Recently whist working with a client I explained, as I often do, that dogs don’t generalise very well, so what does it mean when a dog trainer uses this term? Well generalisation means the transfer of a response learned to one stimulus to a similar stimulus. In plain this means that just because your dog has learned to sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean that it automatically transfers that to sitting outside on a busy street with traffic. All this must be taught in a back to basic manner.
So why then are there exceptions, a dog will quickly generalise that all children are bad if just one scares them? This is because these are classical conditioning, where the environment plays the dog. You couldn’t control the child at the exact point where they stood on your dog’s tail causing the dog pain that she immediately associated with the child, this is where you have a conditioned fear response generalised to children. This can account for a lot of different scenarios, a bin flying over on the pavement one day, causing a huge bang, scaring your dog, again a conditioned response resulting in the fear of bins, or equally if it was a windy day that the bin flew over then you could have that negative response to bins and wind.
So how then is it that your dog doesn’t generalise the training stuff as well? This is because in training we use operant conditioning, where the dog plays to the environment. Your dog has to learn that by sitting good things happen, you positively reinforce this with a scrummy bit of chicken, bingo, next time she sits in front of you another piece of chicken. It wouldn’t take her long to figure out that offering you a sit gets chicken.
Think of it like this girls, you try your hair in a different style, just experimenting, you go out and everyone you know says “ I love your hair like that, it makes you look pretty” or if your my age “it takes years off you” then chances are you will repeat doing your hair that way. That is exactly what your dog does, I offer a sit, I get chicken, next time I sit.
So where does it go wrong? When it comes to training dogs with Operant conditioning it’s a bit like a toddler……but why? (I’m sure a few parents are smiling). But why should I sit here? I’ve never been taught, and it’s never been reinforced. And that last line is the important one, it’s never been reinforced! This is where we get the term “stubborn” from; one of my biggest YUCKS is hearing someone call a dog stubborn! So with that in mind have you been in this situation with your dog? I see it often and have also been guilty of the high expectations I have in my dogs. In my experience this is one of the most likely situations where an owner may become frustrated at their dogs non compliance, repeating the cue in a slightly irritated tone, shouting it louder, maybe even pushing down on the bum to get a sit or jerking on the leash for not listening.
All of this is perfectly avoidable. Your dog isn’t dumb, she isn’t ignoring you, she isn’t being stubborn, and she doesn’t reserve this reaction to show you up. Try it right now! I am assuming you have a good sit with your dog? Try lying flat on the floor right now ask for a sit? What happens? You just got a face wash didn’t you? You changed something so therefore a behaviour you have more than likely been doing with your dog since they came home to live with you is gone!
So what do you do? Do you just leave it and now you can blame your dog’s inability to generalise as an excuse? Absolutely not, get out there and do some training, its fun for both you and your dog. Brain training is a very positive thing to do, since the brain uses up the most energy training is right up there with a good long walk. So this is what I do. I get a behaviour on cue using lure/reward so let’s use sit as an example. I get sit on cue in my house where my dog is comfortable and there is no distraction, then we do a little practicing in the garden sitting in different spots then I grab my bait bag fill it with kibble and some extra fabulous cooked liver and hit the road. I live in a busy little town right on a High Street, lots of cafes, a train station, schools, shops, bus stops, a public park, a palace and various other attractions. It’s a haven for tourists and people who don’t have to use the car. So out we go, I only cover about a mile and I frequently ask for a sit then reward. So by the time we complete our little walk me and my dog have sat next to a bus, a train, a bridge, a child, a buggy, a wheelchair, a wheelie bin, a dog, a swan, a car, another child, a man wearing a hat……get the picture?
It’s a simple thing to do, then repeat for everything you plan on teaching your dog. Recall is another fantastic example, its relatively easy to get any dog to recall in the home, recall is still an easy task to do in the garden, but outside in the park whilst playing with another dog or chasing a rabbit it then becomes a totally different sport altogether. Again this isn’t a “not listening to you right now” it’s a simple example of the dog hasn’t been taught that “come” means everywhere no matter what you are doing!