Dogs Don’t Generalize and Neither Do I

generalize, verb

gen· er· al· ize

an extension of a concept (or behavior) from a familiar situation to a less familiar situation

Training with Winnie has been an amazing experience so far. As a cat person, I’ve never really trained any animal to do anything. Granted, the cats will sit for food, but I think that they mostly figured that out on their own. But man oh man are dogs a whole different story.

When we adopted Winnie, I did what any new puppy parent would do- I searched out books by the best animal behaviorists out there. My favorites ended up being Patricia Mcconnell and Sophia Yin. I learned a lot from both of them about not only how to train a dog, but why I’m doing what I’m doing. Dogs brains work really differently than human brains, although I was to discover that Winnie’s dog brain is very much like my autistic brain in one major way.

We don’t generalize.

Here’s an example- I’ve spent most of my life in New York, which has made me intimately familiar with the MTA transportation system. But when I was a smaller human, a teenage size human, the subway was a big problem. The train line that my friends and I usually took was the Green Line, which is composed of the 4, 5, and 6 trains. Something important to note- sometimes these trains overlap. A 4 train and a 6 train can both stop at the same station. In this example, that station will be the 14th St/Union Sq. station. We usually took the 6 train to get there, but it was running behind, and the 4 train would be a lot faster. This is where the trouble begins.

Any New Yorker worth their salt will tell you that in this situation, the 4 train and the 6 train are exactly the same. Even my teenage friends would tell you that. They certainly told me. Multiple times. And time and time again, I’d tell them that they were crazy, then they’d say I was bad at directions, and eventually, we’d miss the 4 train and end up taking the 6 train anyway, and I’d spend the whole train ride trying to figure out they thought that taking the 4 train was the same thing as taking the 6 train.

I’m sure I don’t have to prove to you guys about how these things are different, but just in case, I made a list:

Things that are unknown about the 4 train:

  • If they have the old seats or the new seats
  • How many stops are between where I am and where I want to be
  • If they have the new digital maps
  • If the next stop announcement will be easy to hear
  • How to get out of the subway at the other side

Your average human being doesn’t think about these things. Their brains are able to generalize a familiar situation into an unfamiliar situation.

Now, dogs don’t ride subways, they do have the same issues generalizing that I do.

The way that people help dogs learn how to generalize is to provide them with variety and repetition. When we taught Winnie to sit, we didn’t just have her do it in our living room. We did it in the kitchen and in the bathroom, on our front porch and in the car. In Petsmart, Petco, Pet Supplies Plus, and every place we could find that had ‘pet’ in the name. She learned that ‘sit’ can happen anywhere, and now she’s prepared to do it.

When Winnie came home, I expected cuddles and belly rubs and a lot of picking up poop. I definitely wasn’t mentally prepared for the fact that she and I would share similar learning struggles. I like to think that it makes me more conscious of my own brain processes, and maybe even makes me a better trainer. Now, if only Winnie would give me as many people treats as I give her dog treats!

 

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