A Spot the Difference Cartoon. (Source: Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA license)
A Spot the Difference Cartoon. (Source: Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA license.)
We were walking today when we saw two Canadian geese. I barely noticed them, as we see geese several times a week, but Sirius, who normally walks by geese without a second glance, started watching them intently as he prepared to charge or bark.

What made these geese worth noticing?

Instead of being by a lake or stream, they were hanging out on the University of Maryland Quad. In other words, they were out of place.

When working with dogs, on both training and behavior modification, it is important to understand how they see the world and when they will or will not generalize.

In my training classes, I often tell my students that dogs don’t generalize well. No matter how well they demonstrate “Leave It” in class, they are likely to go home and revert to their previous habits of picking up things that catch their attention, unless a lot of work is put into the activity at home. That happens because, in class, they have come to expect that doing what is asked will come with a great reward, and they have very little history of picking up objects. At home, these relationships are reversed.

This same phenomenon can explain why Sirius is uninterested in geese at the pond, but fascinated by geese on the quad. At the pond, he has learned they are basically uninteresting, but in this new context, there is a possibility that they might be a lot of fun.

That being said, saying dogs don’t generalize is an oversimplification. They don’t generalize the same things we often hope they will, but that may simply be that they aren’t perceiving importance in the same aspects of the situation that we are focused on. We have all probably had or met dogs that seem to sit practically every time someone looks at them. These dogs have realized that sitting triggers rewards, and they are able to generalize this to a wide range of situations.

A "scary" thing in the road!
A “scary” thing in the road!
Understanding when and how dogs will generalize is especially important when working with sensitive or fearful dogs. I often envision their view of the world like the find the difference cartoon at the top of this blog post. Except, that instead of being a fun game, it is a sign of danger. Things that are out of place might be unsafe.

In the case of the Canadian geese this morning, this phenomenon was fairly harmless. Though more interested than he would usually be, Sirius quickly decided that there was nothing all that exciting about these water fowl, and lost interest. However, he has been much more disturbed in the past by phenomena like overturned signs, or large statues. Approaching, or even passing by at a distance, can sometimes involve careful efforts to reassure and desensitize.

Have you experienced this phenomenon with your dog? What types of situations have triggered this behavior?

One Comment

  • […] Most of the year, when the squirrels are hanging out in the trees, Sirius Black will ignore them. However, when there are thirteen squirrels hanging out under a tree a few feet from where we are walking, ignoring them becomes a lot harder for him. Instead, he thinks it would be a good idea to chase them. Barking at them is also a good alternative. (Barking is also his reaction to sheep, deer, and geese that are not where they belong.) […]

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