Fluency and Generalization in Dog Training

Two advanced dog training concepts that will turn your pup from unpredictable live-wire to obedient darling.

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[Updated June 29, 2018]

What’s your definition of a “well-trained dog?” For many people, a well-trained dog is one who knows how to perform a variety of behaviors. However, there are many dogs who will sit, lie down, stay, heel, and show off a few fun parlor tricks at home – but who look completely perplexed when asked to perform the same behaviors at an outdoor café, while visiting relatives or friends, or perhaps even when entering the ring at a dog show!

If you’ve ever found yourself saying, “But he does it at home!” while wondering why your dog fails to respond correctly when working in a new environment, you have acknowledged that your dog has not yet generalized the behavior to all contexts, and lacks fluency.

In dog training, generalization means that your dog can apply a concept to many situations; he knows that “Sit!” means he should sit whether he’s home, on a loud, crowded sidewalk in the rain, or in a grassy park with squirrels chattering in the trees. Fluency means the dog performs the desired behavior correctly, smoothly, and without hesitation.

dog watching squirrel

When we train a behavior, we often do so with the unspoken expectation that the dog will perform the behavior anywhere, anytime, so long as the correct cue is given. It’s important to understand generalization and fluency because a dog’s failure to perform is often seen as the dog’s deliberate choice to not comply. In reality, the dog’s lack of compliance usually means he doesn’t know the behavior to the extent you believe he does. That’s a training problem; the behavior wasn’t generalized and taught to fluency.

As a trainer, my definition of “well trained” has less to do with how many behaviors my dog knows; it’s much more about whether he can correctly perform these behaviors in many unique circumstances, a feat that is necessary for him to live harmoniously within my lifestyle.

Out of Context

Dogs have dozens of wonderful qualities, but unfortunately, an ability to quickly generalize is not one of them. Dogs are contextual creatures. Learning to sit for three seconds in the kitchen when the house is quiet is not the same as sitting in a crowded outdoor shopping center. When dogs fail to comply in new settings or in the face of distractions, they aren’t being stubborn, willful, or dominant, as many people believe. In reality, they are struggling to meet the demands placed upon them in that moment, and they need our help to become successful.

In order for a dog to truly know a behavior, we must take the time to specifically train for the many types of situations we are likely to encounter with our dogs. It’s not just about more practice – it’s about strategic practice. Taking the time to train a behavior to fluency helps ensure that the behavior works whenever and wherever you need it. It’s the difference between a dog who can come when called when you leave him in a sit, walk away, and call him, and a dog who can still come when called while in the middle of chasing a squirrel down your driveway toward traffic!

The better your dog is able to respond to your cues, the less you are likely to be frustrated by his behavior. Even better, dogs who are reliable in their skills are more likely to be found accompanying their owners on adventures away from home. It’s more fun to hit the town with a well-trained dog!

We typically associate fluency with language, but it’s just as relevant to any acquired skill. Think about when you first learned to drive a car. You probably started in an empty parking lot or on a quiet road where you were unlikely to encounter other drivers; you needed to work in an area free from the distraction of other drivers. In the beginning, it took effort to remember each of the important steps that make up the behavior of “driving safely.” You relied heavily on the guidance of a driving instructor. As your skill level and confidence increased, you practiced on busier roads, in different weather conditions, and maybe even behind the wheels of different cars. Over time, you became so well practiced in the art of safe driving that it now appears effortless. The skill of operating a car has become generalized and fluent.

The following are methods that help dogs generalize behaviors and become fluent.

1. Start by clearly defining the behavior you want.

When you teach a behavior, it’s important to have a clear picture of what you want the finished behavior to look like. Does “heel” mean that your dog should match your pace and stay even with your left leg, or does “heel” mean your dog may stay anywhere on your left side so long as the leash stays loose? Does “on your spot” mean your dog should run directly to his mat and lie down with his entire body on the mat, or does it mean he should run to his mat and lie down with most of his body on the mat?

You should also have an idea of how quickly you want your dog to perform the behavior – both in terms of the time it takes the dog to start the behavior after you deliver the cue (latency), and the time it takes to perform the behavior from start to finish (speed).

There are no right or wrong answers. As the owner and trainer, you get to decide what’s most important to you, but you do need to think about your overall expectations in order to develop a training plan to support them. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you want, how will your dog know? Many of us begin training a behavior without clear expectations, only to suddenly decide the behavior we’ve been rewarding isn’t really what we want.

For example, think of the “puppy sit.” It’s not uncommon to have clients ask how to get their now 8-month-old dog to sit square on his hips after months of rewarding the puppy for slouched sitting. To fix it, we have to stop rewarding “sloppy sits” and work to re-train the behavior. Ever have a boss criticize you for failing to follow a procedure change nobody bothered to tell you about? It’s frustrating to be told you’re wrong when you’re doing exactly what was expected of you in the past. I suspect our dogs might agree.

dog training sitting down

2. Wean your dog off of lures and prompts.

A critical step toward your dog’s fluency is to get rid of common training aids such as food lures and assorted prompts as quickly as possible. If your dog lies down only when you say “down” and point to the floor with a cookie in your hand, he doesn’t truly understand that the word “down,” by itself, means he should move his body to the floor. If he turns to look at you only when you say his name while patting your leg as encouragement, he doesn’t actually know that you want him to orient himself to you when he hears his name.

