Generalizing good behavior

One of the things that trips people up in dog training is this concept of generalization. If I, as a human, learn that I should look at someone when they’re speaking, then I know that that rule is likely to be true whether I’m home, at the grocery store, at a park, with my friends, or in another state. The idea that I need to generalize knowledge doesn’t even enter our consciousness, because in many (if not most) cases we do it automatically.

Dogs, however, do not. If I teach my dog “sit” while we’re at home, he’s not going to also assume that “sit” means the same thing when we’re at the park, visiting friends, having guests over, etc. As far as dogs are concerned, the rules change every time the situation changes. If you want your dog to do the same thing in different situations, you have to practice in different situations. (This is why I’m always going on about, “Now practice recall out front, out back, at the park, down the street…”)

Take Cash. Over the last month I decided I was going to try out a new theory. This theory says that, according to research, dogs in the wild don’t behave like wolves.* One of the notable differences is that when they go hunting, the alpha dogs don’t walk in front: the social dogs do. So I thought, “Huh. I’ll try it out; I’ll let my dogs walk ahead of me and see if anything happens.” (I have a whole post in my head on theories and research about dog behavior, so I won’t get into the details now about walking ahead vs walking beside and why I think it makes such a difference, but it does.)

After a few weeks, when Cash had gotten pretty good at walking ahead of me and I decided I didn’t like it anymore, I had to reverse the problem I’d created. I also decided to try the sitting technique, and see if that taught him faster than other techniques I’ve tried.** Every time Cash started to pull ahead of me, I stopped walking. He would sit down, but he’d sit down a foot in front of me: when we started walking again, he was already ahead. So I modified it: every time he got ahead of me, I not only stopped walking but backed up, bringing him back with me and realigning him. I then gave him a verbal cue. (Since I’d told him he didn’t have to listen to my body language by allowing him to walk ahead, I now needed something more obvious. Also, I kind of like the thought that I can SOMETIMES let him wander ahead on-leash, but that means I need verbal cues.) I said, “Heel.”

At first, I was stopping every few feet. Because Cash already knows how to walk beside me, though, it didn’t take him long to realize that we were back to that old thing. Within about three days, our walks looked like this:

We’d leave the house. I’d make him sit. I’d say, “Heel,” and he would. I’d have to stop 2-4 times, depending on how distracted he was, by the third house we passed. After that he got in the groove. I might have to stop another 1-2 times to remind him over the span of a 20 minute walk if I wanted him to be perfectly head to hip (and not drift a few inches here or there).***

I was happy with that.

Yesterday, we went to run some errands. First, we dropped the car off at the mechanic for a tune-up. From there, we walked to the bank, the clothing store, the pet store, and finally Starbucks. I was telling Cash to stop and sit every few feet for three blocks before he started to get it.**** Why? Generalizing.

He’d learned that at home in our neighborhood, he had to walk nicely beside me. That doesn’t, in his mind, mean he has to do that when we’re downtown. On top of that, he has motivation to ignore me downtown: people petting him, new things to sniff, cars, dogs, pedestrians, lights, shops, blasts of A/C from shop doors, the caw of crows, alleyways, trash cans, benches, a LOT of other dog pee — overload! It took me far longer to get him to focus than it does in our neighborhood because there was SO MUCH going on. Once he did focus, he got it faster than he did at home because we were doing something he knew. So, let’s look at timing:

At home, it took me the first five minutes of our walk to get him to focus when he was first learning this. After that he still messed up — a lot — but he was at least paying attention.

Downtown, it took twenty minutes to get him to focus and even think about paying attention, even though he wasn’t learning anything new.

At home, it took several walks before he really understood what I wanted, and got it right most of the time with just a few reminders when we started out.

Downtown, once he started focusing, he understood right away, and still needed a few reminders (distractions!) but was really very good.

The frustrating thing is that first twenty minutes of him being completely unfocused and brain dead. Even though I know what’s going on, it’s still frustrating. The thing to remember is that once they do get it, they get it fast: they’re not learning something new, they’re learning that what they already know applies here, as well!

For the record, even I lost my patience. I’d back up and say, “What is the MATTER with you?” even though I knew what was the matter with him. Then I’d take a breath, remind myself he wasn’t doing it on purpose or trying to be bad, and start again. (It’s always easier to be completely calm with other peoples’ dogs than with your own!)

So the next time you have friends over and you want to show them your dog’s awesome trick… remember that you might have to re-train the trick first, because your dog probably hasn’t generalized to “guests!”



*Insomuch as we have any idea of how wolves behave. That’s a much murkier topic than you’d think, given the way people talk about it.

**I can’t say that it worked faster, but it did so with him staying calm instead of getting stressed. He has a low stress threshold when it comes to training, so I already knew that would be the case! He does best with positive reinforcement… but I never remember his treats.

***Hello, my name is Jenna, and I’m a perfectionist. I have to remind myself that just because he’s drifted a few inches doesn’t mean I need to consider it “wrong.” It’s a few inches. Get a grip, Jenna. On the other hand, I consider it progress that I can at least recognize that. I also recognize that if I saw another dog walking as well as Cash walks, I would think, “Wow, they did their work. Nicely done!” In turn, that reminds me that those few inches are not the end of the world. Once I realize that, I can usually apply it to myself and Cash. Being a recovering perfectionist is seriously hard work!

****I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped for several seconds every time you take 3-4 steps, but it makes things verrrrrry slow going and kind of annoying.


PS the holidays are coming! Now might be a good time to check out how to prepare your dog for the holidays by clicking on the holiday training posts!


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