The Art of Generalization – Does Your Dog Really know a Sit?
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” So begins the infamous household staple for children by Eric Carle. My 2 year old son loves this story. He correctly associates every animal and its specific color on each page, with 100% reliability; white dog, black sheep, blue horse, green frog, and so on. But does he really know all of these animals and colors? In real terms, he is fairly successful at identifying cats and dogs, maybe horses; the colors are very unreliable, still. And here we thought we had a genius on our hands. So, what does this have to do with training dogs? Of course, everything! My son memorized the animals and colors in the book, because we have been reading him this story since he was 3 days old. He learned the specific sequence of animal and color occurrence, as well as the context in which these animals and colors are presented to him. And dogs are the same way.
We may not be aware until we get video-taped by a friend that we developed a certain sequence when we work with our dogs, over and over. Or we employ specific subtle body motions when we use a verbal cue to get our dogs to do something. Often, a “Down” is accompanied by a subtle head nod that many are not aware of. Maybe we use a specific pitch in our voice when we deliver the cue. Probably, the dog is always positioned with the same angle to us when we ask the behavior. We call it backyard obedience when we practice lots in our own environment and the dog looks super flashy but seems to know very little once taken out of that familiar context.
A simple change such as asking a dog to go into a “Down” from standing next to us, versus standing frontally and looking at us, can throw the dog off. Not providing the head nod is another simple change that confused the dogs. Have you tried hiding and giving your dog a command? Have you ever asked your dog a behavior by sitting on the floor? Use the same body cues and voice intonation as you would use for a “Sit” but say “Banana” instead. I bet many dogs would actually sit for “Banana”. Be variable with your sequence. Do you always ask for a “Down” after a “Sit”? How about a “Down” first, then a “Stand”, and then a “Sit”.
Generalizing behaviors and testing (or proofing) them is crucial for the working dog – a mobility service dog, for example, or an autism support dog. The same holds true for a competition dog who is expected to perform for a national rank. In order to generalize behaviors, thus making them reliable under all circumstances, it is a good start to be honest with ourselves. Keep a training log, or ask a friend to video tape you occasionally, so you can see yourself from the “outside”. Take the behaviors to different places and environments. Ask the behavior with a different voice, throw in “banana” and “frying pan” to check whether the dog actually listens. See if you can get the behaviors from multiple angles, or with you out of sight. The more broadly generalized the behaviors are, the more reliable and confident your dog will be, under all circumstances. This is not only nice to have in a pet dog, but an absolute must for the service- or working dog. Besides, you have your friends impressed with a dog that looks flashy and knows its stuff!
Generalizing is an art. Feel your dog, and learn to read your dog’s processing ability and never let go of creativity in the journey. Generalization takes time. Dogs are creatures of habit. But eventually, you will witness your dog getting the behaviors in various places. This is an exciting and empowering feeling for both the owner/trainer and the dog and certainly worth aiming for!
“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” I see it all, reliably, and everywhere!