Updated: Feb 6
You’ve worked with your dog on a behavior, they’ve performed it hundreds of times and you believe your dog is well trained to do it. Then one day you cue your dog to do that behavior, and realize your dog doesn't listen when outside, or even in other situations.
What’s going on? Is your dog refusing out of stubbornness? Is the dog training not working? A better answer is that your dog may know the behavior in one context, and you’re asking for your dog to perform it in a different context. It’s what dog trainers call generalization in training.
As humans we need to understand that our dogs are going to not only notice environmental differences, but it’s going to impact their ability to learn.
Generalization in dog training
If I had a dollar every time a student in one of my dog training classes says, “But he does it at home”, I’d be wealthy. Dogs really don’t ‘generalize their training well to new situations and environments, and it’s something we have to take into account when we create a training plan.
I always liked the “Spot the Differences” puzzles. This is the puzzle with two nearly identical pictures side by side. There are subtle differences between the two such as an object being a different color in each, or a small item missing in one but not the other.
As much as I like trying to locate the differences between the two, I’m never able to find all of them; there’s always one or two that I miss. I think part of it is that I’m not really the most observant person, and part of it is that as humans we tend to take in the big details, and disregard smaller details.
Not that dogs play “Spot the Differences” puzzles, but they do seem to be much better at noticing new things in the environment. It could be because they tend to communicate primarily through body language.
What is the best way to train a dog?
One of the ways I like to think about training is as if you took a snapshot of the training session. What does it look like? These are some of the things to take into consideration when thinking about how to train a dog properly.
What position is the trainer in? Sitting, standing, kneeling?
What is happening during training with the trainer’s body? Is there head movement, body shift, arm movement?
Where is the training occurring? Kitchen, living room, yard? Where specifically in that space?
Where are the elements in that space located? Was the furniture moved to make space?
Who else is there? What are they doing?
Now here’s the important thing to remember. In the early stages of training a behavior, if you change one of these things the dog may not understand when you cue them to do something. Or if they do understand they may be uncertain and slow to respond.
It’s obvious that your kitchen is a much different environment than your backyard. But we sometimes don’t notice smaller differences that are easily noticed by a dog.
As an example, it can be challenging to get a dog to down on a verbal cue only. In class an owner will proudly show off how their dog can do a down without a hand signal. I’ll observe that as the owner is saying “down” they are also bending forward at the waist very slightly. When I ask them to repeat the exercise and this time stand up straight without the slight bow, often the dog doesn’t go into a down.
Because that little bow at the waist always accompanies the word “down”, the dog has learned that the word and the bow at the waist are the cue. Take out the slight bow, and the word “down” now has no meaning for the dog.
Steps to dog training
So, what’s the best way to go about generalizing training so your dog will perform consistently? Following a systematic plan and having steps for training a dog, like those below, will make your training much more successful.
1) Gradually increase difficulty in the same location
One of the biggest dog training mistakes is to try and progress too fast. I get it, making it to the finish line is important! But training a dog is one of those things where moving too quickly can backfire. It’s a bit like turning the heat to 450 degrees to make the cake bake faster when the recipe calls for 350 degrees. If you move too fast you may cause your dog to be frustrated, confused and stressed. Some dogs may also shut down and decide training is too difficult and causes too much anxiety. They may be reluctant to participate in a training session. Increasing your difficulty level in increments that are too big may also cause the same result. You want to move at your dog’s pace, and increase the difficulty in small enough steps that your dog can be successful and will stay in the game. How do you know if you’re doing this right? Your dog will tell you. If they’re making steady progress and seem to be enjoying themselves, you’ve got it right. If they’re shutting down or making an effort to avoid training, then you need to make some adjustments.
2) Warm up steps
When I start a training session, I never start at the most difficult level that my dog has worked at previously. I always start with some easy repetitions that are a piece of cake for the dog, and then work my way up towards that more challenging level. Warm up steps help the dog get into the swing of things by letting them know what specifically you’ll be working on in that session, and help build confidence.
3) Be conscious of distractions: movement, noise, scents
Even if you’re working in the same space you normally train in, be aware of any changes that might be distracting for your dog. Things like a roast in the oven that might smell fantastic, when you normally train at a time when nothing’s cooking might make it difficult for your dog to focus. If you usually train when the kids are sleeping, your dog may not be able to learn if you try to train when they’re awake and running around.
