Friday, May 1, 2009

Clicker Training Part 6: Generalizing Behaviors

One of the strongest benefits of clicker training is its ability to train dogs to generalize behaviors. It's extremely important for service dogs to be able to generalize behaviors so they can perform them in any environment. Service dogs are working dogs and they must be able to consistently perform behaviors regardless of environment or potential distractions. That means they must lie quietly under a table at a restaurant without barking, begging for food or scavenging from the floor. That means they must walk calmly on a loose leash next to their partner through a crowded mall or park. That means they must have excellent manners. The goal of training is to teach self control, which generalizes to any environment.

Why is generalizing a behavior important? Dogs, like humans, are creatures of habit. Once they learn where and when to perform a certain behavior, they will almost unfailingly continue giving that behavior in that same environment. This in itself is not a problem. You may want your dog to always give the same behavior in the same environment. The problem appears when you want your dog to perform that same behavior in a different environment. If he hasn't generalized the behavior, he may not be able to perform it as well, or maybe not at all, in the new environment. For example, let's say that you've always trained your dog to come when you're outside in the yard. Your dog is romping in the yard and having a great time, but it's time to come back into the house. While you're standing at your door, you call for your dog to come, clicking and treating when he comes. Soon your dog become super-trained to always come immediately as soon as you call him to come to the house. He now associates "come" with "come back inside the house" because that's how you always practiced this behavior. Now let's say you're standing in your living room and you call your dog (who is already in the house) to come. He'll probably look at you as if to say "Why are you saying 'come'? I'm already in the house." He may not respond by coming to you because in his mind, he has already performed the behavior just by being inside the house. So it's important to practice behaviors in many different environments so your dog learns to perform them regardless of where he is and what's happening around him.

To help your dog generalize a behavior, practice clicker training at different times of the day, in different rooms of the house. You should practice outside in your yard, or while you take a walk. Is a friend coming to visit? Take a few minutes to practice a behavior so your dog gets used to performing it no matter who is around.

Once your dog has generalized a behavior and can perform it in any environment, he is more likey to continue performing that behavior many years down the road.

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