Generally Speaking

How the canine brain generalizes learned knowledge and how to use that to not only help you understand your dog better but to train them.


Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

[dropcap]Q[/dropcap]: At home my dog knows not to jump up on our living room couch, but when we go to visit my parents within minutes he’s up on their couch and looks at me like he doesn’t understand what I’m saying when I tell him to get down. I know he knows not to go up on couches because he’s so good at home, so what’s going on?

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]: While dogs and humans might be great friends and companions, it’s important to never lose sight of the fact we are very different from each other in many respects.  Keep in mind that we dogs think very differently about things – like pee and poop, for example.  We think chasing a squirrel is great fun – do you?  And remember that while we learn via the same four quadrants of Learning Theory that you do, how we generalize that learning is a bit different from humans.

One of the great things about the human mind is your ability to take a concrete action (let’s say sitting on a chair) and turn it into an abstract concept that you can then use to inform your decision making in other situations.  For example, once you guys have learned to sit in a chair at home you can – as if by magic – sit in a chair at a restaurant, in a chair at the movies, on a park bench, in a car and more.  This type of abstraction is so commonplace to your everyday lives that you lose sight of how amazing it is and it’s actually a very important cognitive talent that not every animal shares.

Unfortunately, that includes us canines to a large extent.

Decades of canine behavioral science have shown us that we just aren’t as good at generalizing as you humans are – we, of course, knew this already about ourselves…  We are capable of generalizing quickly in certain situations – for example, if something really scary has happened.  Our brains would need to remember that and generalize it to everywhere immediately for survival.  But just sitting in a strange places – for example – is not a survival skill (in our heads anyway).  But I digress – as I usually do…

To go back to your couch-loving pup, in his mind there is no abstract link between the couch in your living room and the couch at your parent’s and because of that he is not transferring his awareness of not being able to go up on your couch to your parent’s couch.  He is not doing it because he’s being disobedient; he’s doing it because he has learned not to go up on your couch at home – he has not learned to not go up on your parent’s couch.  He sees that as being two completely different actions.

We see variants of this behavior all the time in our dogs:  has your dog ever had a reliable loose-leash walking command at home and then suddenly lose it the minute you’re out and about, say in a distracting pet store?  In the dog’s mind, walking politely around your neighborhood is utterly different than walking through a crowded, exciting and distracting pet store and his mind is reacting accordingly.  I, for example, used to take treats just fine at home but it took almost a year for my human to get me to take treats when out and about.  I was just too distracted, overwhelmed and confused in those situations – but everyone knows I am a special case…

The trick to getting around a dog’s lack of generalization is to have a strong set of basic commands that are not bound to a specific location or set of circumstances.  This is achieved by practicing basic commands in a variety of places that are common and strange, mildly distracting and very distracting so that you give your dog the ability to understand that the command works everywhere – not just at home or not just in the training center.

For instance, one of the first commands my human teaches all of us is the “Off” command.  (This is different than the “Down” command, which literally means “lay on the floor.”)  Also top on her list for us to learn is the “Settle” command – which means lay-down and hang out in a relaxed position where I ask you to and wait for me to release you.  I know it sounds complicated, but in reality it is one of the easiest behaviors to teach and one of her most favorite.  It’s like an invisible crate, she always says.

So to go back to your example again:  you’re visiting your parents, your dog is up on their couch, and because you have practiced that “Off” command in a variety of places strange and common, with and without distractions – your dog hears the command and the conditioning overrides any location confusion and, voila, your dog gets off your parent’s couch when you say “Off.”   Then, like the good trainer I know you are, you ask your dog to settle on a pillow or blanket on the floor while you and your parents visit. Your dog happily complies because you have conditioned great enjoyment with that “Settle” command and you have practiced that “Settle” in various places strange and common with and without distractions as well.

By understanding how our canine brain functions and shaping your training around it you will be able to give your dog a set of tools you’ll be able to rely on wherever you are.  This makes you the “leader” without force, without fear, and without pain.  This will make your dog’s life less confusing and less scary and that makes you the best friend for your dog (and my hope is vice-versa).

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