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 togeneralize 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.
It’s a paradox: Training a dog takes a lifetime; but everyone has time to do it. How’s that?
Dogs, like humans, continue to learn throughout their lives. It is, in fact, possible to teach old dogs new tricks, and doing so enriches their lives (and yours).
At the same time, each training “session” can be only minutes long.
People often think training a dog takes hours a day and requires special skills and they just don’t have time for it. Instead, they spend hours cleaning up messes made by unschooled puppies or rearrange their schedules to walk their reactive dogs very early in the morning, hoping to avoid other dogs. Or, rather than spend 1 minute a day brushing their dogs’ teeth, they spend hundreds of dollars annually and accept the many risks associated with sedating their dogs for a professional cleaning.
Here’s the thing. You have the time — and the skills — to teach your dog the basic manners that will make your lives (yours, your dog’s, your family members’, and your guests’) better.
Young dogs can only handle a few minutes of training at a time. Even if you’re doing formal training, such as teaching tricks or putting behaviors like sit, lie down, or keeping 4 paws on the floor when greeting people, on cue, you can really only actively train for a few minutes at a time. Under 5 minutes for puppies; maybe 10-15 minutes for older dogs. But 5 minutes is fine for them, too. You can cover a lot of ground in 5 minutes.
Training doesn’t have to be formal, though. You’re teaching your dog how to behave all the time, whether you think about it or not. What makes it informal training is thinking about it — how would you like your dog to behave? And how do you teach her what you want? Then, build that into daily routines.
You feed your dog, right? (I hope so!) Teach your dog to stay out of the kitchen or in a specific spot, out of your way, while you prepare her meal by guiding her to the spot and saying, “Wait on your mat,” — or any cue words you want. As long as you use the same cue each time, you’re fine. The dog will learn to associate the place, and the words, with meal prep. The other piece of this equation is a “release” word that gives the dog permission to come over to her bowl once her meal is ready. It can be the same release word, like, “OK” that you use for other things, like going out the front door or greeting another dog or … just about anything you’d like your dog to wait for permission to do.
Your dog already knows how to sit and lie down, but putting those behaviors on cue control means that you can ask for them. All that means is teaching the dog to associate hearing a word, the cue, with doing the action. In other words, learning that sit means sit. One way to build this association is catching the dog doing the behavior and naming it. Another is using a lure, like a cookie, to induce the dog to sit (or lie down, etc.) while introducing the cue. Many trainers practice eliciting the behavior before using the cue to be sure that the dog learns to associate the right behavior with the cue and not, say, think that “sit” means “sniff my hand for a cookie.”
Here’s the daily routine part: You do stuff every day that your dog could and maybe should sit for: Put down a bowl of food, put on a leash for a walk, go out a door or down stairs, pet your dog, allow your dog to greet a visitor. Practice using the sit cue and waiting for the dog to sit before doing these things. The meal itself can be the reward for sitting nicely while you’re serving it; for other behaviors, you might reward with attention and petting or use very small treats as rewards. (Very small treats means maybe one Charlee Bear or piece of kibble; not a huge dog biscuit. The idea is to teach the dog, not make him obese!)
Some behaviors are more challenging. Teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash, for example, takes a long time. If your dog is very reactive to people, cats, or other dogs on walks, you may need to call in a trainer for assistance. But for basic manners, and even fun things, like shaking hands or bringing you things you’ve dropped, spending a few minutes a day teaching your dog will produce great results. Besides, it’s fun!
In last week’s post, I described some things to consider when choosing a dog trainer for your puppy or adult dog. Here, I’ll provide a few resources to help you locate a suitable trainer.
Professional organization listings
Two professional dog training organizations that I have been involved with have directories of positive trainers. These are a great place to start your search — or continue it if efforts to get recommendations from dog-obsessed friends have failed:
Pet Professionals Guild — This is a 100 percent positive trainer group that is very serious about continuing education. They publish a journal and a blog; have regular webinars, workshops, and conferences, and are a truly dedicated group of professionals.
