Let’s say your dog has a great “sit stay” at home. You can walk into another room, hide a few treats, and return, and he’s still sitting patiently where you left him. Yet when you are in the backyard or at the park or at the vet’s office, he refuses to perform a cue you are certain he knows. In truth, he's not refusing to respond. For dogs (and humans) context matters.
Think about it this way: you may be great at hitting free-throws in your driveway, but if you found yourself at the line during game seven of the NBA finals with an arena of screaming fans and the championship on your shoulders, you have a good chance of missing the basket. It would be overwhelming because most people never practice free-throws in this context.
The same is true of your dog. But if you proof the cue—practice it in different locations and under different circumstances with lots of positive reinforcement—you can help your dog understand that the cue means the same thing no matter where you are.
Here are some tips for helping your dog generalize:
Start working on every new cue in a place with few distractions like inside your house or apartment.
Switch to slightly more challenging environments like your backyard, patio, or balcony if you have one.
From there try working on the cue on a quiet block or at the park when it’s empty.
Next you could try practicing on a busier block or at the park when there are more people and dogs there.
If your dog doesn’t respond in a new situation or location, it’s possible you’ve moved too quickly. Go back to an easier, less distracting environment.
Bring plenty of treats to reinforce the behavior!