Help! My Dog Isn't Listening
In this post:
- Why is my dog not listening?
- How to make your dog listen to you
Training your dog can be difficult, but it is vital to successfully integrate them into your home while maintaining some sanity. We’ve got over training tips and tricks in several other blogs, but we haven’t really addressed some of the reasons why you might be having trouble training your dog.
In this blog, we’re going to review some of the reasons why your dog might not be listening to your commands. Here’s a spoiler: it’s got nothing to do with stubbornness, dominance, or anger towards you.
“If dogs are not doing something, such as not adhering to a cue directed from a human, you have to ask yourself “what is the motivation for this dog to disengage from that squirrel?” Have you provided a history of disengagement that equals some kind of payment? Nobody does anything for free in this world; we all want a payoff and dogs are no different. So you want to make sure that when you are looking at dog behavior, you look at the environment and you look at your behavior. By assessing that information, you can get better results from your dog.”
– Drayton Michaels, CTC
History of Reinforcement: My favorite argument that people use to discredit positive reinforcement is “well that is not how the real world works. Your boss does not give you a cookie when you do something good.”
Yeah, my boss does not give me a cookie when I do something right, but I get a paycheck and I get medical insurance. I stay at the job because I can get a promotion, or a raise, or a bonus based on how well I am doing at the job. I would not go to work if I was not getting something that I want from it. So, why should we expect our dogs to do something when all they have is a history of punishment and no rewards?
Now, I am not saying that you should be treating your dog for the rest of their lives, there are other things that dogs want from us:
- Treats (obviously)
- Cuddle time
- Getting on the bed
- Favorite toy
- Walk time
You can use anything to reward your dog. The more consistent you are with rewards = the more consistent your dog will be. If every single time you called your dog and your dog came to you, you had a mini party for them, they are going to want to come to you when you call them. If they get yelled at and/or hit, why in the world would they want to come when they are called?
Reasons your dog may not be listening to you:
- They are distracted – you need to motivate them to leave the distraction.
- They do not know what you are asking of them – have you really taught them the command?
- The command is not generalized – just because your dog knows what to do in your house, might not mean they will do it outside.
- They are afraid – when a dog is in a fearful situation they are less likely to “behave” or do what you ask them.
- There is no history of reinforcement – they have not been rewarded or praised for doing something.
- They are avoiding being punished – some dogs will avoid doing a “command” simply because they know that they will be punished if they mess up, so they just don’t do it at all.
- They are stressed out – your dog could be overwhelmed and is not able to focus on the task.
- They are sick or injured – some tasks are not possible to do if your dog is sick or is hurt. If they have back problems, laying down might be hard on them.
Always look at the environment and yourself to see what could be causing the dog to not listen before blaming the dog.
If your dog is just not listening no matter what you do, here are some things you can try. Or you can always work with a professional trainer.
This is probably the number one reason your dog is not listening – he or she is a little treat addict. You know this is happening when your dog refuses to do anything unless you show them a treat first (this is called bribing). You pretty much have to take it back to step one with this one to remove the treat from training. We have an amazing post about removing treats from training. I suggest you visit that for more information.
This is the easiest one to fix. Always start training in a low distraction area. The more that is going on around your dog, the less likely he is to focus on you.
Drayton talked about this, you have to have a history of reinforcement for the behavior. You need to practice to make sure your dog knows what you are asking of it.
Then, slowly (depending on your dog) you can start adding distractions.
Practice his recall, commands, and tricks while increasing distractions. You might also have to use a higher value reward to motivate your dog to listen to you.
One important thing to remember is to set your dog up for success. If you know that you will be in an area with high distractions and you are worried you would not be able to call him to come to you, you have a couple of options. Avoid those situations or come prepared. If it takes you 20 minutes to get your dog to leave a dog park, plan that 20 minutes so that you are not in a hurry and getting upset.
Some distractions are things like stress, fear, and anxiety. If your dog is unsure of himself or is afraid, he is going to have a hard time focusing on you. This is the worst time for the dog owner to get frustrated or upset as it could make the fear even worse. So if your dog is not paying attention to you, look around at the environment to see what is happening.
This one is a little harder for some people to grasp. You may have noticed that your dog behaves well in one environment, such as when on the leash, but reverts to his untrained days when at the dog park.
Dogs do not generalize. Generalization can become easier for a dog over time. To help them along you need to practice commands with different stimuli.
You should change the location of your training, your voice, and the time of day. You should do training when you are on a walk when the dog is off-leash and during play. The more situations you put your dog through, the higher his recall will be with commands. By expanding their store of experience, you can increase their responses elsewhere.
Generalization practice is easy. About every 10-20 steps is a new world to your dog, there are new smells and new things to look at. Stop every 10-20 steps and ask your puppy or dog to come to you as you walk backward (or run backward). Reward your dog for coming to you by walking forward. Another 10-20 steps, play a game of commands with him, see how quickly he can respond to “Sit, Down, Sit, Down, Sit, Down…” then keep walking. Another 10-20 steps stop again, get your dog or puppy in a stay, and back away slowly from them. Release them to go sniff. This will tire the dog or puppy out.
Does your dog know the cue or does he have it mixed up with another?
Go back to where you think your dog knew the command. Your dog could have learned the wrong cue, maybe you were holding something or making a hand movement you were not aware of. Your dog may have taken these unconscious hand movements as cues for behavior.
In the video, Smash rolled over every time I used the command “down.” Go back to where the dog knew the cue perfectly and start there. You might have to reteach the command using a different cue. I retaught Smash “down” by using “lay” instead.
Too Much Energy
I am bad about this one! Sometimes your dog isn’t ready to do a training class if they have ants in their pants. Take your dog for a walk, or a run, or even play with them, before you start your training session.
This is especially true with younger dogs. It can be hard to sit still around other dogs when you are bursting with energy.
Whenever I’m having computer trouble, I stop to think about what I’ve been doing. About 95% of the time, the issue is what I’d refer to as “user error.” I’ve done something wrong that is stopping the computer from functioning properly.
It’s the same with your dog. If training isn’t going so well, think long and hard about the environment, your actions, and what kind of motivation you’re relying on. You will have to at least adjust a few things if not start from the very beginning with a few commands. Your dog is never going to be purposefully defiant, so remember to be patient and try to place yourself in their paws.
Special Thanks To...
Drayton Michaels, CTC is the owner of Urban Dawgs Dog Training in Red Banks, NJ. He also holds a Certification in Dog Training and Behavior Counseling from the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers.