Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes

I have written before about Summer’s tendency to be the “fun police” and aggress when my other two dogs are playing rowdily. I taught her to come to me instead and get reinforced for sitting quietly.

This has become a strong behavior, and I don’t have to cue it. The cue is the other dogs’ playing. She responds consistently by coming to me. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently, but I was.

This week my neighbors have a visiting dog who spends a lot of time on their back porch. Harley is a large, apparently good-natured golden doodle with a very deep bark. He doesn’t like being in the back yard by himself and barks to be let in and also alarm barks when he hears things in the neighborhood.

This is very exciting for my dogs: a big, noisy dog next door. Luckily for us, Harley is not too interested in coming over by our fence, so there are few actual fence fights. But even so, my dogs can get over aroused and are quite interested in running up and down the back porch steps to alternately get a glimpse or a sniff of him, sniffing along the fence, and generally marching around with their hackles up.

Except Summer.

That’s right. Summer, my reactive dog, has decided she would rather come and sit in front of me and get treats.

Summer on porch

Brava, Summer! But what made you think of it?

What’s the Cue?

I’ve written quite a bit about how dogs tend to discriminate rather than generalize. They notice things that are out of the ordinary and don’t generalize the same way humans do. So, for example, even a dog who is very friendly to women and most men might bark at the first man she sees with a beard or a hat.

So I was curious: What was the prompt for Summer’s nice response when Harley came around? What was this situation similar to?

Here are some possibilities. I have done the following things with Summer over the years:

  1. Treated her in many situations for orientation to me in challenging situations: eye contact, checking in, and the like (positive reinforcement);
  2. Treated her for “sudden environmental changes” like scary noises, including strange dogs barking (classical conditioning);
  3. Treated her for coming to me when the other two dogs were being rowdy (positive reinforcement with an initial element of classical conditioning: dogs playing means food rains down); and
  4. Treated her in the house for coming to me when one of the other two dogs was barking (positive reinforcement). This is a new one. She started coming to me on her own for that, so it was probably a generalization of one of the others.

Wow, after looking at that list I’ve decided it’s not all the surprising that she decided to come to me when the neighbor dog was out there riling everybody else up. But I’ll continue with my speculation.

The most obvious candidate is the noisy, aroused behavior of the other dogs. When Harley was there, they ran around and barked, which was moderately similar to what they do when the play. But any of the other things on the list could have helped, too. (That’s one of the magical things about doing lots of behavioral interventions with your dog. Synergy.)

So I did what any curious person would do. I took Summer outside by herself when Harley was out in the next-door yard to see what would happen without the other dogs there.

Link to the movie for email subscribers


In case you are unable to watch the movie for any reason, I have put a description in a footnote below. [1]In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are … Continue reading

What’s the Bottom Line?

I think the “main” cue for Summer’s coming to me was my other dogs running around excitedly. Summer did need a little help when she was outside by herself. She got a little “stuck” down in the yard when on her own. However, she instantly responded when I encouraged her to come back up. That part shows the effect of all the practice she has had in interrupting herself from potentially sticky situations. That practice played a big part in her ability to “shake it off.”

This is Not Counterconditioning

Just a word here about desensitization/counterconditioning. Regular readers will probably know that DS/CC is my go-to method for situations that are scary for my dogs.  But what you see in that movie is neither DS/CC nor the results of it. Instead I am reinforcing Summer for performing behaviors other than reactive or aggressive ones. It is an operant protocol. It is not aimed at changing her emotional response to a difficult situation, although over time that may happen as a side effect.

The reason I am not doing DS/CC is that Harley is a visitor and not often around, so this situation is pretty rare. And when he is here, I have no control over his activities and thus no control over Summer’s exposure to him. It would be difficult to impossible to do the true graduated exposures of desensitization.  If he were around a lot I would probably do some straight-up counterconditioning without desensitization, starting out by passing out treats whenever he barked like I did for Clara with Summer’s barking.

Summer nervous
Summer looking worried about something behind her

One clue that this is not DS/CC is Summer’s demeanor, which is anxious at times. This is still much better than running around in a panic, and is not uncommon to see in an operant protocol. But to have a dog looking like this in a DS/CC session for more than a fleeting moment would indicate a failure, as she is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Other Good Behavior

I hope it goes without saying that I keep this excited, over aroused behavior of my dogs to a minimum. It can’t be completely avoided, since they do have to go into the yard to potty, but I can generally go with them and encourage the right things. My presence alone puts a damper on the over-the-top behavior, and I reinforce things like coming away from the fence, doing anything other than reacting to the other dog, and of course eliminating.

The cumulative result is that all three of my dogs will come away from the presence of Harley with just a casual word from me. Under normal conditions, when I am ready to go into the house, I call them in conversationally. I say something like, “Let’s go in, girls.”  (I don’t use their individual recall cues for this.) I reinforce my “suggestion” with kibble when they come, and they almost always come running instantly. It was great to learn that they would come even with Harley around.

Their reinforcement history also has the effect of lowering their arousal and engagement in general. They are easily interrupted, and they frequently interrupt themselves to check in with me. They just don’t get as stuck in arousal mode as they would without this intervention. This is a wonderful trait in general, and it all came about because I first generously reinforced attention to me in exciting situations with high value treats, then maintained the habit by carrying kibble in my pocket in the back yard, and passing it around generously for behaviors I liked.

I would love to hear other stories of good behavior generalizing. Got any?

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1 In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.)  After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!)  Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.

20 thoughts on “Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes

  1. Great article
    @ “It can’t be completely avoided, since they do have to go into the yard to potty” When a dog is negatively affected by something or someone, I brainstorm on how to avoid putting them over threshold or making them uncomfortable. Since Harley’s barking is out of your control, do you have the ability to take Summer and the others for a walk around your town to go potty, out another door, out of earshot and instead of being exposed to Harley? That may be a better temporary plan for the limited time Harley is around. Just a thought. Russ 🙂

    1. Thanks Russ. Good suggestions. Yes, sometimes I am able to take her out the front if I know he is in the back yard. I can minimize contact, but not completely eliminate it. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I am reflecting that although the idea that dogs don’t generalize is popular in the dog training literature, I have never seen any research to reflect that. Do you know if there is anything out there? My gut instinct is that dogs DO generalize, but not consistently. In my experience, the more training a dog has, the better he generalizes. Many, many times I have had to teach dogs simple tasks in one context and have asked them to apply that in a different context and they have achieved this easily.

    Great article about cuing and stimulus discrimination, but I am wondering if generalization is actually an issue at all in this scenario!

    1. Hey! That’s a great point. I don’t know of any research. I’ll look around though. Thanks for the comment.

      1. I can tell you that the last time I looked there wasn’t anything specifically indicating if dogs generalized well or not, but in my experience with dogs, there are two factors that influence this. The first is if the behaviour was initially taught using R-, the dogs I have worked with generalized much faster. The second is that the more training a dog has had in total, regardless of methods used, the faster they generalize new behaviours. My eleven year old chessie generalizes very quickly for instance; he has about ten years of public access as my service dog under his belt, so it is not a shock that he picks things up very quickly. My husband’s four year old German Shepherd was out with me the other day and I showed her how to find toys in the snow (I threw them into unstepped upon lawn) and she was immediately able to repeat the performance in the horse pasture, and in our woodlot, even though the footing and terrain was different. Generalization is an interesting topic in behaviour because it is somewhat difficult to replicate across individuals.

        1. There’s an article on word/object generalization that’s quite interesting. They determined that the dog was generalizing, but on a different aspect from what humans would generalize on. (Whereas the design of the experiment was for the dog to generalize a shape, the dog was more apt to generalize on size or texture.) Yes, it’s an interesting topic.

          1. Link? Was this part of John Piley’s work? I know that he has done some fascinating work on proper versus group nouns which implies a level of generalization, but I don’t think that he specifically looked at generalization. There is some interesting conjecture on what is happening when his dog is presented with a new word and a novel object hidden in a pile of known objects, that implies generalization of “if you don’t recognize this name, then it applies to a particular object”, but I don’t think they have data on that yet.

            Not the subject of the blog really…but interesting none the less.

  3. Lovely blog and video. You’ve clearly worked very hard with your dog and you’ve paid off. As you’ve said you’re not using respondent (classical) counter-conditioning. However, you are using operant counter-condtitioning (OCC) at times in this video and you’re using it very well :-). OCC is also called competing response training, response substitution or counter-commanding or instrumental counter conditioning. It’s when we use a conditioned-response such as “watch me”, “sit/stay”, “heel” etc. to control the undesired behaviour such as in this case, reacting to another dog. so when you helped your dog by giving her a well-known command you were using OCC beautifully and your video is a great example of it. Your dog is at times showing ‘over-learning’ which is great and shows that you’ve been working very well with her :-).

    For anyone interested in more technical details on counter-conditioning have a look at Chapter 5 in the 2002 edition of the BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine. It’s in the 2009 edition as well but it’s explained in more detail in the 2002 edition and I always refer my own students to that one for that particular topic. The chapter is written by Prof. Daniel Mills who you’ve cited earlier and there are many other topics covered in it including ones you’ve already touched on (such as discrimination and generalization) are also explained in those chapters.

    1. Thanks, Valerie! Yes, I don’t talk much about operant counter-conditioning but I am aware of it. In my part of the dog training world it actually overshadows the use of classical counterconditioning and the latter is less familiar.

      Thanks for your kind words, and thank you especially for that great resource. I’ve ordered the 2002 version from my library. It also has a chapter on sound sensitivity, something I am also very interested in with my background in acoustics.

      1. You’re very welcome Eileen.The 2002 version is great for some things but the 2009 version is also very good and has an updated chapter on sound sensitivities and many other topics. They’re nice books in an easy to read format and not too complicated. Another book you might like is clinical behavioral medicine for cats and dogs which Elsevier published in 2013. It’s written by Dr Karen Overall. It’s slightly different to the BSAVA books, covers similar topics but in more detail (in my opinion). I recommend both of them to Vets and behaviour therapists (and students as well of course) to get both if they can as they both define and approach problems differently which I think you would also love :-).

        1. I have Dr. Overall’s 2013 book and I consult it way more than I ever thought I would! It is so helpful. Thanks for the good overview of resources.

          1. Good I’m glad you’ve got it and are using it well. I consider it to be the bible textbook of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine (which she finds very amusing). Now, I know how you managed to train Summer so well 🙂 !!! I’m so impressed by it that I was tweeting about that and your lovely website this morning :-). I’m going to refer my dog behaviour clients to your website as what you’ve been doing with Summer is exactly what I work with them to do with their own dog. Your work will help encourage and inspire them.

            1. Thanks! I’ve been following you on Twitter for a while but hadn’t looked up your FB page.

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