Firstly, a note on generalisation. Humans are impeccable generalists. We generalise constantly without even realising that we’re doing it. It makes life easier, safer and it requires less cognitive output than analysing each situation independently. We know to respect people in uniform, we understand how to behave in specific ways around people of authority. We might automatically boycott all Thai food after one bout of food poisoning with it. We draw expectations and premature conclusions about how safe an area is based on how well the lawns are mowed, how much litter is on the street, how big the houses are. Its not always appropriate or fair, but we’re cognitively wired to do it anyway.
Dogs on the other hand have a tougher time of generalising. They draw emotional generalisations reasonably easily - such as a fear of fireworks generalising to a fear of thunderstorms. Or a negative experience with a black Labrador generalising to a negative association with all labradors, or all black dogs, or all dogs. But they struggle with behavioural generalisations. A puppy who has just learnt to sit in the lounge cant easily generalise how to sit on the street without a little help. We get dogs who are impeccably focused and well behaved at the dog training club, but switched off and a nightmare at home or the dog park. We teach them to ‘leave’ a piece of kibble on the floor, and then wonder why they won’t ‘leave’ the cat on the opposite side of the road. We get stuck, because we train dogs CONTEXTUALLY.
Context VS Concept
When teaching a dog something completely new, we tend to teach that new behaviour initially in a specific context, and therefore our dogs struggle to understand what we are wanting outside of that context.
‘On your bed’ will mean go and lie down on that specific brown fluffy dog bed, in the corner of this lounge, when I’m standing this far away from it and pointing directly at it. That is CONTEXTUAL learning. The dog understands, as long as the they’re being asked in a specific context.
‘Leave it’ would mean leave the pile of kibble on the kitchen floor and redirect your attention back onto me when your lead is on and I’m wearing my treat bag.
Conceptual training is about breaking those contextual barriers and teaching dogs to generalise their new lessons beyond specific behaviours and into broader concepts. Its about teaching a dog a set of guidelines which they can then copy and apply to new circumstances. It requires they problem solve and discriminate; and it opens their world up to a much deeper level of understanding and communication with us.
‘On your bed’ could eventually mean go and lie down on whatever I am pointing at that varies from the floor substrate regardless of where we are and where I’m standing. This could include a couch at someone else house, a dog bed in an office, a towel under a cafe table, a door mat in local shop - literally anything.
‘Leave it’ could eventually mean redirect your attention away from whatever it is you’re currently paying attention to. This could be a person in a dog park they’re excited to run up and meet, a cat on the opposite side of the road they really want to chase, a Mc Donalds wrapper on your walk they want to eat, your dinner plate on the coffee table, those socks they want to steal - again, literally anything.
If you’re a total dog nerd, you can take this stuff pretty far. Most concept training refers to advanced skills like teaching your dog left from right, big from small, hard from soft, same from different. You can teach them to count, to copy. The sky is the limit. If this stuff interests you, let me know and i’ll make a video specifically about it.
However if you’re not a total dog nerd, this idea is still relevant. Have a think about the behaviours your dog already knows. Which can they reliably perform in some situations vs all situations? Which behaviours have they figured out how to generalise from a specific context to a general concept (also known as proofing)?
Teach behaviours in as many environments and situations as possible. We like to use the 3 D’s to get started: Distance, Duration, Distraction.
If your dog can lie down on cue when in front of you in the lounge, generalise this behaviour by teaching them to lie down on the street, in the dog park, when 5m away from you, 50m away from you. Help them to generalise rather than expecting them to generalise.
Does loose leash walking on the street mean loose leash walking in a grassy field? How are they supposed to know? Teach them again in the new context, start from scratch. They’re not naughty if they don’t respond out of context, they’re confused.
How many different contexts your dog will need to be taught a behaviour in before they can generalise that behaviour will vary significantly between breeds, individuals and, unfortunately, handler skills. However, the more concepts your dog learns, the quicker they are to pick up new ones. They begin to generalise the very meaning of a concept and apply those guidelines to life. ‘Based on previous experience, doing this here probably also means doing it there too.’
An even cooler idea is ‘concept sandwiching’. Once your dog understands a few concepts, you can capitalise on those to help develop new behaviours.
I had a little play with my border collie Tory with this idea. See video below.
My goal behaviour (for no other reason than a bit of fun) was for Tory to be able to walk a fair distance whilst balancing a cup of water on her head. Now if she didn’t already have a few concepts under her belt, this would have taken an age to achieve. Which is why I used Tory and not my puppy, Forrest! Luckily, she had 2 crucial concepts which made a difficult behaviour super easy. Concept #1: Tory is a herding dog, and as such she loves to stalk things. We harnessed this as a puppy and taught her how to stalk and creep up slowly onto her toys, again, just for the hell of it. So she already knows how to walk slowly and carefully on cue towards a specific item.
Concept #2: Tory is super intense and wants to work ALL THE TIME. We developed a game years ago where she could get the work she desires while we lazy humans could continue to watch TV. We taught her how to balance stuff on her head for excessive lengths of time! She can balance 1 item, 5 items, 15 items - as many as you can place on her. And she’ll stay still as a statue until you release her. She loves it, we think she’s nuts.
Obstacles - there are always some. Firstly, if Tory is balancing something on her head, she’s not super keen to move. She’s doing a job, and that job requires being a statue. So I had to retrain her to learn that balancing was the goal, not the statue part. This is where her careful slow stalking concept came into play. You can both move, and balance at the same time. This required a million repetitions of asking her to make slight movements and then reinforcing her BIG TIME. At first it didn’t matter if the cup dropped, we reinforced the effort she put in. Later we upped the criteria and said that actually it only counts if the cup doesn’t drop. So be careful. Half a dozen 10minute sessions later, and voila! A successful concept sandwich. She’ll now walk carefully but confidently with something balancing on her head.
The moral of this story is not to show off this difficult behaviour I managed to teach my dog. In fact its quite the opposite. This was easy, because of her previous training history - in this case with a couple of completely pointless games. Dog trainer's dogs DO pick up new behaviours and ideas quicker. They’re not smarter or any more trainable, they’ve just been given more opportunities to learn, and to learn how to learn. They’ve done primary school, intermediate and college, and now they’re getting A’s at uni. The moral is that we expect A LOT from our dogs, and often throw uni level exams at them when they’ve barely passed a primary school education. The more stuff you teach your dog, and the more you try to generalise contextual behaviours into conceptual ones, the better you’re setting them up to learn future, harder stuff. If you want your dog to thrive in your lifestyle, train them and give them the tools to succeed. Everyone will be happier for it x
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