4) Be aware of stressors
Did your dog go to the vet earlier in the day? Did you have a thunderstorm last night, or the house re-roofed yesterday?
Things that stress dogs out cause an increase in stress hormones that can take a few days to return to normal levels. If your dog is struggling during a training session, consider whether anything may have happened recently to make your dog off balance.
5) Be conscious of your dog’s physical and mental state
Do you normally train after your dog has had a really long walk, or a game of ball? Be aware that they may respond to training in a very different manner depending on whether you train before or after they have had exercise and are a bit physically tired. A dog’s mental state can also have a big difference in the ability to take in new information and learn. Training when your dog is excited because you just walked in the door, will be a very different experience than if your dog is calm.
6) If struggling, think about the picture
Is your dog struggling with training and you can’t figure out why? Remember what I said about the picture changing. That analogy is a little bit misleading, because picture implies a visual. But we also want to take into consideration sounds, scent, and the dog’s state of mind.
So take a look around. Is everything in the room in the same place as it was when you typically train? What about noises and smell? Are you doing the same thing that you normally do? If you’re normally standing, are you standing during this session, or has something changed about your body posture
What trainers find extremely helpful is to record their training sessions, and review them later. It’s amazing how much you can see and a recording that you didn’t notice in real time.
7) Other ways to handle struggling
If your dog is struggling during a training session and after consideration you realize that the “picture” has changed, or that the dog is still experiencing stress from a prior event, go back to an easier level.
Now, nobody wants to go backwards, but one of the most important things in dog training is to make sure that you’re setting your dog up to be successful. Staying at the same level while your dog repeatedly fails doesn’t help your training progress. Going back to an easier level that your dog can easily achieve will help you quickly progress back up.
Yes, you can train too much! Most dogs will learn better with short 5 minutes or less training sessions once or twice a day, rather than 30-minute-long drill sessions.
9) Increasing the difficulty too much or too fast
If you increase the difficulty level of what you’re asking your dog to do, and your dog doesn’t respond or makes mistakes, it’s most likely because they’re stuck and the increase was too much. Don’t keep repeating your training at that level if your dog is struggling, as your dog is just going to get frustrated. The first thing I would suggest is to do a few repetitions at a level they can easily accomplish. This will help them get into a pattern and let them understand what you are working on. Then think about making the next step slightly harder, than what you know your dog can accomplish, but easier than what your dog was struggling with.
For example, let’s say you’re working on sending your dog to their mat and your dog can easily be directed to the mat from a distance of 10 feet, but when you attempt to send from 12 feet your dog looks at you like they have no clue what you’re saying. You should go back to working a few reps at 9 feet, and then a few repetitions at 10 feet, and then maybe try it at 10 feet 6 inches.
10) Make sure the new picture is not too difficult
When you change the picture from where you started your training for a particular behavior, make sure the change isn’t too huge. So, if you have been training in your kitchen, then don't make your next location the soccer field when there's a game going on. Find a new location that is not too difficult in the way of distractions. You may want to train in different rooms in your house initially, and then when you do go outside make it a low-level distraction environment.
Remember that the picture doesn't just include what you can see. We also want to consider other things such as how much movement is going on, noise, and what the dog may be able to smell. If your dog is highly distracted you may want to make the picture easier.
11) When training in a new picture, start from scratch
Now that you've changed your picture, you'll want to start training. It will be very tempting to start at the same level at which you were working in your previous training sessions. But remember that dogs don't generalize well, and we also want to set them up to be successful.
So, I will typically pretend that my dog doesn't know the behavior at all, and start from scratch in a different environment. Dogs will quickly understand that this is the same thing they had been working on previously, and you'll be able to quickly increase your difficulty level. if that isn't happening it could very well be that the picture you're training in is too difficult. Your next course of action would be to make the picture easier.
What you'll find is that the more you train a behavior in different pictures, the less review your dog will need when you move to a different one. Eventually you should be able to go just about anywhere and have your dog respond as they do in even the most familiar environment.
Dog training isn't always easy because we are trying to communicate with a species that doesn't understand our language. But, if you go out of your way to try and help your dog be successful, and follow the steps outlined above, you should be able to make quite a bit of progress in helping your dog learn new things.
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