To eliminate your dog’s dependency on lures and prompts, try warming him up by asking for a behavior two or three times in a row, using the known lure or prompt. With this short pattern in place, quickly ask for the behavior again, but without the obvious food lure or prompt. When he’s successful (which is likely, due to the patterned warm-up), surprise him with a celebratory jackpot. This is an important step toward weaning your dog off of the lures and prompts, teaching him to show up for work by responding to cues in order to earn food rewards versus food and prompts as training wheels that help create behavior.

3. Be clear and consistent with your cues.

It’s important to be mindful of how you taught a behavior, and what part of your cue might be most salient to your dog. For example, many people teach “down” by saying the word while luring the dog into position with a treat. Next, the dog learns to follow the same hand signal (pointing to the floor) without needing a treat on his nose. In this case, even though you say “down,” food on your dog’s nose, and later, the same hand that once held food, is likely the most noticeable piece of information, not the word, “down.”

If your goal is for your dog to lie down with only a verbal cue, don’t use verbal and physical cues simultaneously. Be sure to say the word “down” before you begin bending or pointing toward the floor. Allow your dog a brief moment (one second) to hear and consider the newer (to him) verbal cue, and then, if he doesn’t respond, follow the verbal cue with the physical cue that he understands. Soon, he will realize that the verbal cue consistently predicts the physical cue and will perform the behavior upon hearing the verbal cue alone.

It’s also important to be consistent with the delivery of your cues. If your verbal cue for sit is “sit,” be careful to not say, “sit down,” when asking your dog to perform the behavior. If your gestural cue for your dog to lift his left paw to “shake” is the presentation of your right hand, don’t be surprised if he struggles to perform correctly when you suddenly reach across your body with your left hand. These may seem like subtle differences, but they can easily create confusion in dogs, who are supreme masters when it comes to recognizing body language.

4. Make training a way of life.

Positive reinforcement training is all about teaching a dog that desired behavior brings rewards. We often use food treats as rewards, but we must be careful to avoid creating a dog who wants to work only when he sees that you have food, or has good reason to believe that you might have food. It’s great to have formal practice sessions where it’s completely obvious you are training the dog – you have your treat pouch, maybe he’s on leash, and you’re working in your usual training area. But it’s also important to make training a way of life to help your dog understand what’s expected of him all the time, not just when the overall picture looks like training.

To accomplish this, be aware of your dog’s behavior throughout the day and “catch him in the act” of being good. Consider stashing a portion of his daily kibble in one or two plastic cups around the house and randomly toss him a piece when he offers a behavior you’d like to see more of. This takes some of the formality out of training, gives him many opportunities for practice that support eventual fluency, and helps your dog realize there’s always an opportunity for reinforcement.

Using “life rewards” (such as opening a door to let the dog out, throwing a favorite toy to fetch, attaching a leash for a walk, or inviting the dog to join you on the sofa) is another meaningful way to reinforce a dog for correct behavior away from a formal training session. It also helps us develop a long list of ways to reinforce our dogs besides just treats.

In many cases, the potential life reward is, in that moment, even more valuable to the dog than an offered cookie. Ever see a dog refuse a treat, or take it and then spit it out as he sits transfixed by a squirrel? For that dog, getting the “Okay!” to race out the door and chase the squirrel across the yard after he sits when asked is way more powerful than an offered cookie.

dog lying down by pool

5. Systematically generalize the behavior.

An important part of achieving fluency with a behavior is to help your dog generalize the behavior as needed. Just as you get to decide what the finished behavior should look like, you also get to decide under what conditions you need the behavior to hold up.

Will you ask your dog to perform the behavior in the presence of distractions? What kind? Will the dog need to perform the behavior at a distance from you? How long will he be expected to perform the behavior? Do you need the behavior only at home, or in a variety of locations? Do you prefer that the dog respond to you alone, or do you need him to respond to the cue if it is delivered by other people?

You don’t need to specifically train for every scenario you can imagine, but the more you train for, the greater his generalization will be. The more time you invest in specifically training to help your dog generalize, the greater the odds that he will be successful when you suddenly encounter something different or unusual. Once, while I was leading a group of city dogs and their owners on a training walk through a mountain resort, I ran into a man walking a goat. None of the dogs had ever seen (or smelled!) a goat before, but we had previously worked sit-stays around so many different types of distractions, all of the dogs were able to successfully control themselves as the goat strolled by!

Training for generalization is like asking, “Can you do the desired behavior if:_?” Think about your lifestyle and your expectations, and make a list of the different ways you might pose the question to your dog. Then set out to teach your dog how to meet the different challenges. For example, your dog might be able to hold a down-stay on his spot if you’re standing right next to him. But can he do it if:

  • There’s delicious food on the table? The cat saunters into the room? The kids are running nearby? The doorbell rings?

  • Someone other than the primary trainer is working with him?

