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As we move past puppyhood and into adolescence and adulthood with our dogs we start thinking about what the next steps are in their training. Often we get asked, sometimes as soon as we start teaching things, “when can we stop using treats.” Now really that question is a whole other blog post (which you can read here) but today I want to talk about the step that comes before that question, which often gets missed. That step is generalization, or proofing. 

Dogs are very context based learners. So if we only ever teach them a behavior in one specific context, that doesn’t mean that they know the same behavior outside of that context. At a minimum, the will struggle to perform it to the same level in a new context. The process of generalization (or proofing) is essentially taking the steps to ensure that our dogs will understand their cues no matter the context, and understand that they mean the same thing, even in a new context. 

Why does this matter?

In all honesty, it may not matter to you. If your plans with your dog don’t really extend outside of being able to function well in your home and neighborhood, then you really may not need to generalize things, at least not too much. However if you want that “go everywhere” type of dog, we need to make sure that they are able to be responsive and well behaved in a variety of situations. 

Even if you aren’t planning to do a ton with your dog, generalization practice can pay off in unexpected situations. For example, you’re carrying in a ton of groceries and need your dog to sit and wait while you come through the door, but you don’t have hands free to signal anything or grab them, and you can’t quite see them properly.  It can also be a big confidence builder for our dogs as it exposes them to more of the world around them. 

What does it look like?

When we are talking about generalizing our dogs training, there are a few different things that we need to take into consideration. First, our body position. This is an easy category to start your generalization work on as it’s easy to do inside in spaces where our dogs are already comfortable and likely to understand their cues. Let’s use ‘sit’ as our example behavior.

When we are looking at our body position in regards to a sit we have to start by thinking about where our dogs are used to us being when we cue a sit. For the most part when we teach our dogs to sit we are usually standing (or possibly sitting or kneeling if we have a small dog) and the dog sits in front of us while facing us. When we look at generalizing this skill, there are a few things we can do with our bodies that you might be surprised to see will trip our dogs up. Sometimes something as simple as sitting in a chair is enough to confuse our dogs. Try sitting on the ground, having them sit on your left and right sides, sit behind you while you face away. If you have a small dog and have been working on sit while kneeling or sitting, try standing up. Get creative! Stand on one foot with your hands above your head! Basically our question is, can my dog sit no matter what I’m doing when I give the cue.

The other category we want to worry about is location. Can your dog sit in the living room? How about the kitchen? Back yard? Front yard? Park down the street? Busy city park? Randomly in the neighborhood? On a busy city street? Outside of a store? Inside a store?

We also want to consider distractions. Can they do it in all of those locations? What about in the neighborhood with kids running and screaming nearby? In a busy store versus a quiet store? Next to loud traffic? Around other dogs?

There’s really no shortage of new scenarios we can introduce our dogs to. 

So how exactly do we generalize our dogs skills?

Practice! Start having some training sessions that aren’t about teaching new skills, but are about making sure their known skills are understood. If you find an area where your pup struggles with the skill, stay there for a bit and practice. You may have to go back a step within that context and capture or lure the behavior a few times. With each new situation your dog becomes fluent in, the faster the following scenario will go!

Especially when you are working on generalizing to new locations, start easy and be prepared for your dog to need a little extra help. You don’t want to just throw them in the deep end without a life jacket. Work up to it slowly. 

If you’re working on generalizing your dog's skills but you aren’t sure where to start or what to work on next, good news! We have a Generalization Checklist that you can use to help keep on track, and keep track of how your pup is doing!  You can get it from the link included here or from our Recommendations and Resources page on the website. On the checklist there is a spot to write in the skill you are working on, and boxes to check if your pup is able to offer the behavior in that situation, and if they are able to do it on cue. There are a list of different scenarios, and a few empty spaces for you to put in your own! Of course the “offered” column will not apply to a lot of behaviors, but it’s a good one to use for things like sit and down, as that is a great way to gauge our dogs comfort levels in new situations.

And as always, feel free to reach out to us if you need help!

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