When training our dogs, we begin in low distraction environments like the home. We do this because it sets our dogs up to focus on us: greatly increasing their overall success. Unfortunately, for many dogs, the training will both start and stop there. When eventually taken into busy environments, these dogs are often labeled as ‘stubborn’, ‘willful’ or ‘disobedient’, and guardians can become frustrated and resentful of their seemingly unruly pups.
Why Train in Real World Scenarios?
Studies have shown that unlike humans, dogs are less likely to be successful when performing behaviors in environments and situations that significantly differ from those that they learned them in. In other words, dogs struggle to generalize learned behaviors to novel contexts. This means if a dog has learned to come when they hear their name at home, we would be remiss in taking that to mean that they’ve learned how to come when called in all of the different scenarios that they might encounter in their time on this planet. Fortunately, with a little bit of effort on our part we can help our dogs learn how to generalize.
The importance of training in the real world cannot be stressed enough. Understanding the importance of generalizing behaviors, and how to set your dog up for success in busy environments is key to being a compassionate, and responsible dog guardian.
Teaching Dogs to Generalize
Once your dog has been consistently successful at performing a behavior indoors, it’s time to take your training into novel environments. This may be your friends’ homes, neighborhood streets, parks, nearby shops, and any other environments in which you’ll want your dog to be able to perform in the future.
Heavily reinforce your dog when they are successful! By creating a reinforcement history for successfully performing cued behaviors in new environments, you show your dog that it pays off for them to respond in places other than the kitchen. Because behavior that is reinforced is most likely to repeat itself, your dog will be more likely to respond positively the next time that you cue them.
BEHAVIORS TO GENERALIZE:
- Loose leash walking
- Attention (eye contact)
- Name recognition
- Relaxation training
- Leave it
- Drop it
EXAMPLES OF GENERALIZATION:
- Asking your dog to practice their threshold manners when going into a friend’s house or a store
- Heading to the park to practice recall before going off leash
- Reinforcing loose leash walking in new environments regularly
- Practicing cues like ‘drop it’ and ‘leave it’ on leash walks with toys and treats
- Relaxation training at a new outdoor cafe or at a sidewalk bench
- Rehearsing polite greetings with a friend
- Teaching other family members/ friends how to practice cues with your dog (generalizing to new handlers)
Struggling to Train in New Environments?
The difference between the sterile and familiar indoor environment and more distracting, novel ones is steep and most guardians and pups will run into some challenges during the transition. Here are some ways to help make training exercises easier for you and your pup:
1. LOWER CRITERIA
Don’t be afraid to go back to an earlier step in your training if your dog is struggling. For example, if your dog can’t sit when you show them a hand signal outdoors, lower criteria by going back to using a food lure. Once they are successful on a couple of repetitions, you can start to fade out the food and work back up to using the hand signal again.
2. DECREASE DISTRACTIONS
Not all spaces are created equal. Some environments are more difficult to train in than others. Stick to quieter outdoor areas such as side streets as opposed to main avenues. Work in natural green spaces such as public parks if they are available to you. Enter shops at off-peak hours, when they are less likely to be crowded.
If your dog really struggles to focus outside due to significant overarousal, fear, or anxiety you can bridge the gap between practicing indoors and outdoors by training in liminal spaces. Such spaces include apartment hallways, lobbies, front stoops, balconies, and porches. Even opening the front door can add an element of novelty that otherwise might have been absent from your training session.
3. RECONSIDER YOUR REINFORCER
As you enter more distracting environments, consider increasing the value of your reinforcement to help keep your dog’s attention on you. Your dog’s kibble, which they love indoors, might not be as valuable to them when it’s competing with the likes of garbage juice (yum) and squirrel smells. Obviously, what counts as high value varies from dog to dog, but we’ve found that deli meats, hot dogs, and string cheeses tend to be big hits with even the most distracted of pups.
4. TIMING IS EVERYTHING
When compared with dogs, humans are laughably slow. This is especially true when it comes to rewarding desired responses in our canine companions. If we take too long to notice desired responses from our dog, they might move on to performing not-so-desirable ones. One way we can avoid this is by practicing good timing. Pinpoint the moment they are successful by using your marker word and quickly follow up with a reinforcer.
Things to Remember
DON'T REPEAT YOUR CUE
Most guardians are tempted to ask their dog to sit seven more times if they aren’t responsive on the first try. By repeating cues over and over again to no avail, we risk our dogs learning that our words have no importance at all. This creates a dog that is much less likely to respond in the future. Instead, use the steps outlined above to decrease the level of difficulty of the exercise so your dog is able to succeed no matter what.
MAKE IT FUN FOR EVERYONE
When you put in the time and effort into generalizing your pup’s training, bringing them into new spaces can quickly change from being a stressful and frustrating experience into one that is pleasant and enjoyable for all parties involved. So grab your gear and get out there. Happy training!