A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about dogs learning to generalize — to apply a cue in different environments. Dogs can also learn to specialize.
What I mean by that is that they can learn that a cue or rule applies only in very specific situations. For example, I have a TV-watching sofa in the basement that is dog-friendly. I have a living room sofa that is not dog-friendly. The dogs know that they are allowed on the downstairs sofa but not the living-room sofa. (Though, when’s she’s feeling grumpy, Cali has been known to sneak onto the living room sofa, quickly jumping off when I approach and faking nonchalance as she heads to the bedroom …)
Even more specific — the dogs know that they are allowed on the bed only when a particular blanket, the “dog-proof cover,” is on the bed. When that cover is being laundered, Cali will poke her head into the bedroom, scowl (yes, she scowls), and stalk off.
Koala knows to check with her mom about getting on beds and furniture in new places when they travel; she recognizes when a “dog-proof cover” has been deployed and it’s safe to jump on. She’s also much better than Cali about following the rules.
Wylie, Deni’s German Shepherd guide dog several years ago, learned an interesting lesson: Puppy Wylie was chasing wild turkeys in the front yard of Deni’s Montana home when the turkeys played a little prank on him. They led him on a wild chase … right into a wasps’ nest. Wylie never chased turkeys again. Unfortunately, he failed to generalize the “don’t chase wildlife” rule and continued chasing deer until he had some firm training.
Dogs generalize and specialize about all kinds of things. They learn which things are their toys and which things they are not allowed to chew on — even when they share a home with small children whose toys look a lot like dog toys. They learn what they are and are not allowed to eat. They might know to bark at some noises and not at others or that they can get on the bed only when invited.
Dogs’ ability to specialize and generalize can get humans into trouble.
What if, for example, you have been strict about not feeding the dog from the table, teaching your dog to lie quietly while you eat. But … your spouse sneaks her treats on the sly.
You’ve begun to notice that, although the dog behaves while you are eating alone, if your spouse is there, she begs. Even worse, whenever anyone else is over, she hovers hopefully, testing each new person to see whether he’s a stickler for your rules — or is a softie, like your partner.
This points to a universal human failing: Inconsistency.
The dog has learned not to beg from you at the table. She has not generalized the rule to “no begging at the table.”
Instead, she has taken what you intended as a general rule and figured out that not all the humans know or care about this rule. Indeed, she has exploited the begging loophole (along with her long blond eyelashes and her talent at manipulating your humans…) to establish two different rules: She has determined that the specific rule is “do not beg from mom” and the general rule about begging is “it depends.”
Then, she has decided that she needs to figure out which rule each new human uses. Some will be sticklers; some will be softies.
Unfortunately, the more people in a household, the more likely it is that they will enforce rules inconsistently. Even in a household of one, alas, it is possible (likely!) to enforce rules inconsistently, leading the dog to learn rules that are quite different from what was intended.