Generalizing: Unleashing the Key to Dog Training Success in Every Environment

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As we look at ways to hone your dog’s adventuring skills, one of the most important concepts you can remember is that of generalization. What’s that? Generalizing means taking a skill your dog has grasped in one area and making sure they understand it in many, eventually every, other context. 

Why Generalize? 

Dogs learn things in very context-specific ways. While you may understand how to tie your shoes whether you’re in your kitchen, your back yard, or your office, your dog may struggle to understand that the cue you taught them 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 they struggle to perform a behavior in a new context: they’re 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 dog. Have you always cued “Sit” while standing in front of your dog in a particular room? That will make it almost impossible for them to successfully sit when you cue it with them at your side on the sidewalk. So, if you want the “Sit” cue to work in that context too, you’ll have to start over from scratch, somewhat. Re-teach that cue as though your dog has never heard the word before. In this case, that likely means using your treat as a lure like you did when you first taught the behavior.

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 back yard, 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. 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 the dog when giving the cue, and to have fewer distractions elsewhere in the environment.  

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. 

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 only way to get those behaviors. 

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 get that cue we said 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, no matter where you are! 

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2 Responses

  • Thanks for explaining that if a dog doesn’t do something that you want them to do, it is most likely due to the fact that they don’t understand. My wife and I are thinking of getting a dog this summer. I’ll consider getting dog training for the dog we get so that our pet can understand us.

    • Hi Larry! Thanks for taking the time to join the conversation. Great to hear that our post provided some help. Yes! Teaching your dog what you want can set everyone up for success. Here’s to unleashing adventures!

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