Probably one of the most common phrases I hear in class is “My dog does this exercise (sit, down, walk on a loose leash) perfectly at home. Why is he not doing it the same way in class (or at the park, or on the beach, or at my friend’s house)”?
What has happened in this case is that all the learning that the dog has done has been associated specifically with the environment in which the learning took place. The dog has been taught to sit in a particular part of your home, in front of you, with you holding the treats in your hand. When he hears the word “Sit”, this is the picture he has in his mind. This is the picture that he associates with the word “Sit”. So when you go for a walk in your neighbourhood and you ask him to sit next to you three of four houses down the road, he looks at you as though he’d never heard the word “Sit” before in his life. You have drastically changed the picture he has in his mind of the behaviour of sitting. Invariably and unfortunately, this confused dog is labelled either stubborn or hard-headed.
It is important to understand that dogs do not generalize behaviour well. As humans we do this very well. To us transferring learnt behaviour to different environments is very easy and we do it all the time. So that even though we may have learnt to write our names on lined paper with a pencil, we are able to repeat that learnt behaviour in countless variations without even thinking about it. We have generalized the behaviour of writing our name.
To help our dog with generalizing behaviours we have to take his learnt behaviours “on the road”. After we have taught him the basic behaviour in a familiar place then we need to teach him that he can do that behaviour anywhere and the best way to do this is to practise his learnt behaviour wherever and whenever we can. We may have to lower our criteria for that particular behaviour and we may also have to increase our rate of reinforcement to get that behaviour in the dog park, or at the shopping mall, but this way the dog will learn to generalize very quickly with a little help and patience from you. The good news is that generalization is habitual. Once your dog has generalized a few behaviours, he will begin to generalize others very, very quickly.