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Everything, everywhere - just not all at once

If the behaviour you've trained at home, breaks down in the big, wide world, you may need to teach your dog to generalise.

Humans are prone to sweeping generalisations. We take one personal experience and firmly believe it applies to everyone, everywhere, in all contexts*. With dogs, not so much. They don't generalise easily. They can be quick at acquiring a new skill, but might only apply it in the exact context in which you trained it. Cue frustration all round.

If you’re suffering from this Cluedo effect (only getting a reliable training result in one location, with one person, in one set of circumstances), tedious as it might seem, you need to put in some hard graft to help your dog generalise.

If you want a rock-solid down stay so you can meet up with friends in the pub, you may need to train and practise it in different contexts – in different rooms at home, in the garden, in the park with kids playing ball and dogs passing, at a friend's house. Initially, you might need to go back to the beginning of the training process in every new context, but over time, they’ll start to generalise and it will all go faster.

If you want your enthusiastically foraging dog to give you a ‘leave it’ when they’ve found a deer carcase in the woods, just like they do with a handful of treats in the kitchen at home, you need to proof it in different contexts. Train and retrain in different locations with ‘leave-it’ targets of increasing value. Start with treats or cheese, say, and work up to a marrowbone. Reset to zero if you’re not getting the behaviour in a new location or with a new target and train it as if you're teaching the behaviour for the first time..

The same rules apply to recall, loose-lead walking and the whole gamut of obedience behaviours. If you don't put in the time to help them generalise, they’ll keep rehearsing the ‘crime’ of ignoring your cues when they don’t see how they apply. Sadly, there aren’t any instant fixes, despite the impression you sometimes get on TV.

And if you’re doing a programme of gradual desensitisation and counter-conditioning for a fearful dog, bear the generalisation principle in mind here, too. It can give you a helpful measure of how much progress you’re making. For example, if your dog is afraid of strangers and you’re now getting a happy response in your local park to the people you see regularly, what happens with people you haven’t seen before? Are you getting a positive response more quickly with each new stranger they see? If you are, that’s good news – your dog is making the leap from ‘these particular people predict good stuff’ to ‘all people predict good stuff.’

This ‘everything, everywhere’ approach can sound impossibly hard to do in the real world where you’ve all got jobs to do, lives to lead. We feel your pain. But the good news is that once you’ve trained a few behaviours in this way, they’ll start to generalise every new behaviour you teach without having to repeat the training in different contexts. Some dogs do this more quickly than others, but all will eventually.

If you're feeling overwhelmed with all the training you need to do with your dog, think of it this way: for the next three weeks, what is the one thing that will make your life together easier and more fun? Focus on that and manage the rest. By management, we mean leads or long lines if you've got no recall, or (once you’ve got your dog accustomed to them) haltis or headcollars or muzzles, as necessary, if you've got pulling or reactivity. You can also just avoid problem ‘hotspots’ for your dog while you work on the other parts of your training programme. You don’t need to tackle everything all at once. When you’ve got your priority behaviour trained really well, you can move onto something else. Be random in locations and times of day. Take opportunities for a bit of ad hoc training when you can. The more you do, the faster they’ll generalise.

And with obedience, if you don’t need ‘practically perfect in every way’ for every behaviour, that’s just fine. If you don’t mind a bit of pulling on the lead, but a solid sit stay is an absolute must, put your efforts there. Provided you, your dog and others you meet are safe and not distressed or disrupted going about their lives, train for what counts for you. Because time with your dog should be a joy, not a chore. Make the most of it.

*PS: Yup, for the irony spotters amongst you, we know that opening sentence was a global population-scale generalisation.

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