Why It’s Hard for Dogs to Generalize Commands; More On Understanding Dogs and Why Your Dog May Not Be Listening

One of the biggest problems I see with us humans is that we don’t understand our dogs!

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.  

generalizeGeneralizations

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

Even Service Dogs Have to Be Re-Taught in All Different Environments

Even Service Dogs Have to Be Re-Taught in All Different Environments

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?

2 Service Dogs doing a Down Stay at the Denver Zoo

2 Service Dogs doing a Down Stay at the Denver Zoo

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??

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Comments

  1. Pete says:

    I completely understand this! Since I have put myself (so to speak) at my lab pups thinking level, I have become a lot more patient with her and more importantly with myself while training her and in our everyday life situations. She is an amazingly smart dog, absorbing everything I do say and signals I make. Thank you for this great article and for helping me to understand my dog better.

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    Minette Reply:

    I am so glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I like to help others learn to understand their dogs better and find more patience in their training 🙂

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  2. Eileen says:

    There is one misconception that we humans have about our brains that I wish to clarify. It is true that dogs don’t have the cognitive skill or the ability to deduce concepts to the degree that humans do. It is only partially due to brain size. Humans have a big brain because they are bipeds, that is they walk on two feet. The neurocircuitry required to keep us upright is extremely complex and engages almost every joint in our body. In addition, it engages our eyes and ears; just to see what I mean, try to stand on one foot for 3 minutes with your eyes open, then with your eyes closed.

    That being said, this article brought forth many frustrations I had with training my dog. Once I stopped anthromorphizing my dog, she responded to my commands much more readily than she did before. This ought to be required reading for all prospective dog owners.

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    Diana Navon Reply:

    Eileen, I agree with you. But as you say this lesson is very important. I think this reference to “little brain” is very good for helping people understand the limitations of dogs’ abilities to understand what we think is so obvious.

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  3. Adele says:

    This was a very good article, and a good reminder that dogs are not mean or obstinate when they disobey, but probably just don’t understand what we think we are communicating. It also reminds me to be more patient with my puppy, and start to re-Inforce training more. My dog thanks you greatly a,

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  4. Luann says:

    Happy Holidays!

    I really enjoy these newsletters. This one was an important reminder for me as I’m training a new puppy. It makes training so much easier to use these lessons and such as this I have to train my puppy in different settings like I did with my older dog. I remember my older dog doing over 30 tricks in the house but when I took her to a trick training class she couldn’t perform any. I had to re train her and then re train her in other places so she knew she can perform everywhere. Just like obedience. Also start with no distractions and build up over time.

    Have a Great Holiday. I’m looking forward to more newsletters in the New Year.

    Luannn, Balto, Makita and Harley

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  5. Pamela Kutscher says:

    I’m of two minds on this subject. I understand that dogs don’t think like humans. They approach life from a different perspective. On the other hand–each dog, like each human is an individual and some “think” more than others. The more I am around dogs the more I see these differences.
    Some of it is breed related–some breeds/individuals are better at problem solving or following directions (same with people actually).
    Some dogs are sheer geniuses(as are some people). I had a Boston Terrier that I truly think, if she’d had the vocal apparatus, she would have replied in English–OK, maybe I’m stretching it a bit but that dog was spooky she was so smart…she was different than any other dog I’ve had.
    Dogs can “learn to learn” just as people can.
    Some dogs are quicker to learn to “generalize” than others (just like some people).
    Just like people, dogs are influenced by their prior experiences–positive and negative–

    My point is that we don’t just do a disservice to dogs by anthropomorphizing them, we also do a disservice when we clump them all together as “just dogs”—they do vary within their species and “one size” does NOT fit all with dogs any more than it does with humans.

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    janet Reply:

    I agree I,ve had a shelty, German shepherd, Shep.
    /lab mix, Australian retriever, all very smart and fairly easy to train. The smartest and easiest is the Australian. I now have his 1\2 sister a Siberian / golden and I am having the most difficult time. I,ve gotten her to follow commands inside but outside is like I don’t exist. It truly tries my patients and if not for articles like this to remind me to try new or different approaches I think I would have killed her (not litterily) I truly love and enjoy her inside but outside she is a handful. Sometimes I wonder if the Siberian in her requires a different method. This article highlited how I need to retrain the same tasks we learned inside to the outside which is what I will be Woking on next. Wish me luck (in keeping my patience)
    ,

    [Reply]

    janet Reply:

    I agree I,ve had a shelty, German shepherd, Shep.
    /lab mix, Australian retriever, all very smart and fairly easy to train. The smartest and easiest is the Australian. I now have his 1\2 sister a Siberian / golden and I am having the most difficult time. I,ve gotten her to follow commands inside but outside is like I don’t exist. It truly tries my patients and if not for articles like this to remind me to try new or different approaches I think I would have killed her (not litterily) I truly love and enjoy her inside but outside she is a handful. Sometimes I wonder if the Siberian in her requires a different method. This article highlited how I need to retrain the same tasks we learned inside to the outside which is what I will be Working on next. Wish me luck (in keeping my patience)
    ,

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    Minette Reply:

    Siberians are always a challenge 😉

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    Minette Reply:

    True, yet I write for the masses not one dog.

    Most dogs learn this way, even the very smart ones that were awesome Service Dogs.

    We do even more of a disservice to them when our expectations are too high and they get punished for it, when simply backing off and going back to teaching is the way for them to learn.

    If you have a super learner then you excel faster which is great for you both as long as you build a firm foundation.

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  6. Joe says:

    Good article. But when I’m at the park, my dog doesn’t even hear my voice at all when he see’s another dog. I think a couple weeks at the dog park ruined him. Now he runs to other dogs wherever we are thinking it’s ok to run and play with them. So now I take him to the city park, even though he’s great at staying close (cause I always let him off the leash), when he see’s a dog, he starts running. Just like out front when my neighbor is out there, he runs to the neighbor. ‘Come’ is not heard. His ears turn off. So no more dog parks for us. Anyone got more ideas or articles to make my dog come when distracted?

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    Minette Reply:

    The problem is you are rewarding him PRIOR to him behaving… so he is being rewarded for misbehavior, if you will read this http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/rewarding-lesson-letting-dog-run-free/

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  7. Susan Carroll says:

    The mind of a dog is indeed puzzling. I trained my young labradoodle to ring a bell when she wants to go outside. The other day she came into the bathroom with me and I guess I was taking too long. She sat staring at the door and when it didn’t open she turned to her left, seemingly looking for the bell, and proceeded to ‘ring’ the doorstop! But can I get her to do a down stay at the neighbour’s?

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  8. charlety says:

    Great article. Did not unerstand a lot ofv things before article

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  9. Anjelo Palma says:

    Greetings.
    My male puppy is 08 months old one. Is it safe to castred it now?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Yes!! I normally neuter at about 16 weeks

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  10. Marty says:

    I’m sorry, but you lost me at “dogs are still animals or mammals and their brains are not as big as ours.” So, what are we, robots?!? You do realize that humans are both animals AND mammals, right? And that brain size is more related to physical function than to intelligence?

    The rest of the article I mostly agree with, but that sentence, and the ridiculous audacity of it, just blew my mind. And as an aside, I know many human adults whose reasoning skills are shallower than my dogs’.

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  11. Janet says:

    Have you ever spelled Dog backwards? My Mother told me that once (before she passed) and you know its a love like no other when you love a dog and they love you back. My pets are family members and anything I can learn to make them understand that I’m just as devoted to them as they are to me. I thank you in advance, I’m out in a rural area, there aren’t any dog schools and I have a 6 month Austrian Shepard that I adore, the only thing she and I agree on is she wants to walk everyday and play in-between that.

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  12. Lisa says:

    This article was a real eye opener for me. It really helped me to understand some of my doxy’s (Bubba) behavior. However, answer me this: Bubba is an emotional service dog. He rarely stays home. When he does get left behind, I believe he becomes angry with me. Almost every time he goes into the dining room and relieves himself! At seven years old, he is very well house trained. I even take him into the dining room to remind him not to “go”. I use the definitive command, no, several times. I speak with him, trying my best to make him understand he is not being abandoned. When I come home, I praise him and give him treats if he’s been “good” (about 5% of the time). When he hasn’t complied with his training, I lower my voice and tell him how disappointed I am in him. He’s told to leave my sight and I ignore him for an hour or so. Sometimes he’s even put outside on his lead for that hour if weather conditions permit. When the hour is over, I call him or go get him, bring him back to my seat, and speak with him. I explain what he did and why I was so disappointed in him. Then I forgive him and tell him he’s a good dog now that it’s over.
    Too much anthropomorphizing? I really do believe he is angered when I leave him. What do you recommend?

    [Reply]

    Minette Reply:

    Dogs don’t have the emotions to “get even” chances are he has anxiety when you leave. Try a crate

    [Reply]

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