Their mission statement: The Pet Professional Guild is a membership organization representing pet industry professionals who are committed to results based, science based force-free training and pet care.
APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers) — The APDT is dedicated to “least intrusive, minimally aversive” training approach. This is a mostly positive approach that emphasizes humane and effective strategies to change behavior. They offer a ton of resources, have huge (really fun) conferences, and are also very dedicated professionals.
Dog training clubs
Many cities and counties have dog training clubs. These vary widely in their size, philosophy, and what they offer. St. Petersburg, Florida, has a very active club where you can find puppy classes, obedience, Rally, agility, other dog sports, and much more. Google, ask fellow-dog owners, and dig around to see what your city offers.
Many shelters offer classes, especially to people who’ve adopted their dogs. But most are open to the community, reasonably priced, and focused on basic manners or obedience.
Ask lots of questions
Whichever path leads you to a potential trainer or class, ask about the approach used and what equipment is recommended. If anyone says to bring a choke or prong collar to your first class, run! If you’re advised to do something that seems off, ask for an explanation. Follow your instincts; your role is to teach and protect your dog. You do not have to hurt him to get him to behave!
Most trainers love to talk dogs. If you have questions about (mis)behavior, problems, or simply are new to dog-parenting, ask, ask, and ask more questions.
Don’t be put off if the trainer suggests more classes. Building a relationship takes work and time. Training classes are a good place to learn what to do. And, realistically, most people don’t practice much between classes, so continuing to attend ensures that you continue to work on behavior problems in a calm place where you have help — which beats yelling at your dog in frustration whenever she does something “bad.” Even “frivolous” classes like trick training and scent work are great for building your relationship, improving communication with your dog, and just having fun together.
When you are just getting to know your dog, the focus should be on building a connection and communicating. A positive trainer will help you develop skills in communicating to the dog what you want her to do and also in understanding your dog’s communication with you. That is the best foundation for your relationship.
A more “traditional” or obedience focused trainer might introduce punishments for “bad” behavior — things the dog does that you don’t like. At any point in your relationship, but especially at the beginning, this has the effect of cutting off communication with the dog. The dog begins to worry about what might trigger the next punishment. Often, you’ve given the dog little or no (or very unclear) information about what you do want her to do. On the other hand, when she does perfectly normal doggy things, like having accidents, if she’s a young puppy, or eating some interesting smelling thing, unpleasant and scary things happen. This does not build trust.
Red flags to look out for: Trainers who advocate using harsh tools, like prong collars, on puppies or very early in training; trainers who routinely use shock collars or who expect you to use them for an extended period of time (more than 1-2 uses); trainers who emphasize the need to “be the alpha.”
Does the person do classes, private training, or board-and-train? A combination?
You may have preferences for a class vs. private; board-and-train might sound tempting. Think through the options.
For a puppy, a great combination is a puppy play with short training classes. The opportunity to play with other puppies in a supervised, appropriate (size, age, play style) group is essential to developing good doggy social skills.
If you have an older dog, classes and private training are good options. Private training is ideal for focused work on a specific problem. Classes that focus on reactive dogs or trick training or scent training or some other fun or serious topic can also be helpful. It’s good to see how other dogs and their humans do things, it’s fun to meet the other people and make connections. General manners or basic obedience classes, Canine Good Citizen training, or classes geared toward teaching manners for dogs who are out and about with their humans are all fun and helpful. They tend to focus on things that every dog needs to learn: walking nicely on leash, staying calm around other dogs and people, not jumping, settling quietly. Your options may be limited, depending on where you live, but I hope you can find something that works.
Board-and-train might be a good choice for some adult dogs for some types of training. I do not recommend it with puppies because the puppy should be forming her primary bond with you / your family — not with a trainer. Obviously it can work; many service and guide dogs spend their puppyhoods with families and then transfer their bond to their new partner. But given the choice, I think your new puppy belongs with you.
