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Understanding the Process of Generalization in Dog Behavior

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Fear can generalize in dogs.

Fear can generalize in dogs.

What is Generalization?

What is generalization in dogs and how does it happen? Interestingly, generalization happens in the human world too and it actually was studied a while back.

In technical lingo, for all those science junkies out there, generalization takes place in operant and classical conditioning when a conditioned response occurs in response to similar stimuli in addition to the conditioned stimulus. Confused? Let's break it down to a simpler definition.

Generalization is the phenomenon where a person or animal starts responding to all situations similar to the one in which it has been conditioned. If you have a more practical style of learning, following are a few examples just for you!

One of the most popular examples comes from the studies of Little Albert conducted by behaviorist John B. Watson and his graduate student Rosalie Raynor. In this study, a child known as Albert B. was exposed to a rat, monkey, masks and much more and his reactions were observed. The boy showed no fear whatsoever towards these stimuli.

Afterward, the study took place: basically, every time the boy was shown a rat, a loud sound was made by hitting a metal pipe with a hammer. The loud noise scared Little Albert who started to cry. After several repetitions of pairing the sight of the rat with the loud noise, Albert then started to cry just at the mere sight of the rat.

This is a perfect example of classical conditioning (associative learning). However, interestingly, Watson and Rayner also saw another phenomenon occur.

Basically, little Albert started to cry not only when seeing the rat, but also when seeing a wide variety of other similar objects as well. Anything furry including Raynor's fur coat and Watson's Santa Claus beard, were enough for Little Albert to go into a crying spell. This phenomenon was called stimulus generalization.

Fear and aggression are easy to generalize.

Fear and aggression are easy to generalize.

Examples of Generalization in Dogs

So how does generalization apply to dogs? In many ways! Dogs learn through classical and operant conditioning so you can see generalization take place in both instances.

Let's remember: classical conditioning was first described by Ivan Pavlov and occurs when the dog learns through associations to pair one stimulus with another, whereas, operant conditioning was first described by B.F Skinner and occurs when the dog forms an association between the behaviors and the consequences for that behavior. To learn more about this read "Dog behavior modification terms."Let's make a few examples:

For instance, in classical conditioning a dog learns to pair the sight of lightening with thunder and therefore goes to hide under the bed because, through exposure, he has learned to associate the two, whereas in operant conditioning a dog learns to pair the behavior of sitting with getting a cookie in the living room.

Let's now make an example how a dog may generalize these behaviors. In classical conditioning the dog who has become fearful of thunder may generalize the fear of thunder and start fearing any loud noises that are similar to thunder such as gunshots or firecrackers. On top of this, the dog may also become fearful of any flashing lights because they're similar to lightening.

In operant conditioning, on the other hand, a dog who has learned to sit in the living room learns to also sit in the yard. He basically learns to generalize the behavior in different places and scenarios.

Why are Dogs so Good in Generalizing Fear?

Interestingly, in the awesome book "The Canine Aggression Handbook" James O' Heare, points out how ironic it is that dogs seem to have difficulty generalizing new learned behaviors, but then when it comes to aggression, they seem to generalize fairly well.

Dog trainers know this too well: try to train a dog to sit in your living room and then try to ask it at the dog park under heavy distractions, or try to tell your dog to sit with your back facing your dog or from another room.

When dog owners tell me in group classes "my dog did this so well at home" I know this is due to the fact that dogs are poor in generalizing newly learned behaviors.

This is why I recommend to go slow and gradually, start training at home, then in the yard, then on walks, then around other dogs and then at the dog park. I even go on tell them to train their dogs to train to respond to verbal cues even when the owners are not in sight.

Dogs are not great at generalizing newly learned behaviors. This is why it's so hard to train a puppy to use a pee pad at home and then to pee outdoors.

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Yet, when I do behavior consultations I see how easily dogs generalize fears. A dog who is scared of the mailman may after some time begin to fear men in uniforms in general or even just men.

A dog who hates thunder may then soon fear any loud noises or flashes of light. A dog who has been trained with a citronella bark collar will then startle at any type of spraying noises. A dog who got attacked by a black Labrador retriever will then be aggressive towards any black type of dogs regardless of breed. Why is that?

According to a study "fear generalization occurs when a fear response acquired to a particular stimulus transfers to another stimulus. Generalization is often an adaptive function that allows an organism to rapidly respond to novel stimuli that are related in some way to a previously learned stimuli."

Generalization when it comes to fear or aggression, in my opinion is somewhat linked to survival. James O' Heare mentions that when scary events take place, a dog with each event tries to collect more data so he's better able to predict it and therefore avoid it. If you think about it, it makes sense. If a dog in the wild was attacked by say a wild pig, it would be good as a precautionary measure to not trust any sort of animal that resembled a wild pig.

However, as the study above notes, fear generalization can be maladaptive when it includes nonthreatening stimuli that are inappropriately perceived as harmful because of its similarity with the threat. For instance, if a dog developed a fear of shiny things after something shiny fell on the floor, it would be maladaptive if the dog then came to fear eating from his food bowl.

So now that you're aware of generalizations in dogs, you may understand why following certain guidelines in training a dog or performing behavior modification are so important.

When you are training a new behavior, make sure you gradually add new scenarios and new distractions to the picture. The more you do this, the better your dog understands the learned behavior. When a dog behavior has been proofed well, in dog training lingo it's know to be well under "stimulus control."

When dealing with dog behavior problems, be aware of the fact that the fear may generalize. In some cases, the fear generalizes so much that you may no longer identify the original stimulus that caused the fear in the first place!

This is why it's important to work on aggression/fear issues as soon as possible or they will put roots and can generalize. As the saying goes "it's best to nip them in the bud."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on January 31, 2013:

Very interesting article. This also happens with some people too in reaction to fear.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 30, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by Jaydene, I 'm glad you found it helpful!

jaydene from Alberta, Canada on January 30, 2013:

Very interesting on how the responses will trigger for dogs. with this kind of understanding and knowledge about generalized responses this really helps to understand behavior of our beloved canines. Thank you for sharing this excellent hub :)

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 29, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by solaras! And those generalizations are quite resistant to extinction too!

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on January 29, 2013:

Great article. When I took my then puppy Luna to her first conformation class, she was attacked by a Malamute. From then on, any dog with a widow's peak was satanic in her view. 5 years later she is still weary of the Spitz breeds.

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