  • You’re at an outdoor café near a busy sidewalk and another dog walks past? What if the dog is barking? What if the dog is pulling somebody on a skateboard?

Don’t be afraid to get creative and challenge your dog to perform under circumstances that seem unlikely. Can your dog sit if your back is to him when you ask? If you cover your face with your hands while delivering the cue? If you’re standing on a chair? If you’re lying on the ground?

He might need help at first – and that’s okay! As you introduce new challenges, be mindful of your dog’s emotional state. Meeting a new challenge should be a fun way to build confidence, not an overwhelming experience. Choose situations that your dog is realistically able to handle. As he works through a variety of challenges, he will realize he can perform successfully even when the training picture looks different from what he’s most used to – like when you’re asking him to sit at a busy sidewalk café versus sitting at home in the kitchen.

6. Break things down.

It’s important to break full behaviors into smaller pieces during training. Say your idea of a perfect stay is a dog who can maintain a sit for 10 minutes, while you stand 30 feet away as others run past your dog squeaking toys and bouncing tennis balls. It would not be fair to immediately set up such a scenario and expect him to work through it, especially if he’s a relatively inexperienced dog. Instead, concentrate on one element of the behavior while lowering your expectations for the others. If you’re asking him to stay for 3 minutes when he’s used to shorter stays, don’t practice this piece (duration) while you’re also standing far away or in a distracting environment.

Knowing the right time to raise criteria (make something harder) is an important part of successful training. A rule of thumb is to ask for more only when your dog has easily met your expectation of the easier task 80 percent of the time. If he wasn’t able to perform the behavior correctly three times in a row, the current task is too hard; find a way to make it easier. Struggling to meet the challenge isn’t failure – it’s information!

7. Most importantly, keep it fun!

As you work with your dog, be careful to not put too much pressure on yourself or your dog. Be mindful of your dog’s body language. Yawning, excessive sniffing, lip-licking, avoidance, or hyper or “fooling around” behaviors are all signs that your dog is feeling distress. Focus on meeting your goals through a series of baby steps rather than a few giant leaps. Keep training sessions upbeat and fun; there’s no need to “drill” a behavior. Remember to breathe and smile at your dog, and stop if you start to feel frustrated. Nothing will shut down your dog faster than your own frustration.


Pieces of the Training Puzzle

Element: What it means: Special considerations:
Precision Can the dog perform the behavior accurately? For example, if “on your spot” means lie down with your entire body touching the bed, does your dog meet that criteria, or does he lie down near the bed, or with only part of his body on the bed? To train for precision, you must know what you want the finished behavior to look like. Break complex behaviors into smaller parts to ensure that each piece can be done correctly. For example, if your vision for a formal retrieve includes a quiet hold on the object (no mouthing), don’t be in a hurry to throw the object until the dog can pick it up and hand it to you in a way that meets your criteria.
Latency The length of time it takes for the dog to initiate the behavior after perceiving the cue. How long is acceptable to you? High latency can indicate a lack of understanding on the dog’s part or a lack of motivation. Make sure your cues are consistent to help avoid confusion, and consider what you might change to make the behavior more rewarding (motivating) for the dog.
Speed The amount of time it takes for the dog to execute the behavior from start to finish. Is your ideal “spin” one where the dog twists in a circle in a rapid, flashy manner, or is a slower rotation acceptable? Be mindful of physical/breed characteristics that affect speed. A Mastiff physically cannot sit as fast as a Border Collie. Define your goal based on what is realistic for your dog. Use high-energy rewards to increase speed (toys, energetic personal play, the opportunity to chase a thrown food reward) and calm rewards (quiet praise, massage-like petting, calmly delivered food rewards) if you’re trying to encourage a less exuberant performance.
Distance Where, in relationship to the handler, will the dog be asked to perform the behavior? Holding a stay next to the handler is easier than holding a stay with the handler across the room. It’s easier to sit when your handler is right in front of you than when he asks for the sit when you are 10 feet away from him. It’s important to consider your dog’s emotional state when adding distance to behaviors. Dogs who are fearful will typically find it more difficult to work away from their handlers. Reward generously to help build confidence and form a positive association with the increased distance. Be especially careful to not overface your dog (to give him a greater distance challenge than he can handle).
Duration How long will the dog need to perform the behavior? A 5-second sit-stay is easier than a 3-minute sit-stay. Some behaviors require more duration. Loose-leash walking is challenging for most dogs because of the duration required, i.e., the length of the walk. When training, raise criteria slowly and avoid always asking for more. For example, when working on stays, sometimes surprise your dog with a reward after just a few seconds of an especially nice stay, even when you know he can stay longer.
Distractions What distracting conditions are most relevant to your needs with your dog? Some possibilities: working around food, toys, other dogs, other animals, strangers, adored family members, urban distractions. Decide what you need and create a plan to help your dog learn to work around a variety of distractions. Be reasonable in your expectations and set your dog up for success. The goal is not to trick your dog into doing it wrong. Rather, you want to introduce distractions in such a way that your dog enjoys success. Success builds confidence, and confident dogs are better able to work around myriad distractions. Plan to progress via baby steps and be ready to make the challenge easier when needed.

Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Los Angeles.

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