Choosing board-and-train to work on a specific problem or if you need to leave your dog for a time period anyhow (maybe during a 2-week no-dog vacation) could work out well — if you are realistic in your expectations.
The trainer, likely an experienced professional (choose carefully), will probably make a lot of progress with the dog during the training weeks. But when you get back, you and the dog have made no progress at all. That is, the dog has no reason to behave any differently with you in your home environment than she did before you left.
Many dog owners mistakenly assume that the trainer imparts knowledge to the dog and the dog then knows exactly what to do in similar situations from that time forward.
For example, your dog goes nuts when she sees another dog, a squirrel, or a cat when you’re out for walks. The trainer spends 2 weeks working on this, and is able to walk the dog calmly through a park filled with squirrels, cats, and other dogs out for walks or even playing off leash. So you’ll have no more problems, right?
Your dog is going to go just as nuts with you as she did before the training, unless and until you work with her to change that.
The trainer has taught your dog an alternative behavior, but the dog still needs to learn that she has to use that behavior with you. That requires undoing an established pattern (the dog going nuts, you freaking out …) and learning a new one. This will be much easier since the dog has already learned the new pattern, but…
Board and train is not a replacement for work, lots of hard work, with your dog.
I’ll cover more trainer-selection criteria in another post.
A puppy I know has trouble with greetings. She’s so excited to meet people that she bounds to the door and, essentially, assaults them. That is pretty normal puppy behavior; they’re not born with perfect manners (who knew?). And people usually mean play, treats, toys … all kinds of good things. So of course puppies get excited.
There are a few possible responses to this assault. Most people do the natural (but also among the worst) thing: They exclaim at the puppy’s cuteness and pet the puppy. Hm, thinks the puppy, people love being jumped on and even gnawed on at the door.
But … most people don’t love being jumped on and gnawed on by puppies. And puppies have a tendency to grow. Larger-breed puppies might be cute when they jump on visitors as 8- or 10-week old balls of fluff, but even the people who think that is cute are less amused a few weeks later, when the 4- or 6-month old adolescent, or even the 60-lb adult engages in the same greeting.
“Managing” the situation by removing the puppy before answering the door is also a common response, though this does not teach the puppy manners and therefore requires a lifetime commitment from the humans. It’s also not great for times that people show up at the door unannounced, as delivery people, mail carriers, and relatives tend to do.
So, the puppy must learn some manners.
One slow option, with great long-term payoff, is teaching the puppy to do something else: Get a toy. Sit. Sit and offer a paw (charming!). Go to her bed or crate.
A supposedly easier option is “correcting” the puppy. Unfortunately, there are still many old-school trainers out there who use physical “corrections” (a euphemism for physical punishment), for all manner of infractions where punishment is really inappropriate. Even more horrifying, many of them apply these techniques to puppies.
So, this pushy puppy’s trainer suggested using a prong collar. She gave the whole speech about how it doesn’t hurt and is better than a choke chain. I know the speech because I used to believe it. But, a prong collar is a choke chain. Even worse, it’s a choke chain with dozens of pointy spikes designed to dig into your puppy’s neck when you pull on the leash, tightening the … choke chain. Technically, it’s a “limited-slip” collar; the chain only tightens so much, so you won’t choke the puppy to death. How comforting.
Its sole purpose is to hurt the dog (to “get her attention,” the trainer will say. Yep, if someone jerked a pointy chain tightly around my throat, that would surely get my attention …). So, yes, it hurts, unless your puppy is a thick-necked muscular breed, but even then … is that really how you want to get your best friend’s attention?
And, more to the point, it doesn’t work.
OK, yes, if you set the puppy up, have the puppy dressed in prong collar and leash when someone comes to the door (as you’ve prearranged), and the puppy jumps, and you give a perfectly timed correction, the puppy most likely won’t succeed in jumping on that visitor. If you consider that “working,” your bar for success is pretty low.
