Generalization and Dog Agility Training

How dogs learnThere is a lot to be said about dogs and generalizing and how dogs don’t generalize.  What this means is that if you teach your dog the command “over” to mean jump over a pole between plain standards in your backyard in the same location every time they most likely will not perform the same behavior at the doggie school though the jumps may look similar.

And while this does seem true to some extent I would also like to point out another problem that may exist and not have anything to do with generalization.  Instead it has everything to do with communication.  If you are learning a new language and a person tells you “flower,” makes a movement at an obstacle that is facing toward a dish with double delight chocolate ice cream and you have to go over the obstacle to get to the ice cream, I ask, would you associate “flower” with the obstacle or the ice cream?

You see we are the teachers and we know the answers we are looking for while the student, our dog, is hopefully trying to figure out the answer.  In our eagerness, we see the dog give the right answer in a large picture and think the dog understands when he actually really has no clue.  He happened to guess right and even then, what we see may not be what he was thinking.  We see him take the jump and say, “He’s got it!” when in fact the dog was thinking “Jump over this pole and land by the red bucket.”  When we move the jump there is no red bucket and the dog becomes confused.

So, yes you need to change things up, mostly because it clarifies for your dog what it is you are asking.  If he is always taking the same jump in the same location he is learning that situation not an obstacle.  If you use the same bar jump he will associate the cue with that style only.  When you move the jump you change the surroundings, but the jump remains the same and he has to guess again until he picks the right choice.  The same happens when you give the same cue over different styles of jumps.  After enough changes with one variable remaining the same he grasps the concept it is the jump he is to associate with the cue.  Not necessarily because he doesn’t generalize but because he wasn’t actually giving the full correct answer.

On top of all this you also have to take into consideration that emotions play a big part in learning as well.  At home the emotional level is very low unless you can find ways to raise your dog’s emotions and train through them.  Also known as distractions or proofing your work, you raise your dog’s emotional level and you will have to re-school so they learn to respond consistently to you.  Going to a new location is a big emotional change and this is why you should do fun matches and schooling events so you can train consistency through the emotions.  You also have to be consistent.  If you change cues, body language, or expectations you will send mixed signals and thus confuse your dog.  And to keep you calm and collected remember, when you think your dog has it, he barely understands.

To help understand this better, keep this little fact in your mind as well.  It takes humans 2,000 correct repetitions to break a habit, 2,000 correct repetitions to install a new habit and 10,000, yes your read right, correct repetitions to make an action an unconscious behavior.  Now, if you consider a dog is starting at a kindergarten level and learning a foreign language, you will have a better understanding of what it takes to make your dog consistent.

At least that is the “general” idea.  When you get frustrated, remember your dog is simply letting you know he hasn’t hit 10,000 correct repetitions yet and will still sometimes guess wrong.