Generally speaking, dogs don’t. Generalize, that is

Dogs don’t generalize. Not situations, objects, behaviors, nothing.

There’s a saying in dog training – every dog’s a trial champion in the kitchen. And that pretty much sums up the entire difference between people and dogs. 

Brain differences

Hope came up with a pretty good analogy explaining this to her obedience competition students this week. When you learned how to use a fork, you knew how to use a fork. No matter what the fork looked like. Or what it was made of. Everyplace you ate a meal, you still knew what a fork was for and how to use it. That’s “generalizing” the behavior.

Dogs have to be taught to do that. Not use a fork. Generalize behaviors for all places and situations. Just because your dog knows how to “sit” on command everywhere in your house doesn’t mean he’ll know how outside. Or at the vet’s office, park, training class, pet supply shop. 

Not starting from zero

French Bulldog Torque can generalize "sit" in different places
Torque sitting at home. And at an agility trial. He generalizes “sit” anywhere we go.

Dogs will pick up on the similarity pretty quickly. But it stymies people at first when they stumble across this fundamental difference between people and dogs. Just today, a young couple was telling us that their wonderful, 12-week-old puppy knows how to sit, stay, lie down, even “give paw” when they’re at home. But when they took her to the vet and tried to show off her skills, she knew nothing. 

A puppy that young doesn’t really “know” any of the behaviors reliably, of course. Instead, she knows that when her people act a certain way and make those sounds, she’ll get a treat if she does something. So she does something. (By the way – whenever we think about what dogs hear when we talk, we get a mental cartoon of the Peanuts gang listening to adults. Don’t you?)

Analyze your own behavior

Chances are your dog is picking up lots of cues from you to indicate which “thing” you want him to do. At some point they do recognize actual words you’re using. But, especially early on, most of the information your dog understands comes from body language. If you always hold the treat in a certain hand and use a gesture when you say “sit,” all of those things are part of the dog’s understanding of what you want.

Competition obedience requires that certain commands be either word or gesture. Not both. And some dogs are better at understanding voice commands, others prefer the visual. When we first discovered this with our own dogs, we thought it was fascinating that, once again, dogs are just like us! Some people learn better by listening, others by reading. 

Generalize can spreads like crazy

Once your dog understands the concept “here is the same as home” the notion will spread fast. Dogs can learn to generalize. Most times you don’t have to re-teach the idea for every behavior. As long as you stay consistent with your words and body language, your dog will understand what you’re asking. But be sure to remember the treats

Dog barking making you crazy? Change it!

Dogs bark. Unless you have a “barkless” breed – barking is what they do. It’s how they communicate. It gets them the attention they want. And it’s their instinct as part of “protecting” their territory.

But your dog’s barking can also be incredibly annoying and inappropriate. Like when they have to let you know about every leaf blowing down the street.

Change is possible, but not easy

No one ever told us that it’s simple to get the things we really want in life. Changing your dog’s barking behavior is no different. It’ll take some time, some patience, and persistence. And you’ll have to accept that the longer it’s been allowed, the longer it’ll take to change. Habit, not love or gravity, is the most powerful force in the universe.

The first thing to look at is how you’ve reacted to the annoyance of your dog barking over time. If you’ve always yelled at your dog to “shut up!,” chances are he thinks you’re barking too. He may think the two of you are having a lovely conversation. Dogs don’t really distinguish between kinds of attention – as long as they’re getting some, even if it’s negative, they’re probably okay with that.

What’s first

So, if you can’t yell at your dog to be quiet, what do you do? 

Come up with something else:

  • Turn away from your dog and speak in a whisper
  • Leave the room
  • Squeak a toy and toss it the other way
  • Ask your dog to do something else – sit, down, spin, any “trick” he knows
  • Close the drapes/blinds

That last one is a biggie if your dog is one to sit by the window or door and comment on everything happening in the neighborhood. It’s the first step in modifying behavior – take control of the situation and shape the situation so learning can happen.

What’s next?

Once you understand what’s going on, how your dog is manipulating you (we’re all well-trained by our dogs!), and what you can do to change it, you’re on track for a happier, quieter life for everyone. 

We’ve recently been going through this with Hope’s yard-barking French Bulldog, Torque. We have neighboring dogs that bark at ours. One even charges the fence. Torque became pretty obsessed with “patrolling” the yard, looking for the interlopers. He even began barking to lure his “enemies” into range.

Unacceptable barking

Keeping Torque on leash and just managing the situation wasn’t improving it. We want to be able to enjoy being outside (after the weather warms up – January isn’t ideal). We want our dogs to be able to wander the yard, sniff around, be dogs, without annoying us and the rest of the neighborhood.

French Bulldog barking at fence

The key to changing the behavior is figuring out what’s more valuable to the dog than being “naughty.” It’s easy in Torque’s case – he loves toys. He also loves treats, and he adores training sessions with Hope.  Because Torque gets super-excited with toys, Hope opted to use treats to teach him better neighbor-manners.

She felt very brave, taking him out without the “security blanket” of the leash. Sure enough, Torque took up his station staring through the chain-link fence into the next yard. And gave a bark. And Nikko, the Husky who lives there, appeared around the corner of the house. 

Of course Torque spotted him, too. And started barking. Hope moved into his line of sight and quietly said his name. As soon as he glanced at her, he found a treat in his mouth. Surprise! Good boy! Hope moved so Torque, facing her, was angled slightly away from the fence. He turned a bit, then back and barked. 

Again, Hope moved so Torque had to see her. He looked at her and found another treat in his mouth! Good boy! And she moved away from the fence, talking to him and keeping his attention. 

Just then Nikko “woofed.” We think he realized he was losing his audience. But by that time, Torque realized that he was in the middle of a game with his “mom,” and chose her. Win!

Not fixed yet

The behavior isn’t “cured” in one session. It will be many more before we can be sure that our dog will “mind his own business” in the yard rather than looking for trouble. But it’s a start we can build on. 

As with all behavior modification, it will be a “two steps forward and one step back” progression. There will be days when we don’t feel like doing it. And days we don’t have the time to work on it. That’s okay. We have a start, and a plan. 

Help is available!

If you’d like more insight and help understanding your dog’s behavior, be sure to check out As a member of our group you’ll learn how to meaningfully communicate with your dog and live your best lives together.

Circle of life moment

It was a definite “Circle of Life” moment. On New Year’s Day we got to do the best-ever thing for dog people – we got to play with puppies! Our friend Emily’s Keeshond Poppy had two gorgeous little girls that are now about six weeks old. 

Socializing – aka: playing!

Responsible breeders, like Emily and her mentors, make sure their puppies meet all kinds of people and deal with all kinds of situations as they grow. The puppies have toys that move, make different noises, wobble, hang in the air, etc. They have little tunnels to crawl through, different kinds of surfaces to walk on, stuff to climb over and tumble with. Well-raised puppies are busy little creatures, always being introduced to new stuff that will help build their confidence, curiosity, and socialization.

Emily was kind enough to invite us over to help with that socialization – meeting all kinds of people is part of the process. We were having too much fun playing with the pups, Miss B and Little Bit, to remember to take pictures, but Emily let us steal one of hers.

2 keeshond puppies sleeping

Patience is always a virtue when dealing with dogs – especially with young puppies. Like all of us, they prefer what’s familiar – looking to Emily and her husband Harold for reassurance rather than dashing off to see the strangers. But these adorable, well-balanced pups got used to us pretty quickly.

Soon they were playing with us – squeaky toy chasing, shoe-lace chewing, finger-gnawing and all the wonderful things that go with puppies. It was such fun to see them exploring their world!

Sweet when they sleep

Puppies don’t have very long attention spans, nor much stamina. Imagine how exhausting it must be to encounter something/somebody new every single day! Emily reports that the puppies slept peacefully for a good long time after we left. She was finally able to get some work done around the house! Lots of things get put on hold when there are new babies around.

Puppy playtime was joyous and fun. But that “Circle of Life” moment happened right when we arrived at Emily’s home. Our dear friend was wearing a shirt with the logo of the 2019 AKC Agility Invitational, which she did not attend. 

Poignent moment

Emily and her wonderful Agility girl Peaches were eligible and received an invitation to the event. That piece of paper is now a cherished memento of her girl’s life. Because Peaches died of an uncommon type of cancer a few months ago. She was young and athletic, adored her “daddy,” and was a joy in their lives. And there was nothing anyone could do to save her – they tried. 

When we left Emily’s house, we were smiling. Playing with puppies! And crying a bit. Because of that whole circle thing. 

Can my dog catch a cold?

Last week Hope came down with a doozy of a cold. So congested she thought about auditioning for the horn section of the local orchestra. Since Torque is her constant companion, it made us wonder – can my dog catch a cold?

Catching colds is a human thing

Turns out that, while dogs can suffer from a variety of respiratory diseases, colds aren’t usually among them. At least not the same ones that people get. 

Most people know that colds are caused by viruses. And, theoretically, you can only catch each one once. There must be a whole heckuva lotta cold viruses out there!

Dogs can show the same symptoms we have: stuffy/runny nose, sneezing, coughing, watery eyes, and generally feeling like crap. But the viruses that cause the symptoms in dogs are different than the ones that we get, according to the PetMD experts.. 

Black rough Brussels Griffon

The dog in our house who most often gets respiratory illnesses is Tango. Every so often he’ll go on a sneezing rampage and the dreaded green snot trails out of his nose. He’s usually pitiful for a day or so, then goes back to being his normal role of supervisor and fun police in the house. 

Same level of concern

We’re not quite sure why it matters if it’s the same, or a different virus causing the same symptoms. When you feel sick, you don’t really care which virus is causing it, you just want it to go away. From the research we’ve done, the same is pretty much true of dogs. So the answer to “Can my dog catch a cold?” is not really. But he/she can get something that looks, sounds, and acts just like one.

As long as you’re dog is functioning normally (eating, drinking, pooping, peeing) and just seems “under the weather,” apparently there’s not much to do about it but let the virus run its course. 

It’s just a cold, after all.

Seriously symptomatic

After a couple of days, Hope was back to being just a little sniffly – the cold virus ran its course and is heading out. And Torque is just fine.

If you think your dog may have a respiratory virus, don’t let it go on for too long. After a few days, if you’re not seeing any signs of improvement, or if the symptoms worsen, it’s time to call the veterinarian. Hopefully it’s no big deal, but there are more serious illnesses that start with the same symptoms.

Just like us one way

And, just like colds can run rampant through a family/school/workplace, dog viruses can be just as contagious from one dog to another. If you have multiple dogs, like us, try to keep the “sicky” separated, although we know how difficult that can be.