Somewhere, deep within the bowels of my computer is a nifty little pinball game. It is a tribute to the software designers, who have created a marvelous simulation of the real thing. Two of the keys on the keyboard activate the flippers, and two more act to “nudge” the table. The first time I played the game, I discovered something interesting. Instead of hitting the keys to make the machine “wiggle”, I was actually bumping the whole keyboard. My longtime responses from “real” pinball games had leaked over into my computer simulation. In scientific terms, I had “generalized” a behavior from one situation to another. Fixing this problem requires that I “discriminate” between real pinball machines and fake ones. While we humans rarely examine this process, it may surprise you to know that your dog is an expert at both generalization and discrimination and could teach us all a thing or two. I say “surprise” because I routinely hear people comment in astonishment that their dog goes nuts when it hears a doorbell on TV or hates men who wear hats.

While all animals have the capacity to acquire knowledge; they must also know where, when, and how to use it. If a dog sits on a cactus, he will not benefit from the experience unless he possesses two mental abilities – discrimination and generalization. Simply put, discrimination is the ability to decide that two events or things are unrelated. Generalization is the ability to see a relationship between things. So, to avoid cactus, a dog must be able to discriminate between cactus and non-prickly objects and be able to generalize that all cactus should be avoided.

In your home, these twin abilities are regularly displayed. If a dog races madly to the door at the sound of the bell, but does not react to the sound of a doorbell on a television program, he has correctly “discriminated” between the two. The dog has decided that some aspect of the real doorbell is unique, and not shared with the TV bell.  If the dog responds to the doorbell and the sound of a doorbell on television, he has generalized the sameness between the two bells.

Another example of these dual behavioral principles occurs when you take your very obedient dog to a new location. The same dog who can sit, lie down, roll over, fetch, and speak will become a distracted fool the instant he sets foot in a park. The dog has correctly discriminated that the park is different than your home, but has failed to generalize the commands associated with his obedience behaviors. This process of assuming that the park is unique, and failing to realize that it should be considered the same as your living room, is the simplest form of this problem. The solution is to gradually introduce the dog to new locations, while continuing training on the behaviors that work at home.

While deciding sameness or uniqueness is often a single adaptation, it may also be a complex blend of the two. Many dogs learn to dislike people who wear uniforms. This reaction requires that the animal make both a subtle and complex discrimination AND a generalization. First the dog must learn to discriminate between people who wear uniforms, and people who do not. While we take for granted that uniforms differ from regular clothing, dogs must learn which components represent a uniform, and which things do not.  This is not as easy as it seems. In reality, most uniforms are not really uniform. Animal Control officers and police wear badges – the meter reader does not. The UPS guy wears shorts. The letter carrier may not. At each step in the process, the animal analyzes which things are common to uniforms (generalization) and which things are not (discrimination).

Ultimately, the dog will learn to associate name plates, badges, hats with badges, and funny shaped things hanging from a belt as signs of a uniform.  If any of those cues are present, the dog may then generalize his behavior. If a man with a badge on his hat sprays the dog with pepper spray, heaven help the next bottled water delivery man who has a logo on his cap. The dog doesn’t know that the first man was an animal control officer or that the second man is delivering water – he just knows that hats with badges are “intruders”. If the dog’s owner wears a hat and badge, the dog may make an even more complex discrimination – all guys with hats and badges are evil, except “dad.”

While these specific discriminations are easy for us to understand, discrimination and generalization can also link sequential chains-of-events. Many dogs come to discriminate the veterinary hospital as a place where pain happens. At first, the dog is happy to get in the car and visit the new and exciting location. Soon the dog starts to generalize the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the examination room with unpleasant treatment. The dog will start to identify everything that is unique to veterinary visits and link the sequence of events that “cause” the examination room. Soon, the dog is reluctant to get in the car, go into the waiting room, or approach people who wear veterinary uniforms.

Understanding discrimination and generalization can help you appreciate the dynamic nature of your dog’s behavior. Learning to better control your dog’s ability to learn can help create good performance and modify unacceptable behavior. Here are a few tips for utilizing this knowledge with your dog.

  • Make sure you train your dog in several places, times of day, and gradually introduce distractions.
  • To help your dog with discriminations make two situations obviously different; just like an old western movie – the good guys where the white hats, and the bad guys wear the black hats. If you want your dog to bark at suspicious strangers, but not bark at regular visitors, have your “pretend” burglars, wear funny hats, carry umbrellas, or walk unusually. Gradually remove the hats, and umbrellas, and make generally furtive movements the key to deciding if someone is a threat.
  • If you want your dog to generalize quickly, be willing to drop your standards in the new location/situation.  If Fido can sit at home, but is distracted at the park, simply try to reinforce him for responding to his name. Once he will listen to his name, re-teach “sit” in exactly the same way he originally learned the behavior. Once he starts to “sit”, even in the park, repeat the process in the next location, or try a different behavior. If the behavior fails, drop your standards and refresh his memory.

It takes practice to successfully learn a generalized discrimination. Most people fail to repeat the situation enough times to give Fido the needed experience. Repetitions that end with different consequences can help the dog learn faster. If the sound of the real doorbell leads to a dog biscuit, and the TV bell leads to a five minute “time out”, Fido will quickly discriminate between the two and change his behavior accordingly.