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Helping an Assistance Dog Learn to Generalize Behaviors

The ability of a service dog to generalize a behavior is an important skill. Generalization involves being able to quickly relearn and perform a known behavior in new environments.

There is a process an owner-trainer can do to help their dog to learn this concept. That is to reteach behaviors in each new environment that you take your dog to. On average most dogs start to figure out the concept of generalize behaviors after learning 5 or 6 behaviors in 5 to 6 new environments. As the dog learns more behaviors and performs them in more locations, generalization of each new behavior usually occurs faster.

What Does This Look Like in Real Life?
1. Teaching your dog 6 behaviors (often by capturing or shaping)
2. Adding distance, duration, elevation etc to the behavior
3. Adding a cue
4. Proofing each behavior
5. Bringing each behavior to stimulus control level in that environment
6. and reteaching each behavior from the start in at least 6 new environments

Repetition in Different Environments Helps a Dog Learn to Discriminate
The repetition in different environments helps the dog to look for (discriminate) the tiny details that are the same to tell him what behavior to do and when. He’s not only watching for cues in the environment, the equipment he wears, what equipment or props you are interacting with, what body, hand and verbal cues you are using, where you are looking, the tone you deliver the verbal cue with and so much more! All these tiny things can help a dog to figure out what behavior you are asking for in each new environment.

In order for a dog to generalize successfully, your dog needs to have:

  • a good understanding of the behavior
  • the behavior under stimulus control
  • a long reinforcement history for doing the behavior
  • a good memory for behaviors
  • ability to withstand distractions
  • no fear or reactivity to interfere with performance of the behaviors

Key to Success
The key to your dog’s success is your ability to choose the environments with a distraction level that is suitable for him at the stage of training he is at with each behavior. If the distraction level is too high, you are asking too much and that sets him up to fail. Learning to generalize in the house and yard isn’t usually an issue with most dogs as the distraction level tends to be low. While you should lay a solid foundation in 6 different locations at home, it’s when you go away from home that generalizing starts to be very challenging.

Specific Examples
Doing specific training sessions and integrating the training into regular outings can go a long way to help a dog generalize behaviors.

Here are some ideas of how to generalize specific behaviors in specific environments: 

Loose leash walking (llw): Choose a tree just after some cones or seeds have fallen. Hold the leash in one hand or attach the waist leash if that’s what you use. Hold a bag in your leash hand. Under one specific tree, can your dog keep the leash loose as you pick up 20 cones and put them in your bag? Make sure you move a few feet between cones and stop at each location to put them in your bag.

Settle: Choose a walking trail that has several benches or logs short distance apart. Llw between benches and sit at each one for 5 minutes with your dog in a relaxed settle then move on. Fiddle with your mobile device or otherwise engage yourself to keep your focus off your dog. Don’t ignore him but also don’t make constant eye contact. Be ready to recue the settle.

Leave it: Find a location with a variety of distractions that you don’t want your dog to interact with. Make sure you have previously taught him to ignore each distraction unless cued to interact with them (people, other dogs, scents, garbage cans etc). Just before you approach each distraction, cue leave it and keep on moving past. A great example is to go out on garbage day and walk around the block. Cue leave it as needed for any interest in the garbage cans.

Potty on Cue: This one is further generalization of leave it. Choose a location where it would be inappropriate for your dog to urinate but where other dogs have. Along the wall of a building or on a paved walkway where other dogs have peed are examples. Before you start, find an appropriate place for her to go potty (grass, dirt or other surface) and cue your dog to urinate. Do not start the walk until she has emptied herself. This will make it easier for her to stop peeing midstream if she makes a mistake. As you walk along and your dog shows interest in sniffing or starts to lift a leg to pee, give your leave it cue and walk on. Find locations along the path after about 5 leave it cues where it is appropriate for the dog to urinate. Take her off the path and cue her to potty there. Continue your walk repeating the same process.

Always remember to reward your dog for making the correct choice. Rewards can be food, play, massage, praise, or interaction with something the environment. Use the reinforcer that makes most sense for your environment.

Be good to your dog! If you need help teaching your dog to generalize behaviors, book a webcam session with Donna or Jenn.