Contextual vs Conceptual Understanding in Dog Training

This is a very common problem in dog training. The handler mistakes contextual understanding for conceptual understanding. What’s the difference? Let’s take a look at that, shall we?

From my Dictionary…


the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed:the decision was taken within the context of planned cuts in spending.


of, relating to, or based on mental concepts: philosophy deals with conceptual difficulties.

Context and Canine Generalization

Contextual understanding is based upon the circumstances of a performed behavior while Conceptual understanding has to do with the underlying mental concepts of a performed behavior. For those of you who have worked with us and gotten our Clicker Game instruction, this is a real life expression of the difference between What you did and What you know

For those of you who have not worked with us or have not played our version of the Clicker Game, let me try to explain…

“Dogs don’t generalize well.” That’s pretty much a foundational principle of dog training, I’ve operated under it for more than a few years, but I’m not really sure how true it is these days. I think a better phrasing of that old adage would be “Dog Trainers don’t generalize well.”

What if it’s not the failure of the dog in generalize skills but it is, instead, the failure of the handler to teach the root concept of the skill in the first place?

When a dog learns to Sit in front of their handler with a lure (the standard way of teaching the skill) the dog’s understanding of the behavior is “When my handler says,”Sit,” I stand in front of my handler, watch the cookie and when my butt hits the floor, I get to eat it!” It’s nearly all context. So when the handler moves the dog to Heel or Side position and says,”Sit,” the dog immediately walks out of Heel to “Stand in front of my handler”, the contextual understanding of the Sit behavior. This is explained by dog trainers as “Dogs don’t generalize well,” and it’s proven over and over through the course of our interaction with our dogs.

A “perfect” sit in the house falls apart outside or in another indoor venue. A requested bite and tug on a disc doesn’t translate to a requested bite and tug on the leash. And so on.

What if it’s not the failure of the dog to generalize the skill but the failure of the handler to teach the root concept of the skill in the first place? What if we as dog trainers are more often than not fostering a contextual understanding of behavior instead of a conceptual one?

Shifting from Context to Concept with the Clicker

When we play the clicker game with human beings (humans training humans), we mark and reinforce tiny little pieces of behavior and shape them into behavior chains. When asked,”What do you know?” The person almost always talks about the context of the situation:

I know you wanted me to put this here.


“I know I get reinforced for picking things up and putting them down again.”

All about what they did, not what they know…

The answer always has to do with contextual understanding of the behavior. And why should it not? After all, the whole idea of the game was to create a pretty complex behavior and to help enable them to understand what it feels like to be trained with a Positive Marker. So the context of the game overwhelms the far more important root concepts that we’re really trying convey to our students. Once we break it down and actually help them understand what it is that they really know after some human on human training we have:

  • Attention – Look at the handler
  • Target – look at object
  • Touch – touch an object
  • Object Discrimination – what’s good, what’s not…
  • Pick Up – pick up an object
  • Drop – put the object down
  • Hold – hold the object
  • Proximity – objects positional relationship to one another
  • Orientation – flipping, turning and manipulation of an object
  • Match – touching two objects together
  • On – putting an object on top of something
  • In – putting an object in something
  • Under – putting an object under something
  • Hook – connecting objects together
  • etc.

These are root concepts in a human clicker game. So, when we want to shape a person to choose a ball and put it inside of a cup, there are all kinds of root concepts that the  behavior is built upon – here they are in order:

  1. Attention to the handler is required to initiate work.
  2. Target the balls, the cup or working area in general because it won’t do us any good if they go into the other room.
  3. Object discrimination – either through touch or targeting, the correct ball must be chosen.
  4. They must pick up the correct ball up which requires touching it and knowing about Object Discrimination.
  5. They must hold the ball which requires the concept of Holding something. – requires touch, pick up and Drop.
  6. They must move the ball closer to the cup – requires an understanding of Proximity – hold, pick up, drop and touch.
  7. They must have the opening of the cup oriented so the ball may be put into it.
  8. Drop Ball into cup.

Now, that’s a lot more stuff than just “I Get a ball and put it in the cup.” And if any of these root concepts are weak or not understood the whole behavior chain breaks – Apparently, humans don’t generalize well.

Focus on Concepts

How many of us as trainers have really worked on object discrimination?

Most trainers have not really worked on targeting objects on the ground let alone multiple objects. Hold? How many trainers have taught the concept of a hold? I know that my dogs didn’t really get that concept until recently, they were already performing the behavior in a contextual fashion, and that was cool by me… but it’s often not enough.

We need to do a better job of breaking things down for our dogs, laying out the root concepts of the behaviors that they are learning and especially delivering the root concepts of the behaviors they already know.

The things that I have taught at the conceptual level, Up Pup (jump up on an object), for instance, are very easily generalized by our dogs. Holding various objects, no problem, we taught the root concept Hold and the underlying concepts of Pick Up, Touch, Target, and Attention as well as the incompatible concept, Drop. But the things that I have taught on a contextual level are very tough to generalize. Usually what winds up happening is that I quit trying to generalize them and break down and deliver the concept to the dog. Ironically, I do this through a lot of generalization.

Another way to look at delivering the conceptual understanding to our dogs is to generalize the heck out of the skill. It makes sense too. The more you generalize, the more you isolate the root concepts.

This post was split in two and the genesis of the idea, the context, can be found here.

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