One of the most frustrating moments in dog training is when our dog doesn’t respond the way we expect them to. We label this as stubborn, or even stupid. The frustration we experience can lead to speaking more sternly to the dog, escalating to yelling, or even physical punishments. Before we resort to being annoyed at the dog, we need to step back and evaluate why this is happening. Here are some common reasons that a dog doesn’t listen to you.
- The dog doesn’t understand the behavior – It is very important that there is a learning stage for any behavior you expect your dog to do. This involves practicing the behavior in a low distraction environment, with a high rate of reinforcement, so that the dog can learn what is expected of him before you expect him to do it in the real world.
What you can do about it: Be sure that you teach your dog the skills you will need before expecting the dog to perform in the real world. Break down more difficult tasks into smaller bits, and practice until your dog is proficient.
- The dog isn’t sufficiently motivated – Some behaviors we ask our dogs to do are harder for them physically or mentally than others. These behaviors “cost more” to perform, because they need a longer history of reinforcement to acquire the behavior, and more frequent variable reinforcement to maintain. For example, it costs more to call a dog away from a rabbit than to ask her to sit in the kitchen. If you are asking for a “high cost” behavior, your dog needs to believe she will be paid well for her actions.
What you can do about it: Use high value reinforcers (the best food and favorite toys) for high cost behaviors, and practice frequently so the dog knows what to expect. Each dog is an individual when it comes to what behaviors are high cost, but commonly dogs do best when paid well for coming when called, ignoring distractions (dogs, people, other animals), and anything that is physically difficult/uncomfortable (advanced tricks, nail trims, vet visits, etc.).
- The dog is distracted – What we expect from our dogs, and how the dog actually behaves often don’t match up. Often this is because their experience of the world is much different from our own. Their olfactory experience (sense of smell) is one that we can’t even fathom. Just like a small child will be overly visually stimulated at Disneyland, your dog can have a similar experience just walking out the door with the smells they are taking in. Many times, we ask the dog to do a behavior, and their mind is completely wrapped up in something else entirely.
What you can do about it: Practice focusing on you in low distraction environments and build that slowly toward focusing on you in more distracting environments. If going out the front door causes your dog’s ears to turn off, practice in the front entry with the door open. Your dog needs lots of practice listening to you around small distractions before you can expect him to listen around big ones.
- The dog is fearful – Strong emotions always get in the way of cognitive processing. When the dog’s brain is overwhelmed with fear or anxiety, nothing else can function properly. We can not expect a dog who is experiencing true panic to listen and respond to our cues. The dog may be able to perform well known behaviors, but it is still important to address the fear.
What you can do about it: Depending on your dog’s level of fear, you may need to see a professional behavior consultant, or veterinary behaviorist. Helping a dog overcome fear needs to be a slow, systematic process that should be tailored to the individual dog.
As you can see, it is important to step back and evaluate why our dog isn’t listening to us at any given moment. This can help us from feeling frustrated with our dog and understand why he might not have listened. It is also apparent that when our dog is not listening, it is up to us to solve the problem, not to blame it on the dog. We can help our dogs understand what we expect of them and make it worth their while to comply so that we can get the behaviors we want from them.