Friday, January 21, 2022

Generalizing Cues

 Why won't my dog do what I ask?

Almost everyone knows to start training new cues or behaviors at home in a calm, quiet environment.  Our dogs learn quickly there, then we head out to have some fun on a walking trail running into a friend and try to show off our dog's new skill to our friend...and the dog stares at you like you're speaking a foreign language and they have no clue what you are asking.  Does this sound familiar?  If so, you want to keep reading to learn all about generalizing behavior and how that applies to Planning for Success.

Understanding How Dogs Generalize Cues

As humans we think of communication as talking, using our words, and teaching a dog to respond to certain cue words; sit, down, stay, etc.  Dogs think more in the context of the environment, where am I right now, what is my person doing, what else is happening around me, and what behavior can I do right now in this moment to earn that tasty treat my person is holding?  Listening to that verbal cue is the last thing on a dog's mind, and for many dogs the verbal cue is the last part of learning that they do with a specific behavior.  Now that doesn't mean we have to stop using verbal cues as a way to communicate with our dogs.  Instead that means we have to think of the bigger picture to help our dogs be more successful, especially early in their training of any new behavior.  

First that means that we need to pay attention to emotional and physical language we are presenting to our dog when we are training something new.  Hand signals are very common these days and most of us give visual signals whether we realize it or not.  I've got some cool games if you ever want to try to see if your dog is responding to your verbal or visual cues!  Distractions also play a role in how easily our dogs respond to our cues in other environments.  I'll be doing a more detailed blog on how to add in distractions slowly to increase your chances of success in your training session.  But one of the most commonly overlooked reasons that our dogs struggle to succeed is caused by environmental changes that are often out of our control.  Since we can't walk around inside a tent to block all the distractions in our environments, we can work to generalize our cues in multiple environments in a way that helps our dogs be successful.

Generalizing Behaviors at Home

You've been working hard to teach your dog a new behavior at home, for this example I'll use a down/stay.  You start by training in a quiet room whether that's a training room, living room, or bedroom, you generally practice in an environment where you can control or reduce the amount of distractions.  Once your dog starts to catch on, you move into different rooms of the house, now asking for a down/stay while you refill your water in the kitchen, then while you start a load of laundry, then while you brush your teeth.  It doesn't matter what you are doing while your dog is holding the position, the key is that you are practicing at different times of day and in different rooms.  While your hand signal that cues the down/stay remains the same in every room, the actions you do while your dog is holding position change.  Once your dog can hold the position inside the house, you generally start asking for it outside the house again in environments you can control such as your driveway or backyard during low distraction times.  By doing this, your adding in new elements to the cue.  The grass might be wet or there might be snow on the ground or any other changes in the surface where you are requesting the behavior.  Distractions become harder to control with birds, squirrel, and traffic that may suddenly appear.  With some repetition, practicing the cue in these multiple environments builds up the verbal & visual cues YOU are using and tones out the environmental cues that were present when you first started teaching the behavior indoors.  This will build up your fluency for the behavior by adding to the reinforcement history making the behavior a fun & rewarding behavior to do.

Generalizing Behaviors to Known Environments

The next phase would be to start asking for your behavior in environments that you visit frequently.  Depending on your routine, this might be a walking trail, near a park, your favorite pet friendly store, or a relative's house.  Since you are trying to set up for success, you only want to ask your dog to practice this new behavior in environments where they have a high chance of being successful.  Avoid heading out to your new destination to practice and jumping right into your training session!  Even in well known environments, your dog needs a few minutes to "read the newspaper" or get to know what is in that environment at that time.  Allow them to spend some time sniffing the environment, greeting friends, listening to all the sounds, etc.  Then once they have settled you can start your training off with some simple behaviors your dog has done in that environment in the past.  A great way to tell if your dog is interested more in the environment or ready to engage with you is running through a checklist of simple behavior chains.  I like to use my Body Positions Game where Azul does a series of hand targets to move around me into various positions because this adds more value to choosing to be with ME.  Any fun warm up style game or behavior chain will work, as long as it allows you to tell when you might be rushing your dog into a training session they are not ready for vs when your dog has sufficiently explored the environment and is ready to have fun with you.  This is really a critical step that I see lots of teams skipping!  As humans, we have limited time available for a training session and tend to have a one track mind of we need to accomplish this goal, then we can play.  Our dogs work the other way, they may appear to have a one track mind...gotta sniff, gotta sniff, gotta sniff!  But really they have a basic need to feel safe, calm, and happy before they are ready to learn new things, therefore allowing them to adjust to the environment before beginning the training session allows them to transition into focus and learning mode.

Generalizing in New Environments

The very last step in generalizing a cue is to practice the behavior in new environments.  This is especially important for working dogs such as Service Dogs & Therapy Dogs that visit new environments on a regular basis.  It's important to remember that this is the step where frustration tends to leak into our training sessions.  We tend to think that since our dog can easily keep a down/stay at home for 30 minutes or longer while we totally disengage to do a chore, we expect our dog to do this in all environments as well.  It's important to remember to lower your criteria when you are first practicing a newer behavior in a newer environment!  You will need to reinforcement much more frequently in places where distractions are more intense.  If after just a minute or two, your dog is starting to show signs of stress while you have asked them to down/stay you need to realize this and change your criteria to be successful.  Subtle signs of stress might be shifting their weight, whining, licking their lips, shaking off, etc.  Learn your dog's warning signs so you can end the training session on a successful note instead of pushing them to far into a state of being uncomfortable holding the position.  If you see signs of stress, allow your dog to stand up, change positions, take a short walk, or something else that involves movement before requesting another down/stay.  Alternating between 2 minutes of down/stay and 2 minutes of action, can help your dog to adjust to the environment relaxing into the down/stay position where you can reinforce more frequently until your dog can handle the behavior while still feeling safe, calm, and happy about holding the position.

In the dog training world, this is called PROOFING the behavior; doing the behavior in multiple environments successfully.  Once you have proofed a new behavior in multiple environments, you can start asking for that behavior in more real life situations vs just training sessions.  But remember to adjust your rate of reinforcement based on the distractions in the environment to help your dog be successful.  Reinforcement builds behaviors so if you want your dog to do a particular behavior such as hold a down/stay in a distracting environment you have to be prepared to reinforce that in some way.  I like to change up reinforcement at this stage, maybe using a treat some of the time, but also adding in the use of praise, touch or petting, and ending with a jackpot reward or game at the end of your activity.

This video shows a practice session where Azul is practicing his Service Dog level stay in our training room at home.  Cam is also practicing a stay in his kennel during this training session.


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