On Good Behavior LLC

But He Knows it at Home!

As a dog trainer, I frequently hear this lament as an embarrassed owner struggles to get his dog to sit, come or lie down. And I don’t doubt for a minute that the dog has an awesome sit in his own kitchen. Many dogs listen well at home with no visitors or distractions, but fail to follow commands when in a new place. And no, they don’t do this just to embarrass you!

Dogs don’t generalize well to new situations. Webster’s defines generalization as “the act or process whereby a response is made to a stimulus that is similar to but not identical with a reference stimulus.” The only stimulus you are trying to teach your dog is the word “Sit”, but initially the complete stimulus from your dog’s perspective may include you standing up, facing him, smiling, and holding a treat above his head in your kitchen. When we begin training, the word that is said is probably the least relevant piece of the puzzle to your dog. Dogs don’t use a verbal language—their language is primarily signal based. And us, we talk all the time and dogs learn to ignore our chatter. This is especially true when we can’t even stick to “Rover, Sit” and instead say “Come on, Rover, sit … sit-down”.

So, you’ve been working on that sit in the kitchen and now you move to the living room, sit on the couch, don’t have a treat, and grumpily ask Rover to sit. He probably will not respond at all. This situation is clearly not identical to the reference stimulus that your dog learned. You’ve changed multiple pieces of the puzzle all at once (new environment, new posture, new facial expression, and no treat to keep his focus). Sadly, many owners give up at this point and decide that their dog is either stupid or stubborn.

Instead, you need to repeat to yourself “Dogs don’t generalize well!” and only change the stimulus in one small way at a time. You could practice in the kitchen as before, but this time, sit in a chair. Got it? Great! Now try it without a treat in your hand but making the same hand gesture. Got it—good, be sure to grab a treat from your pocket or the counter for your dog so he doesn’t learn no cookie in your hand equals no reward. (See the article on Lures, Bribes and Rewards in the Winter 10 newsletter for a discussion of how to fade the lure and move to using rewards). Next turn sideways from your dog, ask for a sit while you are moving, lying on the floor etc. Going well in the kitchen? Move to the living room again but this time make it easy to start with—Stand up, face your dog, give a signal. Try to only change one piece of the picture at a time.

Remember, dogs don’t generalize well, so you need to practice in a wide variety of circumstances. Things to vary systematically:

  • Your body position: sitting, standing, lying, turned away, looming over
  • The surface: tile, carpet, grass, concrete
  • The sound: whisper, yell, sound irritated or rushed
  • The person: if only one person trains the dog, he may not listen to others. If you want your dog to listen to the whole family, they will have to practice.
  • The location: different rooms inside your house, garage, back deck, front yard, sidewalk, park, dog park
  • The distractions: other people, doggy friends, squirrels, noises, smells

Even small changes to the picture can make it harder for your dog to understand you. A recent study showed that dogs follow commands better if the owner is facing them and less well if the owner is wearing sunglasses (M. Fukuzawa et al, Applied Animal Behavior Science, 91, 129-141.)

Next time you have trouble getting your dog to respond, stop right where you are and look at your body position, the environment etc and try to figure out what might be confusing your dog.

And here is a training challenge for you: Teach a trick you’ve never worked on before (spin, hand touch, high five etc) and carefully generalize it to new locations, body positions etc. You’ll be amazed at how resilient a behavior can be when it has been truly and carefully generalized.

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