The Importance of Generalizing Behaviors

A very important stage of learning is generalizing a behavior in new environments and/or with new conditions. With initial behavior training, you usually start in a familiar environment without distractions.  If I only train in my living room, will my dog perform the same behavior outside? Around distractions? Generalizing is not just about taking your new skill “on the road”.  Are we doing something with our body language or always training with cookies in our hand? Do we lean in a direction we want them to go or have a cookie out that becomes an additional cue?

For example, Drac knows the cue “sit” … or does he? I found he would only respond to my sit cue if he was in front of me – that is where I ALWAYS had him sit and usually with treats in my hand. The verbal, my position and my treats were all cues to him that sitting leads to reinforcement. In this situation, it didn’t matter where we were – I could take all that on the road! But he needed all 3 of those conditions to know what “sit” meant.

Once your dog has acquired the behavior and has good consistency in performing it on cue, then it’s time to change location, conditions or the manner in which the cue is offered. I’m currently working with him to sit when at my side. He can sit now without treats – and then we get to practice “breaking” to get a reward a few feet away :-). It’s good to know that it won’t be necessary to train for ALL possible situations and distractions. Once you start gaining fluency with behaviors in new scenarios, dogs will begin to generalize well in other circumstances.

With Nosework, another generalization is the type of containers the odor is in. If I spend too much time on plastic containers – will he have a harder time transferring his understanding of the game to other “containers” like cardboard boxes, bags and shoes? Recently I worked on generalizing that odor can be in many different kinds of “containers”. I first introduce each new container using the “It’s your choice” game, then I put like items in a search and then put out a variety of those containers in a search. Here is some of that work. I continue to be pleased with his progress and the path we are on to push forward with new knowledge and understanding.