What to Do When Your Dog Doesn't Listen

You gave your dog a “command,” and he didn’t “obey.” Why is that?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
June 15, 2010
Episode #045

No matter whether you adopted your very first dog six months ago, or you’re a longtime trainer with dozens of competition titles to your credit, there will be times when your dog doesn’t sit, or takes the agility obstacles in the wrong order, or nabs the roast before your very eyes while you sputter “Leave it!”  This week, the behavior formerly known as disobedience, and some pointers for dealing with it.

What to Do When Your Dog Doesn’t Listen

Let’s consider that purloined roast, for starters. For a dog, leaving a dry biscuit alone on cue is the equivalent of kindergarten; turning away from a vulnerable and fragrant hunk of meat is an advanced skill, akin to an Olympic skater’s triple axel. Neither skater nor dog can succeed without long and careful practice.

Teach Your Dog to Listen by Practicing

There you’ve got the first point to consider when your dog doesn’t respond to a cue quickly, or at all: Have you practiced enough times, and in enough different contexts, to be sure she really knows that cue cold? Have you practiced with gradually greater distractions? To a professional trainer, thoroughly teaching a behavior means dozens, hundreds, even thousands of reps.

And just because a dog has learned to perform some behavior on cue in our living room or training area doesn’t mean he will recognize it when he hears it on the street. That’s not only because the street is distracting. It’s also because the street is different.

There’s a famous anecdote about the trainer and behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar challenging a roomful of trainers to prove their dogs could sit on cue. Of course our dogs can sit! said all the trainers--right up until Dunbar had some poor stooge give the sit cue while lying on the floor. Needless to say, the dog did not sit. Why? The scenario was too different. The dog didn’t recognize even a familiar cue.

Consider Your Dog’s Breed and Individual Personality

To a professional trainer, thoroughly teaching a behavior means dozens, hundreds, even thousands of reps.

When you evaluate the thoroughness of your training, take your individual dog into account. It’s a challenge to teach Afghans and other sighthounds to come reliably when called. Terriers, who belong to a group of breeds developed precisely as tireless hunters of vermin, will find rodents more intensely interesting than your average dog. Miniature Pinschers are notorious for their inclination to bark. If you’re finding it a slog to teach your dog a particular behavior, consider what she was originally bred to do. When you train against the grain, expect to need extra time and practice.

It doesn’t really matter, by the way, whether you know your dog’s breed or mix. A squirrel-mad dog is squirrel-mad, even if we can’t nod knowingly and say “Well, yes, of course, that’s because she’s of Brooklyn Squirrel Chaser lineage.” 

Teach Your Dog to Listen by Using Clear Cues

That business of different contexts is closely related to a second common reason why dogs don’t “obey.” Your dog may indeed know the cue for a particular behavior upside down and backwards--but the cue she knows may not be the one you think you taught her. We yammering primates focus on words words words, and we tend to assume that the sounds coming out of our mouths are equally significant to our dogs.

And, sure, canids vocalize some of their communications. But they rely much more on body language. Besides, humans talk all the time. Dogs can have a hard time picking out which of the endless sounds we make have anything to do with them. From their perspective, the  signal-to-noise ratio is really low. Imagine you’re trying to understand the intentions of a person who speaks a language of which you know nothing. You watch their face and hands and posture for clues, right?  Our dogs do much the same.

So you may think Dogalini is responding to your verbal cue when actually she’s picked up on some tiny unconscious movement that you always make at the same time. If, say, you’re carrying packages and can’t deliver the usual body English when you speak your cue, she will have no idea what you mean. For this reason, professional trainers carefully separate gestural cues from words. Most pet guardians are understandably less meticulous, which is fine as long as we don’t blame our dogs for the confusion that can result.

Teach Your Dog to Listen by Paying Attention to Emotions

Plenty of non-training reasons can also interfere with a dog’s compliance. Emotions easily get in the way; a dog who’s terrified of air brakes, for instance, is unlikely to respond to his name when he hears an 18-wheeler screeching to a halt. Is your dog barking and lunging at another dog? Then you can take it as a sign that he’s experiencing significant distress--distress that will get in the way of his ability to respond when you tell him to sit. Helping with the underlying behavior issues here will almost certainly have to precede any training fix.

Teach Your Dog to Listen Under the Right Conditions

What physical conditions are you working under? Does there happen to be a puddle right where Dogalini would need to put her heinie when you ask her to sit? Or consider this--because tiny dogs tend to conserve heat poorly, they’re often reluctant to lie down on a cold floor. The same goes for dogs with thin coats. Sometimes an older dog refuses to perform a behavior he’s known all his life. If your grizzled old dude won’t lie down on cue anymore, maybe his arthritis is acting up. Or maybe he can’t hear as well as he once did; when you call him and he doesn’t come, he’s not ignoring you. The cue just isn’t getting through. Illness can interfere with our dogs’ quickness to respond to us, as well. Remember, a vet visit is in order whenever an adult dog’s behavior changes suddenly.

Disobedient, Defiant, Dominant, Dumb … Distracted?

When dogs don’t do what we ask them to, we’re often invited to think of them as disobedient, defiant, dominant, or dumb. Yup, one day you’ll tell your diligently trained, non-hearing-impaired dog “Let’s go,” but she’ll keep sniffing the fire hydrant. I can’t pretend that I’ve never gotten annoyed when this happens to me--but then, I have never been poky, distracted, immersed in what I’m doing, and consequently slow to respond to a reasonable request. And since I’m perfect, I have every right to expect my dog to be perfect, too. Ahem.

That’s it for this week! Please write me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com or visit me on Facebook. Or you can call, 206-600-5661. I respond as often as I can, and I draw on your comments and questions in planning future articles. Thanks for reading.

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