Why Can’t My Dog Behave in Public Like he does at Home

a puppy snoozing

I Promise that He Can Do It at Home!

One of the best things about working with clients in dog training classes is seeing how excited they are to show me the progress that they have made with training their dog in between classes. It’s one of the first things that I ask about when we get started, and invariably their eyes will light up and they will get very animated while describing the training milestones that they achieved at home. While they are talking, they are getting their treats ready, the clicker is poised, the dog is in front of them, and then they finish their story and say, “Here, let me show you!” They give the dog his new cue, expectantly waiting for him to perform, and then…nothing happens. The dog just stands there and acts like he’s never heard that word before in his life. The client might repeat the cue a couple more times, but still nothing happens. At this point, the poor client is usually a little embarrassed or frustrated or confused and she will say “I promise that he can do it at home!”

I believe you! I believe that your dog has mastered this new cue at home in the living room. What your dog hasn’t done yet is generalise his new cue.

When dog trainers talk about generalisation, they are referring to a dog’s ability to respond to a cue and perform its accompanying behaviour in more than one environment. Sit doesn’t just mean “put your bottom on the ground in the kitchen when mom has the food bowl in her hand.” Sit also means “sit” when you’re at the park, in the pet food store, at the beach, around new people, around other dogs, etc. Generalisation comes pretty naturally to humans – it’s just something that our brains do. Dogs, on the other hand, are really good at discerning the little details in a given scenario, but they’re not so good at understanding the “big picture” when it comes to applying new information. The good news is that we can teach them how to generalise and they will get better at with practice!

Factors that Can Affect your Dog’s Ability to Generalise a Behaviour


When you first start training your dog a new behaviour, the room that you train in, as well as the number and types of distractions that are present are all part of the associations that your puppy makes with the new cue that you are working on. You might think that sit means “put your bottom on the floor,” but to your puppy, sit means “put your bottom on the floor when mom is standing in front of you in the kitchen with the food bowl in her hand.” When you think about it from the dog’s point of view, it’s easy to see how he could get confused or fail to respond when you take him outside and ask him to sit at your side. All of the associations that he initially made when learning the cue “sit” are gone, and he’s probably not sure what you are asking of him.

Presence of training equipment

Most dogs will respond to cues enthusiastically when you are wearing a treat pouch around your waist and your hand is reaching towards it. The sight and smell of the pouch is a big clue for the dog; we’re getting ready to train and this human has lots of goodies! Take the treat pouch off and put it on the shelf, however, and it might be a different story. Again, your dog isn’t being stubborn; he’s probably just confused and doesn’t realise that you want him to do something.

Dog and trainer’s position relative to each other

When we first start training our dog a new behaviour, we generally stay in the same position: standing in front of our dog. That’s fine to start with, but how often are you standing perfectly still, directly in front of your dog when you give him a cue in your daily life? If you have only worked on “down” while you are standing in front of your dog, and then you suddenly ask for a “down” while your dog is at your side, there is a good chance that he won’t understand and probably won’t respond.

Dog Training Tips to Make Generalisation Easier

  • Begin generalising as soon as you can. Once you have a behaviour on cue in one location, take your future training sessions for that behaviour somewhere new.
  • When you first start training somewhere new, make it easier for your dog.
  • Use higher level rewards. A highly motivated dog is one who is likely to try harder to figure out what you want him to do!
  • Allow your dog to explore the new environment before you start asking for any kind of behaviours. It will help him calm down and be less distracted.
  • When you’re ready to begin your training session, start by working on attention and focus exercises before you get to the new behaviours that you want to generalise

Generalising cues is something that all dogs need to be taught how to do in the beginning stages of their training. The good news is that the more that you generalise behaviours in training, the more your dog will understand the concept and he will most likely start doing it on his own!

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