Doggy generalists and doggy specialists (part one)

Cali, a golden retriever, sits in the kitchen doorway

I’ve recently heard not one but two experienced trainers, trainers I admire greatly, say that dogs don’t generalize.


The most recent incident was in a training class. The trainer was talking about practicing at home and said that dogs don’t generalize as a way to explain why the dog’s reaction to a cue or a piece of training equipment might be different at home than at the training center.

Generalization, in a dog-training context, means that the dog can recognize a cue in different environments. Some examples:

  • Your dog has been to your  neighborhood dog park a bazillion times. She’s been to the dog park near your parents’ house a half-bazillion times. When you take a road trip and stop at a dog park you find near your hotel, she immediately recognizes it as a dog park and runs off happily to play.
  • Your dog has a toy box. Your sister’s dog has a toy box. Your parents’ dog has a toy box. Your dog happily helps herself to toys from the toy box at each home. You visit a dog-owning friend for the first time. Your dog homes in on the toy box, grabs a toy, and the dogs start playing.
  • Your dog knows to sit quietly and wait while you prepare her dinner, waiting until you say, “OK” before gobbling her food. She does this whether you’re at home, in a hotel, at your mom’s, or anywhere else.
  • You’ve taught your dog not to jump on visitors. A new visitor comes into the house. Your dog has never met this person before, yet she knows not to jump on him.

I could go on, but I am guessing that you get the picture.

Of course dogs generalize. They could not possibly learn otherwise. No one could. There is simply no way to create and practice every single scenario where the dog will be asked to sit or lie down or wait for food or not jump —  or do / not do anything you might imagine.

Dogs learn to generalize as they learn to learn — with repeated practice. With a new puppy (or newly adopted dog of any age), you start teaching the dog house rules. You also (one hopes) teach basic manners, things like not jumping on people, not mouthing people, not barking every time the next-door neighbor walks past the window. Then, other members of your family ask the dog for the same things. And visitors do. You ask for them when you are in the kitchen, the living room, the basement, and the back yard. And on a walk or a road trip.

Your dog learns, after experiencing this phenomenon a few times, that the cue applies everywhere. The dog then generalizes that knowledge to other cues. Verbal cues: “Sit,” or “Quiet.” Visual cues: the toy box or dog park. Routine cues: you putting on the shoes you always wear for walks or closing down your laptop at 5 pm. These cues, and similar cues, take on meaning that applies even if you are not in the same room or you’re visiting someone else’s house or the toy box looks and smells different.

By the time you’ve taught your dog a few cues, she’s figured out generalization.

You can also teach your dog to specialize, which I will talk about in next week’s post.


7 thoughts on “Doggy generalists and doggy specialists (part one)

  1. Well of course YOUR dog generalizes! She’s perfect! Jaxson, on the other hand, generalizes that if I stop asking him to do things in a certain way, I’ll leave him alone to do as he pleases. It usually works. Although I am training him to stop drooling so much when there’s a probable treat around (leftovers, or afterovers, whatever you call the treats he licks from the plate when I’m done eating). That’s not easy to do with a 5 year old Boxer. But it works with the same methods you use to keep your lovable pups from jumping and getting at the food dish until you tell them “OK”. I just kept saying “no” (endlessly!) until he got the picture that I was not going to give him anything until he behaved. He got that lesson.

    I liked this blog! Especially the ending…Sue’s lesson on generalization. I think she agrees that YOUR dog is perfect!

    ❤️ Martín

    Sent from my iPad



  2. I fondly recall Texi and “Take a bow”. She repeatedly came into the bathroom every morning and gave me a play bow. I armed the bathroom with a clicker and treats, and began to mark and reward the behavior, and eventually named it “Take a bow”, which she happily and reliably did each morning. But when I tried to move her out of the bathroom into the adjoining hallway, and asked her to “take a bow”, she gave me a look that say, “Mom, I will happily do anything you ask me to do, but I don’t know what you are talking about! My lesson in Generalization!


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