Generalization

The following article was originally printed in Teaching Dogs magazine.

Generalization is the ability to apply a concept to a situation different from the one it was initially learned in. Humans do this quite easily and quite naturally. For example, when you learned to write, you didn’t have to relearn the process when you went from school to home, changed from notebook paper to poster board, or switched from pencils to ballpoint pens. Generalization is “big picture.”

Discrimination, by contrast, is the ability to focus on the smaller picture – the details. Humans generalize more easily than they discriminate. Police offices, for example, spend hours and hours honing their observation skills. Dogs, however, are master discriminators. “Sit” doesn’t necessarily mean “put your bum on the ground” to a dog. With improper generalization, sit may mean “Put your bum on the ground directly in front of mom when she is in the kitchen standing next to counter wearing a bait bag and holding a clicker and cookie.” Now that’s discrimination!

Generalization is considerably more challenging for dogs. Except for aversives, which they generalize easily (though frequently inappropriately) as an instinctive survival mechanism, dogs must work as hard to learn to generalize as humans must work to discriminate.

When dog trainers speak of generalizing a behavior, their goal is to teach the dog that a cue and its associated behavior apply in more than one environment. This process includes more than practicing the behavior in more than one location, however. Let’s review the example I gave above: With improper generalization, sit may mean “Put your bum on the ground directly in front of mom when she is in the kitchen standing next to counter wearing a bait bag and holding a clicker and cookie.” There’s a lot more than location to generalize there.

The key to generalization is variability. Unless you want your naturally-discriminating dog to conclude that something in the environment is a necessary element of a behavior, you must make sure that nothing but the true cues (also called discriminative stimuli!) remain consistent during training.

Consider:

  • The physical location, including position within the room. Practice at angles to walls and furniture occasionally.
  • The dog’s position relative to you. How many people have accidentally taught their dog that “sit” means “sit in front of me”? Vary this from the beginning, using physical boundaries, if necessary, to help generalize the concept.
  • Your physical position. Unless your position will be consistent during performance, practice the behavior while you are standing, sitting, lying down, kneeling, or doing yoga. Wave your arms around. Stand on one leg. Hop in place.
  • Presence of food, clicker, bait bag, and other tools. Tools used for training will ultimately need to be faded from the picture. Be creative in your placement of and choice of reinforcers. Vary the routine you have set up that means “training time.” Condition multiple conditioned reinforcers.

Though it sounds like a lot to remember, the good news is that generalization is habitual. Once your dog has generalized a few behaviors, he will begin to generalize others very, very quickly.