Will you keep the puppy on leash and in full prong at all times? Will you be holding the leash at all times? If so, then you are a monster and do not deserve a puppy. If not, then it’s quite likely that the puppy will still succeed in jumping on people. Often.
So, what the puppy will learn, very quickly, is that she can get away with jumping when she’s not leashed and pronged. She’ll also learn that being leashed leads to being hurt and that being near you leads to being hurt. Those are not things you want your puppy to learn, are they? I mean, you do want to be able to hang out go for walks together that the puppy does not regard as torture. At least, I hope you do.
It also fails because it doesn’t teach her anything positive. It doesn’t teach her what you want her to do, for example (sit, get toy, etc.). It doesn’t even really teach her what you don’t want her to do because there’s too much going on for her to understand that the fact that she might jump is what triggers the “correction.” And few dog owners, especially when frazzled and dealing with puppy and visitor and who knows what else, have great timing; there’s no way you will always deliver the “correction” right at the moment she’s jumping. So the puppy might think it’s the doorbell or her barking or people reaching to pet her or any number of things that are causing the painful jerk on her neck.
What this painful “correction” might teach her is that people at the door are scary because they cause her to get hurt. She might even figure out that people at the door cause her humans to go crazy and attack her.
In either case, since the puppy cannot prevent people from coming to the door (or avoid them, if you’ve got her on a leash), she’ll do what every scared canine is hardwired to do: defend herself. That’s right. “Correcting” the puppy by hurting her — and failing to teach her what she should do — can make her behavior at the door far worse by convincing her that it’s a threat. She might growl, lunge, bark, even try to bite people once she connects their arrival with the painful leash jerk and pronged choke.
I had a trainer tell me that I had to use a prong collar on Cali to teach her to heel and not get excited about the other dogs in class. Cali was an older puppy at that point, maybe 7 or 8 months, and in full-fledged obnoxious adolescence. Even so, she was a puppy. A golden retriever puppy, for goodness’ sake! If an adult human cannot teach a puppy to behave without resorting to brute force, she shouldn’t have a puppy. (Same goes for a toddler!)
I didn’t use it. I decided that I wanted a relationship with my dog that was not based on scaring her or hurting her, but on teaching her. Granted, her leash manners are not perfect, and she still gets really excited about meeting people when we’re on walks. But visitors? She runs to get a toy and prances around with the toy. No jumping, no barking.
Fortunately for my puppy friend, her parents won’t be using a prong collar either. But the prong collar solution appeals to many puppy owners (and sadly, trainers) because it seems to have an immediate effect and it’s “easy.”
Yes, actual teaching takes longer. It also offers a real solution to the problem: You end up with a dog who greets people politely, offers a toy, or goes off to her own space. Isn’t that who you want to spend the next 12 or 14 years sharing your home with?
“Our conservation detection dogs are agile, portable, and endlessly trainable. They are an efficient, highly sensitive, and non-invasive way to gather high-quality data.”
The above quotation is from the website of Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a Montana-based organization whose dog teams literally travel the globe helping to save endangered species, find and route out invasive species, and intercept contraband cargo that includes products from endangered animals.
The coolest … okay, one of many, many cool aspects of their work is that the dogs they train are the “bad” dogs who wind up in shelters because no one can handle them. No regular family or ordinary adopter, that is. The high-energy, obsessive dogs who will do anything, anything at all, for the chance to play one more game of tug or get that silly human to throw the ball. Even better, the organization reaches out to shelters and teaches staff how to recognize these high-drive dogs and connect them with organizations, like Working Dogs for Conservation — or police, military, search and rescue, or other organizations that train and work detection dogs.
