Why It’s Hard for Dogs to Generalize Commands; More On Understanding Dogs and Why Your Dog May Not Be Listening
We are too busy with life and the constraints of time that we just don’t take the time to understand how our dogs think.
Or we are so busy anthropomorphizing them (giving them human traits that they don’t have) that we simply misunderstand them.
Although dogs are like children in some ways, a lot of ways actually, they are NOT in some very real ways.
Dog Are Different Than Children
Dogs are still animals or mammals and their brains are not as big as ours.
As much as we want to think that they can be rational, or irrational, they can plot or that they can reason, they just can’t.
In my opinion this is why dogs are so good at forgetting and forgiving and being the happy creatures that they are. Dogs live in the moment and think about simple things like play time and dinner time, they aren’t worried about your house payment or your utilities!
Dogs Are Simple People.
At best a dog has the reasoning ability of a toddler.
Now I am a believer that dogs do have emotions (for more on this topic check back later) but that is a different article for a different time.
But I think we give them too much credit and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
I know that dogs are capable of amazing things and can do much more than we give them credit for, but I think we rob them of being simple animals when our expectations of them are simply too high.
I’m not even going to get into the subject of thinking dogs can get “even” with us; as I discussed that in this article “Dogs are Simple People” which provides research for those of you who are interested click on the link provided.
Definition of Generalizations (as defined by vocabulary.com) taking something specific and applying it more broadly is making a generalization.
Dogs generalize simple things (some of them) like all people are good, or all people are bad, they generalize situations but they don’t necessarily generalize commands.
What Exactly Does That Mean?
To a human “Sit” means “Sit” whether you are at home, at the park, at the zoo, in a restaurant, it doesn’t matter, it also probably doesn’t matter how busy it is or if other things are going on around you if someone you respect says SIT you would sit no matter what.
Dogs Don’t Think Like This
Dogs don’t think like this or their little brains are too excitement prone to generalize commands.
Typically if a dog learns how to sit, he can sit in the environment he learns in but he may have a hard time sitting in other places.
For example I hear owners say my dog listens in dog obedience class but he won’t listen at home, or my dog listens at home but he won’t listen in class.
It is also pretty typical for a dog to be able to perform a command in a low level of distractions or no distractions but not to be able to listen or perform when there is anything or when there are multiple other things going on around him.
However We Think He is Being Obstinate or Refusing to Comply
Even though dogs really don’t understand that the same command means the same thing in different places and under different circumstances we often think that he is being obstinate or refusing to comply, so he gets corrected or punished or is forced harshly to comply.
Eventually he begins to understand, once he works through the confusion and the fear of being harshly corrected. Although people think he finally responds, the truth is that the corrections are unfortunately doing the teaching in this instance.
When, Really, He Has the Reasoning Power of a 2 Year Old Child
Would you expect your toddler to learn a new skill like reading or adding at Chucky Cheese? Would you expect the same child to be able to perform a task that you had taught him/her in a place like Chucky Cheese or at the zoo?
Would you back hand your child for not responding to your command in such a place or in such an environment? Would you yell and then force him?
Wouldn’t that 2 year old be terrified if you suddenly backhanded him for not doing the simple math you had taught him the day before? Do you think that, that punishment would be conducive to learning or performing?
Yet, is this not the same as expecting our dogs to lay down while another dog passes or as a squirrel runs past, or listening at a ball park?
Is He Capable?
So, the question is; is he capable of performing intricate tasks in different environments under different distractions?
Of course he is!
Guide Dogs and service dogs and all kinds of working dogs are expected to perform skills no matter what is going on around them, however the difference is that they have been taught to do that with patience and good obedience training.
How Do I Know What a Dog Thinks?
I’m sure I will have skeptics, and those who don’t believe me. And, I must admit some of it is conjecture because it is difficult to know exactly what dogs think and how they learn, but I have been working with them for over 20 years.
But, I had an epiphany once while training one of my first Service Dogs.
I had taught him to retrieve at home and he could retrieve a number of different items. I knew that he understood the command and was quick to comply.
However, when I took him to the mall and dropped an easy item, one that he had retrieved dozens of times, he acted like I was speaking a foreign language.
Was he being obstinate and just refusing to comply out of spite?
Was he overstimulated?
Why would he not listen?
I think his little dog brain just had a hard time understanding that the command he learned at home meant the exact same thing no matter what was going on around him or where he was.
So, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and we found a quiet, secluded corner and I went back to step one of retrieve and clicker training.
He learned quickly that the command was the same by backing up and being able to win and being rewarded and in no time he was retrieving again.
I did this a few more times in several different places and in no time he learned he could retrieve anything anywhere.
But, I was kind and I gave him the benefit of the doubt and then allowed him to be successful.
I didn’t hit him, or ear pinch him, force the object into his mouth, or correct him with a collar or yell at him; I simply went to a quieter spot and re-taught him what I wanted. If for whatever reason he couldn’t have functioned at all there, I would have taken him home and worked more on the command at home and then introduced it in an environment as close to the one I had taught it in as possible (say a friend’s house).
So If Your Dog is Struggling with Commands or Distractions
So if your dog is struggling with commands or distractions, back up in your training and re-teach him. Be kind and be patient.
Chances are he doesn’t have some great scheme and he is not just being obstinate or refusing your commands for fun. Chances are that he simply doesn’t understand or that he can’t calm his brain down enough to listen or think.
Make sure that he understand before you even consider a correction or a punishment.
And, remember that punishment inhibits learning and creates fear especially in mammals that don’t speak our language.
What do you think??
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.