A dog who jumped at the sound of a heavy box falling to the floor can become frightened by other sudden noises down the road. A dog who has had many different positive interactions with children will come to learn that the presence of kids means good things happen.
Scientifically, that phenomenon is called stimulus generalization. Generalization is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in the presence of stimulus that is similar but not identical to the learned stimulus. (Stimulus is defined as events that have a measurable effect on behavior.)
As humans, we’re pretty great at generalization. A child who was bitten by a bird may become afraid of all birds. When we learn how to tie a shoe, we can tie any shoe we wear. If we were given a hefty fine by a police officer in a car with its lights flashing, we will probably flinch next time a police car with lights flashing is behind us.
Discrimination on the other hand is the tendency for a learned behavior to occur in one situation, but not in others. A child may be afraid of a dog when in an enclosed yard but not on a playground. A child may scream when he falls only in the presence of one of his parents.
How does this relate to training?
As for generalization to aversive stimulus, it’s important to recognize that fears can generalize. A dog who was scared by a mailman can later on develop fearful responses to policemen, or other uniformed men. It is important to teach your dog a new, positive association with its initial fear elicitor as soon as possible.
On the flip side, it is important to keep in mind that to build fluency in a behavior skills, teaching your pet to generalize the behavior in a variety of environments is a step you don’t want to miss. And, with the exception of aversives, dogs are great discriminators. (No, teaching him to stay off of a couch in the family room does not mean he understands to stay off of the couch in the fancy living room.)
However, there is a lot more than just changing the environment to keep in mind.
Here are just a few tips:
Practice asking for the behavior in different positions to you. You may want to ask your dog to sit when you are in front of him or behind him; or when you are sitting, standing, or running; when you next to your pet or five feet away (adding distance very slowly only when you are still having success).
When your pet is reliably doing the behavior when cued, practice having other people give your pet his cue.
Practice by gradually increasing distractions (only increasing criteria when you are still having success).
Here is some additional good news about spending the time teaching your pet to generalize: Once he has learned to generalize a few behaviors, he will start to generalize other behaviors too with much greater ease.
Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!