My dog is not listening!

Jamie Flanders CDBC

There are so many reasons why a dog may not respond to a human’s requests.

Let’s break them down.

Drop the labels.

Let go of any labels or excuses that you or anyone else may have asserted is the reason your dog is behaving the way he is. Labels like stubborn or excuses like “this breed is hard headed” will not set you up to be able to accurately solve the behavior issue you are facing.  Even if the labels or excuses are true!

 Wants and don’t wants.

It so easy to come up with all the things we don’t want our dogs to do there are unlimited possibilities to choose from. However, when faced with a challenging behavior issue it is a lot harder to solve the problem if you’re thinking about all the things you don’t want. You will arrive at a solution much faster if you think about what you do want your dog to do, or what you want your dog to do instead of the thing you don’t want. For example, if you don’t want your dog to jump up on people, what do you want your dog to do when greeting people? When you figure that out you can invite people over and start practicing!

Bribes and rewards.

If you are up to date with recent science and research you should be choosing to use positive reinforcement training, which means you are likely utilizing food, toys, or some other type of motivator to shape your dog’s behavior.  You’ll need to be careful that you’re not accidentally turning your rewards into bribes.  A reward is given after your dog has performed the behavior you asked for.  A bribe is shown to the dog before your dog has performed the behavior and then given to the dog after the behavior. We know that bribes can work very well in the beginning but over time they lose their power and become ineffective. Here are some things to consider so that you do not fall into the bribing trap:

·  Lures (holding food in your hand for example) need to be faded out as quickly as possible.

·  Try not to reward your dog with the item your using as a lure. For example, use your body and voice to encourage (lure) your dog to come to you and then use a food treat when he does come to you, rather than using a food treat to lure your dog to come to you and using that same food treat to reward him afterward.

·   Do you always wear certain gear during training time, and remove it after training time is over? Dog’s are very observant and can tell when there is possibility for reinforcement and when there isn’t. If the treat pouch is on, it’s game on! If the treat pouch is off, why bother? Either wear your training gear outside of training sessions; which is a great way to be able to catch and reinforce good behavior in your dog all day long, or randomize where the rewards come from.

Thanks, but I’m full.

If you are using food to reinforce good behavior in your dog, you will want to make sure that your dog is being fed his meals on a schedule and that he finishes the meal within 10 minutes of it being offered to him.  If your dog is grazing on his food all day long, he might lack the food motivation you need when you are ready to train him.  A much better use of your dog’s meals is to use them in your training sessions or feed him from food puzzle toys or scavenger hunts. Food puzzle toys and scavenger hunts help prime him to work for food.

Motivation.

It might surprise or humble you to know that dogs do not always want to do what humans tell them to do and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s unlikely that any person exists that wants to do everything other people tell them to do all the time, and there may be good reasons for it! What’s the point of coming inside with nothing much to do when there are squirrels invading the yard or pee-mail to sniff?  Just because you don’t care about squirrels and the urine of other dogs doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t care about those things.

For a dog, human, or anything else to want to comply with a request they must first understand the request and how to execute it (which is addressed later) and second there needs to be motivation to do it.  No body works for free. Work requires expending energy and maybe even ignoring things that are important to you so there better be a good pay off for it. 

If you call your dog to you while he’s having a good time doing other things, make it worth his while. Don’t lock him up in the house with nothing to do or put him in a long down stay, take him to a park and play fetch, or let him go back to what he was doing after he checks in with you, or give him a raw bone to gnaw on. Motivation to work comes from a predictable (he can count on it) positive consequence for completing the job.

Oops.

Sometimes we just don’t realize what associations our dogs are making. We can accidentally turn something as innocuous as the word “sit” into the doggie equivalent of a four-letter word that eventually he stops responding to, or worse eventually stresses him out. Here’s an example of how this can happen: a handler tells his dog to “sit”, the dog doesn’t respond quick enough, so the handler pulls up on the dog’s collar with the leash, which raises the dog’s front paws off the ground an inch and then he pushes the dog’s rear end down with his other hand until the dog is in a sit. This happens time and time again. Most dogs will find this type of handling aversive, unpleasant, rude and stressful. The handler might think he’s teaching the dog to sit, but what is actually happening?  The dog is building a negative association to the word sit. The association that the dog is building is that “sit” = being choked by the collar and pushed down, because that’s what always happens after he hears the handler say “sit”. This turns “sit” into a bad word or a poisoned cue.

Emotions matter.

Dog’s experience many of same emotions that we humans experience. We know that when we are under stress, afraid, frustrated, or excited we behave differently than when we are calm and relaxed. We know it’s difficult to think and solve problems or make rational decisions. Dogs are no different. If your dog is under stress, afraid, frustrated, or excited he won’t be able to do what you’re asking him to do very easily. Take him away from what ever it is that has him in an emotional pretzel and let him calm down. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish and consider the way your dog feels, deal with his emotions first and then the behavior you’re looking for will fall into place.

Brilliant not psychic.

Dogs are smart, intelligent, amazing animals that can read us like a book. Unfortunately, we humans can sometimes over estimate what our dogs can understand. Humans are a highly verbal species and we tend to blather at our dogs complex sentences that they have no hope of understanding. Does “sit” mean the same thing as “good sit”? Do dogs understand words that modify verbs?  Nope. They don’t.

Your dog only knows what you teach him; the exception being innate behavior (things dogs do naturally like digging). Your dog won’t be able to stay on his mat with guests in the house if you’ve only been teaching him to stay on his mat in the middle of the night after work in your pajamas.

If you want your dog to behave a specific way in a specific context, you will need to replicate that context over and over and over so your dog can rehearse the behavior in that context as much as possible.

 Danger.

Remember back a few paragraphs when you learned that emotions and motivations matter?  When harsh training techniques are used to get dogs to do what we want, or if we let our own emotions get the better of us and we lash out at our dogs when we become frustrated with them, we risk turning our dogs into those emotional pretzels again and though fear is a powerful motivator it does not give you reliable behavior and it does nothing good to your relationship.

 Relationship.

Talking about the importance of having a great relationship with your dog could fill up 10 more pages! You could be the best trainer in the world and still have issues if you do not have a great relationship with your dog. Great relationships are built over time. The time you spend needs to be positive.  Spend time trying to understand your dog, his needs, his likes and dislikes. Avoid getting caught up in controlling every aspect of his behavior, let him be a dog. Enjoy his personality and what ever quirks that come with it.   

Intelligent disobedience.

This might be the rarest reason the average dog owner struggles with their dog not listening. It occurs where a service animal trained to help a disabled person goes directly against the owner's instructions in an effort to make a better decision. Though it's unlikely that many people experience this there is something that can happen along similar lines. 

Consider what you're asking your dog to do. Are you asking him to sit on hot asphalt? Do you have a shy dog who would feel rather uncomfortable laying down in a large group of people? Are you asking your elderly dog who may have arthritis or be hard of hearing to respond immediately? 

The bottom line is try to avoid making snap judgments about your dog, stop, take a breath and think critically about what the problem might be.  

Jamie Flanders