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Generalization versus Discrimination

I think what you are describing is not "generalization" but rather "discrimination". Also what you are describing is a matter of safety (i.e. a fearful situation), thus survival, and a dog's reaction to that will be more pronounced than it would be otherwise.

Dogs ARE poor generalizers, but excellent discriminators. Generalization is the ability to take something learned in one way and apply it elsewhere, when the conditions are different. Discrimination is the matter of picking up tiny details about a situation and recognizing them as factors in other situation. From a survival standpoint, it isn't good for a dog to generalize too readily... while it is essential for a dog to discriminate very readily.

For instance, for survival, a dog shouldn't assume that something it can do safely in one situation, can be done safely in all situations - that would be generalized learning. Let's say the learning concerned a wild dog trusting one human... it would be maladaptive for that dog to then assume it could trust all humans. At the same time a dog might learn that garbage cans contain food, and garbage cans placed at the curb (away from dwellings) are safer to raid. So you could say that generalizing is, generally speaking, the opposite of discrimination. <e.g.>

As for reacting more strongly to fearful stimulus... that is largely a survival instinct. A dog that has to learn several different times to avoid something that causes harm, is less likely to survive than one that learns once. To notice (discriminate) a salient characteristic (big black dog) and use that as a basis for decision making is a good survival pattern.

Of course, to take a survival instinct to an extreme is also maladaptive. For instance if Laika then assumed that anything big, anything black or all dogs are bad... that would be rather extreme and in a survival situation not a good thing.

Clear as mud?

Carla Baker
copyright 2001 Carla Baker


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