Generalizing a behavior is a very important skill for every owner-trained assistance dog, and in dog training generally. Yet, it's not often discussed!
It is also a characteristic that humans are usually quite good at and most dogs do not do easily. This often creates mis-understandings and disharmony in the human-dog team. The human believes the dog "should" be able to do the behavior as he already "knows" it. In fact, the dog only "knows" a behavior in the settings where he has been already trained with that behavior and been successful. Other factors such as anxiety, fear or distractions in that new environment can also make it harder for the dog to successfully complete tasks.
What is Generalizing?
It is the process of teaching the dog to be able to successfully complete a cued behavior or task in many different locations, with a variety of distractions, and may even be with a variety of handlers.
For most dogs, the process involves teaching each behavior from the very beginning at each new location. Pretend that your dog does not know that behavior or task at all and start teaching at each new location. Make a point of scheduling practice at specific new locations. It helps to schedule it on a calendar. With enough training at enough different locations, and enough other distractions, the dog eventually is able to remember what the cue(s) mean without having to be re-taught in a new location.
Humans actually do not have good generalization skills in some situations either. Take test taking for example. Students do better when they are tested in the same location where they previously learned the material. Studies show their success rate is much less when the test is located in a new environment.
Ever heard of the expression "having it down cold"? This simply means that you have practiced the material or skill so much that you can reproduce it anywhere, at any time when presented in any order. This is the comfort level with each task you want to get to with your dog, without boring your dog so he refuses to perform.
How long Does it Take?
It really depends on the dog and the trainer. If your dog has any anxiety or reactivity issues or is easily distracted, it may take much longer. Some dogs seem to have a natural talent for it, while others take much longer. If you are taking your dog to new locations once or twice a week, it will take longer than someone who take their dog to a new location or two each day.
Here are two excellent videos showing how to generalize the behavior of Loose Leash Walking (by placing a small amount of tension on the leash in a sitting, then standing postion), making it into game at each new location. It is a variation of level 1 of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels 'Leash Manners' behavior.
This dog is able to ignore distractions such as other animals, bikes, people etc.
Build in generalizing training into your day. Make a point of taking the time to retrain and practice behaviors when you are away from home.