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What is Generalization?

Oftentimes we as humans overlook the complexity and the incredible number of detailed patterns that a dog can pick up on. Dogs are amazing animals, and they thrive in an environment that is structured and predictable.

Due to this nature that the dog has they can behave in ways that we as humans consider odd, yet for our canine counterparts it is just a typical day in their life. Because dogs are so in tune with patterns and predictable outcomes, they struggle with what is known as generalization.

Generalization is the ability to make connections between different items that are similar but not identical. For dogs it can be a difficult process and it comes with advantages and disadvantages.

The opposite of generalization is discrimination. Dogs are extremely good at discriminating between different objects in order to learn what should be avoided and what can be safely approached.

“When teaching dogs new commands, it is extremely important to utilize this discrimination to your advantage.”

This is the reason why some dogs develop superstitious behaviors towards specific objects or people, such as a dog who is afraid of only bearded men or a dog who is afraid to walk on a certain texture of floor.

This can be a good thing as you can utilize a dog’s discrimination to your advantage, this is how herding dogs who listen to different whistle commands know what each sound means. The dog’s keen ability to distinguish between such subtle and minuet differences is truly incredible.

When teaching dogs new commands, it is extremely important to utilize this discrimination to your advantage. For example, when teaching the command of sit the dog should always sit in the same position in relationship to the human, such as the left-hand side of the owner.

When teaching the dog to sit in front of the owner a separate command should be utilized as the dog will discriminate between sitting on the side rather than sitting in the front. By teaching separate commands for the dog it creates less confusion in the dog’s mind and utilizes their discrimination to its full advantage.

This will enable the dog to learn the command faster. Another example would be when teaching a recall command for a dog.

Many people make the mistake of saying “come here! let’s go! over here! Back!” or any variation of words. This confuses the dog as to what the command is called and does not utilize the dog’s discrimination and or their ability to pick up on patterns.

Using the dog’s discrimination is very useful when training commands and teaching the dog, however there are situations where discrimination should be transitioned into generalization.

“Dogs tend to discriminate in most cases unless specifically taught to generalize behaviors.”

One of the most common issues related to generalization is that a dog will not listen to all the members of a household, but rather only listen to one member of the household, usually this is the first member to train the dog. Even if people within the same household are utilizing the same commands as one another the dog will still discriminant between people.

This discrimination can be made worse if one member of the household uses the command “come” and another member uses the command “here”. This only makes the dog discriminate more between the household members. The solution to this problem is to have each person in the household get hands on with the training.

On the plus side, a dog who is handled by multiple people daily will more easily listen to other people, even people who live outside of the household. This is due to the dog learning to generalize the commands that they have learned from multiple people. This generalization then spills over into every new person that they meet.

For this vary reason many good service dog programs have multiple trainers working with the dog daily, so when the dog goes home to the handler, they can better generalize those commands to that person.

On top of generalizing people, dogs also need to learn to generalize locations as well. Oftentimes people will exclaim “my dog does so good at home but when I take him somewhere else it’s like he forgot everything he learned”. Well the dog did not forget everything; they just are discriminating those behaviors to the home and not in public places.

As was stated in the beginning of the article dogs are extremely good at picking up very subtle changes in their environment. In the dog’s mind learning to sit inside a carpeted living room and learning to sit outside in a paved parking lot are two separate locations and the dog will discriminate between the two.

Just like helping a dog generalize commands with different household members, the dog needs to learn to generalize those same commands and behaviors in different environments. By bringing your dog to more environments that they can practice in, the faster they will begin to generalize whenever they experience a new environment.

“Understanding and appreciating your dog’s remarkable ability to detect the ever so slight changes in the environment, or the people around them, is a crucial component to building a better relationship with your dog.”

Dogs tend to discriminate in most cases unless specifically taught to generalize behaviors. This can be used to our advantage to train the dog and needs to be understood in order to realize why your dog may be acting differently with a new person or in a foreign environment.

There are some other examples of discriminatory or generalization behavior, such as triggers to aggression, that are important to understand. As stated before, a dog could discriminate a fear of bearded men, or of specific breeds and sizes of dogs.

A dog may even discriminate further by not showing any signs of fear or aggression unless a bearded man raised his right hand. These specific triggers that lead to a dog’s fear or aggression are important to understand so that you can prevent that trigger and ensure it does not become generalized. This discrimination does not end at aggressive or fearful behavior, but rather encompasses many other behavioral problems that occur in dogs.

Understanding and appreciating your dog’s remarkable ability to detect the ever so slight changes in the environment, or the people around them, is a crucial component to building a better relationship with your dog.

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