Behavior Generalization, or, "Why Won't My Dog Sit at the Park?"

Most dog owners have experienced the consequences of failure to generalize a learned behavior at one time or another. For example, let’s say you just spent an hour carefully teaching your new puppy to “Heel” perfectly in your backyard. The next day, after a quick practice in the backyard, you decide to take the pup along to the pet supply store so you can show off his new skills. You confidently command the little fellow to “Heel!” as you walk in, and…. the puppy ignores you completely, and instead tries to drag you bodily toward the other dogs waiting in the checkout line.

What just happened? You trained the puppy to perform a behavior on cue, in your backyard. He learned it perfectly. In your backyard. The behavior didn’t generalize to other locations, and when distractions were added, the puppy behaved as if he’d never heard the word “Heel” in his life!

Why Dogs Don’t Generalize Learned Behaviors

On the surface, it may seem illogical for an animal to have to relearn a behavior in each situation in which he’ll have to perform it. Humans must generalize learned behaviors every day. If you forgot how to turn on a computer and use a word processor every time you borrowed a friend’s PC, you wouldn’t get much work done outside your own office.

However, you didn’t always learn this way: When you were very young, you may well have learned good table manners in your parents’ home, but eaten with your hands and forgotten to say ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ when visiting a friend’s house. After a few reminders, children generally learn that good manners at home must be practiced elsewhere as well. In fact, many parents complain that their children behave better as guests at others’ houses than at their own homes!

Dogs, on the other hand, simply never cross the threshold of generalizing every behavior every time. For a gregarious predator like a wolf, dedicating a large amount of brainpower to generalizing learned behaviors just doesn’t make sense— and it could be dangerous. For example, imagine a young wolf learning to crouch and urinate to show respect each time he sees his pack’s alpha male in his home den. When the young wolf then matures and is invited to hunt with the pack, if he continues to crouch and urinate every time the pack leader looks at him, he’s likely to get left behind and be little use to the hunting party. Instead, the young wolf will learn the behaviors needed for an interaction in his den separately from the behaviors needed for a successful hunting excursion.

Pack theory doesn’t solve every problem, but in this particular case, understanding why a wolf wouldn’t generalize every behavior is helpful. Some dogs generalize more easily than others, but all are essentially domestic, gregarious mid-sized predators, with the behavior and evolutionary adaptations thereof.

How to Make a Behavior Reliable in All Situations

Let’s go back to the puppy owner in the first paragraph, whose pup forgot how to “heel” when they entered a pet supply store. We’ll call the owner “Tom,” and his puppy will be “Rusty.” How could Tom have avoided the embarrassing situation in which he placed himself and Rusty by trying to show off a behavior that Rusty had, as it turned out, learned to perform only in Tom’s backyard?

Simple: Tom should have practiced the behavior with Rusty in several locations prior to entering the hectic environment of a store, with people, dogs, treats, and toys distracting Rusty. The more times a dog learns a behavior, the more easily he’ll generalize it to the next new situation.

When Tom noted that Rusty was performing “heel” perfectly in the backyard and decided he’d like to take Rusty to the store to demonstrate his newfound prowess, his next step should have been to list all the ways the store environment would differ from the backyard, and plan ways to practice in similar environments. His list might look something like this:

  • The pet store has tile floors, while Rusty originally learned “heel” on grass and dirt.
  • There will be other dogs at the store.
  • There will be strange humans at the store.
  • The pet store sells items Rusty will want to investigate, like treats and toys.
  • There will be small animals including hamsters and birds at the store.
  • Employees may approach Rusty or Tom and want to interact with them.
  • There will be many unusual sights, smells, and sounds.

Tom can’t expose Rusty to every single one of these distractions before going to a store and expecting Rusty to heel, but most of them are easy enough to find. Tom should start by training “heel” in his own kitchen, so that Rusty has practiced the behavior on a tile floor before his trip to the store. Next, perhaps Tom has a neighbor who’s willing to stand on the sidewalk while Tom walks Rusty back and forth past him, using treats and praise to train Rusty to ignore the neighbor.

After a few sessions of practice using new locations and distractions, Rusty will be set up for success performing “heel” on his trip to the store. He’ll still need to relearn the behavior in the new environment, but he’ll have practiced it so often that a quick rehearsal in the parking lot and a brief training session inside the store should be all he needs.

The Final Word

Remember, to make a behavior reliable, practice it more often, in more places, and with more distractions! This simple rule can help your dog look like the smartest and best-behaved pooch in town, no matter where you are.

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