you are way ahead of the game if you can understand what’s happening in your dog’s brain when he struggles to perform a behavior in a new context: he’s simply struggling to generalize.
How to Generalize
The key to generalizing is to remember that what looks similar to you can be worlds different for your pup. Have you always cued “Sit” while standing in front of your dog in a particular room? That can make it really challenging for him to successfully sit when you cue it with him sitting at your side, on a sidewalk, facing the same direction, with all the distractions of the outside world.
So, if you want the “Sit” cue to work in that context too, you’ll want to start over from scratch, somewhat. Re-teach that cue as though your dog has never heard the word before, in a variety of contexts and locations. The great news is that it won’t take nearly as long to teach a known behavior in a new context. Your dog will pretty quickly get the idea and have that beautiful “a-ha!” moment, and then you can move on to the next new context.
Here's another pro tip: As is always true in training, it can be helpful to make other aspects of a behavior easier when one aspect gets harder. For example, if your dog can expertly come when called from 30 feet away off leash in your backyard, and you’re ready to move to the empty park down the street, go back to 10 or 15 feet, and consider using the leash again at first. Or, if you’re trying to generalize “Leave It” by switching to a stinky temptation from a more mundane object of your dog’s desire, it will be helpful to be closer to you dog when giving the cue “Leave It", and to have fewer distractions elsewhere in the environment.
Choosing What and Where to Generalize
One of the most important things you can do when you train your dog is to think about where you ultimately want the behaviors to work. Does your dog need to sit in the car, or just on the sidewalk and in your home? Is recall important at the dog park, or just on off-leash hikes? Where will you want your dog to be fluent at “Leave It,” and what things will you expect your dog to leave? Training for each scenario where you will likely want a behavior to be solid is the best way to get those behaviors reliably.
Keep in Mind
Often when we ask our dogs to do something and they don’t, we assume they’re “blowing us off” or “being disobedient.” The truth is, more often than not this is just a lack of understanding on their part. They don’t quite understand that the cue we presented means the same thing, even in this unfamiliar context. Understanding generalization is the key to overcoming this obstacle and having wonderful, safe adventures with your pup!
Here’s to unleashing adventures and harnessing fun with your inquisitive canine, no matter where you are!
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!