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Helping Your Service Dog Generalize Behaviors

We have heard the expression location, location, location as it pertains to real estate, but for those of us familiar with Canine Learning Theory and service dog training, changing location is paramount when it comes to teaching your dog to “generalize” or learn to do a behavior or command in any given situation or environment.

Before the dog can move on to the final step of ‘patterning’ or making the behavior into a habit, they must be able to obey the command in any location regardless of distractions.

According to a recent article, 2014 Service Dog Challenge: Impulse Control, “your partner should offer rock-solid eye contact almost as a default,” says Kea Grace. “Ingrain that handler focus in all situations and make it a habit.”

I couldn’t agree more that eye contact is key, but how do you build consistent behavior and focus on you in All situations? By helping your partner learn to generalize by putting your service partner in every imaginable location, situation, and circumstance in order to increase public access success and to make a behavior a habit.

There are three training reasons why a handler needs to use the theory of generalizing. It will:

1) Insure carryover

2) Decrease anxiety

3) Increase motivation

If training is restricted to one area, location or time during the day, then the behavior only accommodates to one set of variables.

For example, if your dog only sits in one location, in one area of the room, with no change, this will not insure carryover when extraneous elements are introduced. He doesn’t know how to generalize “sit” to other locations or circumstances.

Your dog knows the command to sit; however if the context changes, the dog can become anxious. Behaviors learned in one environment will not necessarily carryover to another.  This can happen when the handler fails to introduce variety with location, space, and time.

Dogs can generalize in some situations, but I have seen many dogs, for example, that will not sit on all surfaces. Sit means sit when you can engage the sit cue in a variety of situations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATry the following locations with your dog when generalizing the cue or command to SIT:

1) Indoor artificial turf

2) Cold linoleum floor

3) Dirt floor inside a barn

4) Isolated field, meadow, or park

5) Uneven tiles in an outdoor café

6) Heavily trafficked area in a shopping mall

7) Gravel roadway

8) Concrete at a bus stop or crosswalk

For more ideas, please read Socializing Service Dogs in Training: 100+ Things to Include. If your dog can sit on ‘all these surfaces’ and at various locations, chances are SIT does mean SIT.

Your dog will do this behavior because she has generalized, in other words adapted and adopted a pattern that complements the command, decreases fearfulness, and increases motivation that will diminish constant prompting of a command or cue by the handler.

My greatest challenge with my service dog is remaining at a ‘sit or down’ in a restaurant around people food. “Dogs will always select the most immediate reward (sniffing the ground for a single dropped treat),” says Grace, “vs. waiting for a bigger reward (by holding sustained eye contact even though a treat was dropped on the floor, in order to receive 15 extra treats given in a row).”

Although correction is key we all know that reward, food or otherwise, is the ideal motivator.

I use the “watch me” command (keep lengthening the time to reward when training while eating) to get my dog to focus on me during a meal and until completed. The much awaited for reward (quality treats, please) comes afterward and ‘always’ away from the table.

Generalizing as often as possible by changing the location where food is being served, in conjunction with that ”rock-solid” eye contact on you ~ will make for a well-behaved service dog welcomed at any eatery.


  • Don’t limit your service dog’s experiential learning.
  • Change location through generalizing to help your dog succeed.
  • Make a Behavior – a Habit!

Bev Thompson is a Feature Writer covering stories about Service and Working Dogs for online and magazine publications and is the recipient of Excellence in Writing Nominations from The Dog Writer’s Association of America (DWAA). She lives in New York City with her Sealyham Terrier, Pip, who is Full of The Dickens, stirring the pot competing and titling in companion and performance events and currently ‘getting nosey’ in her Scent Work Classes.


  • chilbrooklabradors August 20, 2014

    Very good article and very true. Thanks

  • Kristi Sindelar August 21, 2014

    Great reminder. Thank you!

    • Bev Thompson August 23, 2014

      Thank you, Kristi.

    • Bob February 1, 2016

      Is this the same Kris from Missoula?

  • jeanne Southard August 21, 2014

    Excellent article ! Clear, concise, easy to understand, and great training tips. Thanks

    • Bev Thompson August 23, 2014

      Thank you, Jeanne.

  • Bev Thompson August 23, 2014

    Thank you, Debby.


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