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
5-minute read
Episode #45

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

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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.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).