Generalization and Discrimination theory pertaining to dog training and dog behavior

People and dogs are not the same. There is no doubt that human beings are much more developed through the process of evolution. But there are some primal, animalistic instincts that are based on the same principles in both human and dog behaviorism.

Modern psychology developed a huge theoretical foundation, especially in the field of conceptual behavior, which consists of behavioral processes like discrimination and generalization. Let’s learn more about both processes and their application to dog behavior. This most definitely will help you to choose where and who will train your dog.

Discrimination is the process of variable responses to different situations or consequences due to the past history of positive reinforcement or positive punishment.

Generalization process occurs when some situations fail to produce discriminative operant responding.

Let’s discuss the way this relates to training your dog and how this generalization and discrimination applies to your dog.

There are two different location pathways that an owner may train the dog: you can train your dog at home or you can take it to the training center, among other dogs. If you are training your dog away from home, you’ll face series of problems, such as: unknown environment, presence of new smells and distractions that will make the training process more and more complicated, due to the lack of your dog’s attention, which disallows attention and focus of the training at hand.

For example, would you take your child to the circus and while the man on the flying trapeze will fly up above, you will try to teach your child arithmetic or spelling? The distraction level will be so high, that it will make it impossible. The same is happening to your dog when you take it to the training facility, which is not the dog’s home environment. Once you will arrive to the facility you will proceed through the door, where the sensory aspects of the dog, his smell, his sight and other senses will be occupied and he will not be able to learn well. Dog trainers in the facility will have only two choices to gain the attention in the vein of teaching the dog commands. They will try to overcome the distraction level by using treats, food, toys (which is my approach), or they will use compulsion, like prong, choke or electric collar, that may hurt your dog and make it fear motivated or aggressive and dangerous. This style of compulsive training can lead to your dog being hyper fearful or hyper aggressive, where prior to this training the dog’s only issues were not severe, but afterwards it has mistrust in mankind, that generalizes fear of the training to fear or awareness of other people. It can turn your dog that was calm and lovely to an aggressive animal, because it will generalize that any person leads to punishment. For instance, if the person that was training the dog and was using yanking on the leash attached to the choke or a prong collar was a man, the dog will generalize that every man is going to hurt him. The case mentioned above is typical example of generalization in dog behaviorism.

Here as follows is the classic example how generalization and discrimination behavior play out in the training at a facility or kennel other than the dog’s own home environment. Example: you take the dog to the kennel or to the training center. The method that used was leash attached to prong or choke collar. The dog understands after several interactions with the trainer the way to avoid the powerful snap on the neck is to begin to read the body language of the trainer. For instance, if the trainer’s hands start to move upward, the dog soon will incur the powerful snap on the neck. The trainer’s intention of the move upward is to force the dog into the sit position. Soon the dog starts to realize it and pays more attention to the trainer’s body language, trying to avoid the upward snap on the neck. The dog has no way out of this scenario, it has the steel collar on the neck, leash attached to it and the trainer proficient in escape training. The basic sequence of learning plays out of this type of training through every command: sit, down, come, etc. One last example: the dog already generalizes, that the trainer’s hand moving upward leads to the yank on the neck, the same sequence but with the hands moving downward and forcing the dog into the “down” command.

Here is where the typical generalization and discrimination on the dog’s behalf occurs, as follows: the dog generalizes, that it has no choice but to obey at the kennel or the training center, no option but to sit or down etc., it generalizes, due to professionalism and to the skills and force of the person who is in charge of training. The dog is yours, you’re going to take it home. The first order of business after you take it home is to take the collar and leash off. All of the obedience at the training center or the kennel is attached to the trainer, the leash or the collar. The moment the dog understands, or "discriminates" that it’s free of the trainer, the collar and the leash, it will immediately behave and respond differently, “discriminate”. Your money, your obedience, simply follows the leash and the collar, wherever you hang it or place it. All mentioned above is an example of the simple law of Discrimination and Generalization in the behavioral sciences.

Steve Fisher, dog trainer