WD4C offers living proof that dogs can master more than one job. The dogs — endlessly trainable, remember — are taught to detect multiple, maybe dozens, of scents. That makes them versatile partners and enables teams to work in all kinds of places. The dogs learn to detect scents underwater as well as on land. In the water, they can detect pollutants like metals or pharmaceuticals, and they can distinguish between species of fish and aquatic plants, to identify invaders. At a talk I recently attended, the research director, Megan Parker, said that the dogs could distinguish between rainbow trout and brown trout, a feat that many Montanans would find impossible. They’re currently teaching dogs to detect brucellosis, a highly bacterial infection that affects, among others, cattle, bison, and elk in Montana.
In the service dog world, I’ve heard people claim that a single dog couldn’t be trained to, say, guide a person with impaired vision and retrieve dropped items; that person would need two service dogs. I’ve heard pet owners (and, sadly, pet trainers) claim that dogs can’t learn different rules for different situations or understand tasks that are too similar. This is absurd, of course.
So maybe the best thing about WD4C is that it believes in dogs: It believes in dogs’ ability to constantly learn — the demo dog at the talk is a 12-year-old Malinois who has been working for 11+ years. He’s still learning new tasks. It believes in the hard-to-handle dogs that others write off — and saves many of them from certain death in shelters. It even believes in humans’ ability to learn about dogs, sharing training methods and research with organizations and individuals who are eager to understand how incredibly capable dogs are — and to teach them to use their noses in countless ways.
No, I am not getting a new puppy! A good friend is getting one though, so I have been thinking about puppy prep lately. In no particular order, here are some things we talked about.
We visited my favorite local training school, Sit Happens, so that my friend could meet her puppy-to-be’s kindergarten teacher. We watched several young puppies play in carefully supervised small groups, and talked about drop-in playtime, classes, and, in good time, a more formal manners class. Little Maisy will be very well educated. Best of all, I get to go to puppy class, and I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night with the puppy!
We selected a good quality, reasonably priced food for Maisy, making sure that it was from a brand on the Whole Dog Journal’s approved list. They do all the homework of choosing quality foods, checking on the manufacturing processes, where ingredients are sourced, and whether the foods are nutritionally sound and include high-quality, identified, meat-based proteins.
I suggested getting lots of chew toys, especially ones that can hide treats. Maisy will spend a few hours at home each morning and afternoon while her family is off at work or school. She’ll need to develop a hobby, preferably one that doesn’t entail thousands of dollars in repairs and remodels to the house. So. Chew toys.
A play pen
I lent the doting parents an ex-pen to create a safe space for Maisy when she can’t be supervised. I suggested taping heavy-duty plastic to the floor, as my friends did when our girls (Cali and Dora) were young. Whenever the humans are away or distracted, I advised putting Maisy in her safe space with some chew toys. Of course, when they are home, they will spend lots of time playing with her and cuddling her outside the pen. And rushing her outside!
Maisy also has a large crate to sleep in, complete with cozy crate pad. And a plush bed for when she’s mature enough to sleep on it, not destroy it. Cali was ready for a big-girl bed pretty quickly, and Maisy might well show similar good sense and appreciation for creature comforts.
I advised getting the puppy used to having her teeth brushed right away. It’s best to start slowly, letting her lick some tasty chicken-flavored dog toothpaste off the brush (or a finger), then gently starting to brush. Cali loved brushing her teeth as a puppy. Now she’s reluctantly willing to do it, for a cookie.
Same goes for nail trims and brushing. Start right away but introduce it all very gradually and use lots of treats. It’s so much easier to trim a dog’s nails when she’s used to having it done. Cali doesn’t love it, but I can Dremel her nails in a few minutes with minimal fuss. I know several people who cannot touch their dogs’ nails and whose vets or groomers need at least two helpers. It shouldn’t be that traumatic. If you are fortunate enough to get your dog as a youngster, take advantage of the opportunity to introduce grooming early and painlessly.
I advised the new puppy parents to rest up, since Maisy will demand a lot of time and energy during the first days as she settles in — and even more throughout her adolescence. I was exhausted for several weeks after getting Cali, and she was a pretty easy puppy.
It’s worth it though; Maisy will no doubt be a great addition to the family.