A Simple Process for Generalizing Behaviors

January 28, 2023

If your dog can give you a reliable cute sit in the kitchen, but can’t do it in the backyard, you might need to work on generalizing behaviors!


Generalization means the dog can apply a concept in many different situations.  When you teach a dog a new behavior, the context and cues in the environment contribute to the behavior.  For example, let’s say you have your dog sit when you put his food bowl down.  Cue the sit, put the food bowl down, release, and the dog eats.  If the only time you cue the sit is in the presence of the food bowl, that will become part of the cue.  Instead of the dog responding to the cue “sit,” he is responding to the environment and objects, like the food bowl, that are associated with that situation.


Generalizing Behaviors Can Be Hard!


Dogs often struggle with this concept of generalizing behaviors.  Because the environment in which the dog has learned a behavior becomes part of the cue to the dog, when that environment changes the dog is unsure about what behavior is expected.  Thankfully, this is a concept that we can teach our dogs!  Once you’ve generalized a particular behavior to a few different locations, dogs start to realize that the location isn’t important, but rather respond to the other cues, like the verbal cue, the hand signal, the body language, etc.  The more the dog practices the concept of generalization, the better he or she will get.


I want the dog to understand that “sit” means sit, regardless of the environment and contextual cues.  The sit cue is what cues the behavior, not the way you’re standing, or the fact that you have cookies in your hand, or that you have the food bowl.


Start Generalizing Behaviors Early in Training!


When you teach a new behavior, as soon as you can, take your dog to a new place.  This can be really simple, like even a different location in the same room!  Here’s an example of that.



Next, move to a different room in your house, like your kitchen or your bedroom.  Then you can try the back yard or the front yard.  Gradually increase the difficulty of the environment as you’re practicing generalization.  


Keep it Easy!


As we are teaching generalization to our dogs, we need to keep in mind that certain environments include more difficult distractions. Changing the location may add more challenges to the behaviors.  Be ready to simplify the behavior so you can build on success.  As your dog does well, you can start adding in extra challenges, but if at any point your dog struggles, be sure to break it down and make it easier for the dog.


If you want a step-by-step plan for how to generalize behaviors, as well as add distractions in a way that strengthen behaviors, check out my brand new class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, The PROOF is in the Training: Building Strong Behaviors!  Class starts on Feb. 1st.


Here’s an example of generalization. I took Excel to a brand new environment and worked on the Where’s Your Brain game.  I was really pleased with how well he did.



Don’t start to work on generalization of a behavior until your dog understands the cue in a low-distraction easy environment.  When you do move to a new location, pick a spot that has easier distractions to set the dog up for success.  Keep your rate of reinforcement high and remind yourself that the dog is still learning the cue!


I’m doing a week-long workshop all about generalization called From Here to There: A 7 Step Plan to Generalize Behaviors starting on March 3rd!  If you want to learn more, you can register for the workshop here!

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