a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Context Is Everything

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Context Is Everything

SUMMARY: Even newspaper-fetching dogs really don't generalize well

One thing that I've heard trainers say repeatedly through the years is that dogs do not generalize well. Maybe he sits perfectly every time you say "Sit" in the kitchen, but not when you move to the living room. So you practice in the living room and then he'll sit there or in the kitchen, but not when you go into the bedroom. So you practice there until he gets it, but he won't sit out on the back porch. So you practice all those places until he's good at it, but then he won't do it when out in the yard.  Then maybe he sits on command in the yard every morning when you got outside to practice, but not if the wind is blowing. Or the neighbor is using a leaf blower. Or you're wearing sunglasses and a hat. So you practice all these things, but then won't sit in the same place in the same yard after dark.

It's not surprising that he won't then sit on command when he goes to the park or into a stranger's house.

In agility, dogs might go over your PVC jumps with no problems, but the first time that they encounter solid wood-winged jumps at the Nationals, they don't know what to do. Or your weave poles are plain white, and the first time they encounter striped ones, they pop out left and right. (Or the poles are randomly striped. Or one leans slightly to the left.) Or the first time they run on dirt. Or the first time you go to a particular new site. Or when the judge wears a big floppy hat.

Dogs DO place an amazing emphasis on context; this is why you have to practice everything that's important to you everywhere every time under every circumstance that you can think of before you can claim that the dog really understands the command independent of the context in which it's uttered. (Oh, by the way, does you dog understand the command when someone else gives it?) As you do something a thousand, 2 thousand times in dozens of different places and circumstances, the dog gets better and better at generalizing -- meaning this human noise means the same thing no matter what the rest of the world looks, smells, or sounds like.

Which brings me to this.

Every morning for almost 9 years, Boost has gone out to the end of the driveway and brought in the newspaper. Rain or wind or shine; dark or light; plastic bags or uncovered paper; gigantic ad-filled sunday edition or 20-page Tuesday edition; at the very end of the driveway, up towards the cars, over under the shrub, closer to the sidewalk; squirrels or cats (a momentary distraction only); garbage trucks or neighbors (of some concern, but not too terrifying any more). Doesn't matter.

First thing in the morning, I let the dogs out back. Then, if I don't immediately go to the front door after she comes in, she sits in the front hall and waits for me. SOOOO predictable.

As I approach the front door, she's dancing and barking with excitement. I stand in the front doorway and send her with "Go get the newspaper!" and she blasts out of the house, down the steps, around the corner, down the driveway, finds the paper and comes happily back, carries the paper all the way into the kitchen, drops it on the dog bed next to my chair, and waits for her treat. Sometimes for various reasons I step all the way out on the porch as she heads down the driveway and close the door behind me. When she comes back with the paper, she holds it until I open the door and then proceeds as normal.

Boost DIVES for the paper, her rear feet in the air and her tail flying forward at the abrupt pounce!

She is perfect at it and she loves it.

Sure, we're out of town from time to time, so maybe 20 times a year she doesn't actually go out and get the newspaper, but over all, I calculate that she has done this about 3,100 times in her life.

The other morning, for the first time in many years, I got dressed and took the dogs for a walk immediately after I got up--no breakfast, no newspaper fetch.  On the way home from the walk, as we arrived at our driveway, the paper was still sitting there. I unclipped her leash and said, "Get the newspaper!" Mass confusion--she darted this way and that, trying to figure out what it was that I wanted her to do or get.

So I called her back to me and we walked to the top of the driveway near the house, and I again said, "Get the newspaper!" I tried not to laugh--she was SO eager to get SOMETHING but she just simply did not understand WHAT I was asking. She headed towards the paper a couple of times and then veered away again, bouncing back and forth in that frenzied demonstration of "come on come on come on me want job me want do job ME NOT UNDERSTAND JOB!"

I repeated the command several times and finally she saw paper, identified paper, picked up paper, ran up steps toward door--dropped paper halfway there and waited for me to open the door and let her in. The paper stayed on the front step.

 I knew immediately what had happened: We had practiced doing this 3,100 times with exactly the same situation: She's in the house, I step out through the door, then I send her from there. No wonder she does *that* perfectly. But we've never practiced sending her from other places at other times of the day or with me in different locations.

Dog brains are so strange. Good thing they're cute.

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