Understanding When Your Dog Is Struggling to Generalize: He’s Not Ignoring You

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Generalizing means taking skills dogs have grasped in one area and making sure they understand them in many other contexts. This important step helps to ensure that a behavior is actually trained, meaning that your inquisitive canine has a clear understanding of the relationship between cue, context, and behavior. 

Generalizing is the Key to Unleashing Training Success!

Guardians will often assume their dogs know certain behaviors because they respond to a specific person in a specific context. However, that is not necessarily the case.

Dogs don’t general especially well. (Except for fear-related behaviors.) That means it takes practice for them to learn that the behaviors you like are not context- or environment-specific. So, even if Fluffy is rock-solid at responding to certain cues at your favorite park and around your neighborhood, those behaviors may need more work in unfamiliar places.

Understanding when your dog is struggling to generalize is key. Take a break, take a breath, and remember to have fun, trust the process and trust that your inquisitive canine will get there eventually with your clear, consistent, loving guidance. You are likely to make impressive progress by re-teaching “known” cues in various environments. When your dog can perform the same behavior in any setting when asked to do so, you have taught him to generalize – or proof- that behavior.

The following tips can help you apply this concept to some common cues.

How To Teach Your Inquisitive Canine to Generalize Specific Skills:

  1. Once you are both comfortable with the basic steps involved in teaching a cue*, start over from scratch, somewhat, in a variety of contexts. 
  2. Re-teach the cue, in each new situation, as though your dog has never heard that word or seen that visual cue before.
  3. Be sure to practice training games in different locations. 
  4. Practice at varying times.
  5. Have friends and/or family members get involved. Can other people ask Fido for the cue and get the desired response? If so, great job! That’s a sign that your pup truly knows the behavior and how to “speak human.”
  6. Training for each scenario where/when you will likely want a behavior to be solid is the best way to get those behaviors reliably. So, think about where you ultimately want the behaviors to work. 
  7. Over time, as your dog responds to each cue more consistently, continue changing it up, so that beyond learning a skill — or performing a skill — your pup is learning to apply it in different scenarios. 
  8. Remember, as is always true in training, it can be helpful to make other aspects of a behavior easier when one aspect gets harder. Consider the 3-D’s! 
inquisitive canine border terrier

Tips to Help Generalize ‘Sit’:

Even if your inquisitive canine sits beautifully, on cue, while at home, with no one else around, she might not know how to do this while out and about in an unfamiliar area with the distractions of the outside world. If you have always cued “Sit” while standing in front of your dog in your living room, it can be really challenging for her to successfully sit when you cue it with her on a sidewalk, at your side, facing the same direction as you.

So, if you plan to ask your dog to sit on walks, in the car, and other rooms of your home, be sure to work on this cue in each of these contexts and locations. The great news is that for most dogs, it won’t take nearly as long to teach a known behavior in a new context. Your dog should pretty quickly get the idea and have that beautiful “a-ha!” moment, and then you can move on to the next new context. 

If you have a new dog or puppy, cueing “Sit” in various places around your home can help make teaching and practicing common behaviors like this fun, and can help your new pal get the layout of the house.

A good way to tell if your inquisitive canine has mastered a specific skill is for someone else to ask the dog to do it and observe what happens. For instance, to determine if your dog really excels at this life skill, prompt a friend or family member to ask your pup to Sit somewhere unfamiliar. (This exercise is not meant to “test” the dog or the pet parent but to help guide their work together on training goals.) 

Inquisitive Canine Yorkie Sitting

Tips to Help Generalize Loose Leash Walking (LLW):

Once Fido understands the concept of LLW in a low-distraction environment, start to generalize the behaviors, so you can take your skills on the road, or better yet, a nice, safe sidewalk or walking path! After starting indoors, begin to practice in a variety of settings, under different conditions.

Take this opportunity to explore new outdoor spots with your pooch. You can help your dog learn to generalize by going back to basics and rewarding desirable behaviors generously in new locations. 

Keep in mind, you may need to lower your expectations a bit, at least at first. Don’t worry, you’ll know when your dog ‘gets it’ as you work back up to proficiency. And then, together, you can move on to discover your next new spot. Enjoy the exploration!

Tips to Help Generalize ‘Go to Your Mat/Place’:

An important step in making the “Go to Your Mat/Place” cue practical and useful in day-to-day life, is to teach your pup to generalize it. To practice in a variety of settings, carry the mat with you and play the “Go to Your Place” training game in different areas of your house. 

With this cue, whether you’re hanging out at home or away, your pup has learned a very handy skill that you’ll want to keep sharp with lots of fun practice and encouragement. For example, you’ll be able to use this cue when someone comes to your door. Now your dog has something else to do- incompatible with charging the door or jumping all over your guests! 

When out and about, think of some dog-friendly places “Go to Your Mat” would come in handy: while sitting at a local park, lakeside or beach, an outdoor restaurant, cafe, or brew pub, a friend’s house or yard. That’s when you and your best friend really reap the rewards of a portable ‘place’ – and the wonderful ability to generalize training concepts in new environments! 

Additionally, changing it up, depending on the scenario, can help keep you and your inquisitive canine motivated and engaged in practicing these practical life skills. 

Inquisitive Canine - Summer Training Tips

Tips to Help Generalize ‘Leave It’

Consider where you will want your dog to be fluent at “Leave It,” and what things you will expect Fido to leave.

As in the very beginning of training this cue, start with things your dog might not be that interested in. Eventually, you can begin to proof this skill and include a wider variety of items and proceed to bigger challenges like children’s toys, shoes, laundry, or other enticing items around the house (keeping in mind that your dog might find the most obscure items enticing). 

If you’re trying to generalize “Leave It” by switching to a stinky temptation from a more mundane object of your dog’s desire, it will be helpful to start by standing closer to you dog when giving the cue and to have fewer distractions elsewhere in the environment. (Refer to Tip #8 above.)

Once your dog is responding to the ‘Leave it’ cue reliably indoors, if your goal is to have your dog respond to you, even when distractions are high, bring your training games out into the real world. Some temptations you might want your pup to practice ‘leaving’ are bicycles, cars and other animals. 

Overcoming Training Obstacles

To sum up, often when we ask our dogs to do something and they don’t, we assume they’re “blowing us off” or “being disobedient.” The truth is, more often than not, this is just a lack of understanding on their part. 

Dogs learn things in very context-specific ways and sometimes trained behaviors fail or fall apart because pets and their people haven’t used the skills enough in real-life situations. Generalizing, taking a skill your dog has grasped in one area and making sure they understand it in a variety of locations and situations, is the key to overcoming this obstacle and having wonderful adventures with your pup! 

So, get creative about where and when you practice! Take advantage of teachable moments, at home and on walks, at different times of day, etc. Being expansive about your practice contexts will really help your inquisitive canine hone fundamental skills so you have them when and where you need them.

Here’s to unleashing dog training success anywhere, anytime!

*Steps Involved in Teaching Cues Mentioned in This Post: