Why Won’t My Dog Listen to Me?

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Fawkes and I have discovered dog parkour as a way to enjoy checking out new environments, while still focusing on me! This was built up slowly, over time, and now he can experience new environments in a way that is fun for both of us!

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.).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Why All Dogs Should Search for Food

I believe that it is in our dogs’ best interests to be encouraged to search for food in certain contexts. Let’s be clear, we are not teaching the dog to search for food, the dog is not learning to search for food, they come programmed for that. I am talking about setting up scenarios in which the dog comes to expect that they can find food, and will be allowed to do so. The most structured form of this is my K9 Nose Work® classes, where dogs start off searching for high value food in a variety of settings before eventually pairing that food with a target odor that dogs can learn to hunt for in expectation of a reward. In a much less formal way, I encourage my in-home training clients to stop helping their dog find tossed treats on the floor, but rather let the dog use his nose to find it on his own. It might be surprising that it would be difficult for a dog to find a treat on the floor, but when we continually step in and help the dog by pointing or tapping our toe, he’s learned a new strategy for food acquisition, looking to you for clues. More about that later, but let’s discuss why food searching matters.

Searching for food is instinctual – it’s primal. It’s still not completely understood how dogs came to partner up with humans, but there’s little doubt that there was food on the table (no pun intended!). One of the more popular theories of domestication, and the one I think is the most likely, is that certain wolves had low enough fear levels to approach groups of humans to get scraps of food items. Those groups stayed closer to humans than more fearful wolves and started diverging from the population. The friendlier they were toward humans, the higher the likelihood that the humans would allow them to stick around, and eventually get close enough to get better quality food. This would mean the very earliest ancestors of dogs were out searching for food one day and smelled a kill that a group of humans had made. They investigated a bit further, following their supreme olfactory senses toward the humans. Decision making time, is it worth going closer to the potentially scary humans to get an energetically low-cost meal, or carry on looking for prey that you then have to chase down and kill yourself? A few individuals were bold enough to follow their noses to a few scraps on the outskirts of the encampment, and they got a few easy calories, thus increasing their chance of survival. Seeking out food sources that don’t involve an energetically costly hunt is in dogs’ DNA, I would argue more so than any actual hunting ability for most pet dogs.

Anyone who has taken a K9 Nose Work® class, or even watched your dog stare up at you as you try to point out a piece of food you’ve dropped in the kitchen, has witnessed the dog’s incredible ability to use the human instead of his own senses. Most people don’t see it as incredible, they think the dog “doesn’t have a good nose” or “doesn’t get the game”, but from the dog’s point of view, why try at all when someone is going to step in and do all the work for you? They’ve taken this energetically low-cost food seeking to the extreme. That’s not a problem, except that a large majority of pet dogs are bored, and many exhibit disruptive and destructive behavior as a result of that, and their brains need more to do. Just because they’ve manipulated us into giving them all their food for free, does not mean that it is in their best interest! We have gotten to the point where we are so fully in control of our dog’s resources, when they eat, when they go out, what they play with, where they go, that dogs rarely get a chance to use the part of their brains that is designed to seek things out, sniff, and problem solve.

I strongly believe that allowing our dogs to engage these senses is the answer to a lot of our dog problems. I’ve seen incredible things from taking and teaching K9 Nose Work® classes, where the dogs are taught a foundation of searching for food (in some instances a toy, but only when that’s much more valuable to that dog than food). This taps into that instinctual drive to seek out food and builds on it in a way that challenges the dog’s mind to solve complex odor problems. This changes dog’s lives. In the very first nose work class I took, there was a tiny toy poodle who was afraid of the world. She was very inhibited, and on the first night of class she would not take food at all.  Each time it was her turn, she would come out, the instructor and the owner would try a few variations of getting her to take a treat (from the owner’s hand, from the floor, etc.) and I don’t believe she took anything that first night. The next week she came back, and I remember her taking a treat of the edge of a box flap, and we all had to show enormous self-restraint in holding in our cheers so we didn’t scare her. By the time we work working outside (I would guess 8 weeks in or so), that same little dog was searching an entire pavilion of picnic tables searching for her piece of food. My two Border Collies, Pirate and Tori, were loving the sport by this point, but what really hooked me was the change I saw in that little poodle.

Sounder the Coonhound discovers a treat in a box during K9 Nose Work® class.

I have since recommended K9 Nose Work® classes to many of my clients’ whose dogs are struggling with a variety of behavioral issues from fearfulness, to reactivity toward dogs and people. Many of my fabulous colleagues recommend their clients to me for nose work classes as well. I have seen tremendous progress in these dogs, some of whom had been through lots of great behavior modification, but nose work seemed to be the thing that allowed them to start behaving more like a normal dog. There’s something almost magical that happens when a dog starts tuning out previous fears or concerns and gets lost in the search. By setting up a completely safe environment for the dog to search, they start to learn that more in the world is safe than they previously thought. They trust the game, and because we can create search areas almost anywhere, we can teach them to trust new environments, or new people, by incorporating them into the search.

For those who aren’t interested in attending K9 Nose Work classes, you’re crazy. Just kidding, but I really do think that any dog can benefit from being encouraged to search for food, and making it into a game that they can take on the road and play in other locations. I teach my clients the “Treat Toss Game” where you toss a treat a short distance away, and when the dog goes to get it, you call their name, and when they reorient back to you, you toss another treat in a different direction (Note: This is essentially the same as Leslie McDevitt’s Ping-Pong Game from her Pattern Games DVD, and it’s where I got the idea, I only changed the name in case I changed the game or the intent in any way!). Now, there are several uses for this simple game, including a great foundation for a recall, name response, and more, but my favorite part of this game is where the dog goes and chases down the treat. Eventually you can toss the treat farther and farther, and because of the success the dog has had at this game, she will more dedicatedly search for the treat. But, not if you help her! You have to build the game from a short distance where the dog can easily find the treat to a more difficult one where there is some searching involved. If you step in and help, you are denying your dog the benefits she can get from sniffing out the treat on her own. You can also set up multiple food searches for your dogs at home, like scattering kibble in the backyard, or hiding pieces of chicken around your living room for your dog to find. Just remember, your dog has a history of you helping him acquire food, so you must start off easy so that you never have to step in and help. If you help, you just reinforce your dog’s knowledge that it’s easier to look to you than to do it themselves, and the whole point is getting them to use their brains!

I was having a discussion with a friend with whom I trade yoga classes for nose work classes for her two dogs. One of her dogs is quite anxious, and we were discussing how much searching settled his mind. She suggested that it might be the increased oxygen he was getting to his brain from sniffing that helped him, just like when we do yoga, or any type of deep breathing exercises. While I have no evidence to support this idea, I think it’s a really good one. I have seen dogs who typically stress pant in new situations take a deep breath before starting a search, because panting isn’t conducive to bringing in odors. I think we could all benefit from breathing more deeply, as often as possible, and if searching helps dogs do that, I’m all for it.

I have become a total K9 Nose Work fanatic, but it’s truly because of the difference I have seen it make in so many dogs’ lives, and their owners’ lives in turn. It has totally changed the way I solve behavior problems in dogs, and changed the way I see my own dogs and dogs as a whole. If you aren’t incorporating searching for food into your dog’s life, I highly recommend you do. Get back to the roots of who dogs truly are and see what a difference it makes for your dog!

Top Five Dogs Most Likely to Bite!

Which dogs are most likely to bite you? It’s not about breed, it’s about behavior! Check out this list to learn which dogs are most likely to bite.

1. A dog who isn’t being listened to
Biting is what we call a “distance increasing behavior”, meaning that it’s purpose is to get the other animal to go away. There is an escalation of behaviors that precede a bite, starting with tensing of the muscles, and may include growling, snarling, and air snapping. If you ignore these early warning signals, you may end up getting bitten!
2. A dog in pain
One of the first rules of Canine CPR and First Aid is learning how to create a muzzle out of whatever you have handy. Even the nicest dog can bite out of pain. If you’re not mid-emergency, and your dog bites “out of nowhere”, the first step is to get a vet check to rule out any pain the dog may be experiencing.

Tori is stressed out by the high velocity dryer during her grooming. I am careful to keep my hands out of the way, because she could redirect her stress onto me!

3. A stressed-out dog
Dogs who are experiencing some external stressor may redirect their frustration on another person or dog who is standing nearby. When a dog is really worked up about something, they aren’t in the right mind set to be thoughtful, and they can make a poor decision about how to act on that frustration.
4. An occupied dog
Some dogs are very concerned with people taking something away from them. This can manifest with food, bones, toys, or other valuable resources. These dogs must be taught that taking away a resource isn’t a reason for defensiveness, but until they have learned that, they are best left alone. Kids, especially, should be taught “When the dog has a bone, leave him alone!”
5. A puppy!
Puppies explore their world with their mouths, plus they are busy growing in new teeth, so it’s no surprise that we occasionally get bitten. Puppy biting directed toward human skin should be reducing in frequency and intensity by 4-5 months. Those little puppy teeth hurt, so try redirecting to a toy!

If your dog has displayed any aggressive behaviors, resource guarding, or your puppy’s biting is going on way too long, call a professional trainer to help you sort out what is going on.

Why are We Obsessed with Verbal Cues?

I’m sitting in the living room of one of my private, in-home training clients, teaching their dog the first steps of “leave-it”. The dog is totally getting it, and I hear those oh-so-common words, “You haven’t even said anything to him yet!” Oh, but I have! I’ve been communicating exactly what I want from the dog – through my actions, not my words.

Communication is very different for people and dogs, because we rely heavily on verbal language, and dogs rely almost exclusively on body language. Take a moment to imagine what your dog’s world is like when it comes to verbal language. From the moment they come into our lives, we are talking to them, and more significantly, we are talking to each other. Think about how many conversations your dog hears during the day; the discussion with your spouse, the phone conversations with your boss, your favorite TV show. They have to learn that none of those conversations have any significance to them, and it becomes the background noise of life. Then suddenly, we need to address the dog directly, and we get frustrated when they don’t listen! We must teach our dogs what words have meaning to them, and when they should pay attention to our words.

While our dogs might learn to ignore our words, they are definitely not ignoring us! If we truly understood how closely our dogs are watching our every move, we would probably be a little creeped out. Try this experiment – Using a cue your dog knows very well, like sit, try asking the dog to “sit” while standing up straight, holding your hands at your sides. Did it work? If so, you’ve done a nice job of teaching this verbal cue! For most of us, the dog just stands there. Now try using any hand gestures or other body cues you normally give, and don’t say the word “sit”. I’m willing to bet your dog did it that time! Even when we think the dog knows what a particular word means, they are often looking to our body language to get additional hints as to what will get rewarded.

Training is all about deepening the bond with our dogs through communication.
(photo by Tails and Trails Photography)

Given that dogs don’t always pick up on verbal cues very quickly, wouldn’t it make sense to start saying those words right from the start? Well, that can cause a few problems. One risk is that like many of our words, the intended cue will become background noise. Your dog is focusing on what behavior will earn her the treat, not what you are saying. Once the dog learns what behavior earns the treat, then you teach her what word is associated with that behavior. Another issue is that during the teaching process, the behavior doesn’t always look like what you want it to in the end. Going back to teaching leave-it, I start by holding a treat in my closed fist, and rewarding the dog every time it moves away from my fist. In the beginning, many dogs will try to mug my hand for the food, licking, chewing, and pawing – none of which I want as part of the final behavior. If I started chanting “leave-it” to the dog as I worked on getting the behavior I want, the dog might think that the cue “leave-it” means “mug my hand for 10 seconds before backing off”. I want “leave-it” to mean “look at me when you see the food presented”, so I’m not going to say the words until I am at that point in my training.

We can use dogs’ tendencies to pick up on physical cues to our advantage. If a dog can read the environment, and determine which behavior is most likely to get rewarded, you don’t have to be responsible for telling your dog what to do at all times! For example, you stop and talk to a neighbor while walking your dog. You have been training the dog that every time to stop to talk, you will reward the dog for lying down. The dog learns that the cue to lie down is you stopping in front of another person. Now you don’t even have to tell your dog to lie down, and your neighbor thinks your dog is brilliant! If your dog knows hand signals for sit and down, you can communicate what you want him to do while you are on the phone, or watching a really suspenseful movie.

So, when are verbal cues useful? Well, if you plan to compete in certain dog sports, verbal cues are a must. It is also important to be able to communicate what you want when you are in different positions (sitting vs. standing), or when the dog is unable to see your body language directly (walking slightly in front of you on a walk or in another room). I also believe that living with dogs is about compromise, and we are a highly verbal species, so I think it’s reasonable to ask dogs to meet us half-way and respond to our verbal cues. This is why it is important to teach our verbal cues carefully, so that we are being fair and consistent in their use. It isn’t dogs’ primary language, and they are working hard to understand what we want from them. I think one of the most important cues we can teach our dogs is that their name means to attend to you. This is the most straightforward way that we can be clear to our dogs when our words are directed at them, they hear their name, look to you, and then you can direct them further from there.

It’s amazing that we do as well as we do, living with this species we can’t always communicate with. Often, I’m called in when that communication breaks down. If we take a moment to consider how the dog perceives the world, and spend some time teaching him exactly what we mean when we attempt communication, we can resolve our frustrations with our dogs. This is the key to a harmonious relationship with our favorite canine companions!

Three Lists that Will Improve Your Relationship with Your Dog

Around Christmas time we spend a lot of time thinking about lists. Wish lists, grocery lists, packing lists, to do lists, the list goes on! Here are three lists you can make that will help you improve your relationship with your canine companion, and start to change any behaviors that frustrate you.

List #1 –My Favorite Things

Make a list of all your favorite things about your dog, and display it where you will see it regularly. This list is the one you will look at when you are feeling frustrated by your dog’s behavior. You can include anything you want, anything that will make you smile, even when you are evaluating the damage to your lawn along your fence-line.

List #2 – My Dog’s Favorite Things

This is a list of everything that is important to your dog. Try to be specific, especially when it comes to food and toys, so write “cheese” instead of “treats”. This will become your master list of reinforcers, meaning these are the things that you can use to improve or alter behavior in your dog. Some reinforcers are straightforward to use, like a treat, whereas others may require some creativity, like squirrels!

Pirate’s favorite reinforcers were definitely toys!

List #3 – What Do We Know?

Your last list is all the skills/cues/behaviors your dog knows. This list has several uses, it helps you keep track of what you have taught the dog (especially useful in multi-dog households!), it’s a great reminder of how awesome your dog is, and we can use it to help us solve behavior problems. When you start feeling frustrated with a dog’s behavior, think about what you want the dog to do instead of the problem behavior. Is it on that list? If so, you just solved your problem, and if not, you now know what you need to train!

We all feel a little frustrated with our dogs’ behavior at times, but these three lists will help you to move past that frustration and start finding a solution.

Shake it Off!

My favorite dog behavior is the shake-off. Now suddenly I’m pondering how much of a dog nerd you have to be to have a “favorite dog behavior”. I love the shake-off because it has such a connotation of moving on, which is exactly what dogs are saying when they shake-off. Other than a wet dog shaking the water off its body, most shake-offs appear to have some aspect of trying to improve the mental state. These are some of the situations where I commonly see shake-offs:

This Border Collie just completed the physical exam in the show ring, and is shaking off before starting the movement exam. He’s clearly ready to move on!

  • Waking up from a nap, stimulating the body and mind after a deep stretch
  • After a stressful event, such as a visit to the vet, or a close call with an unfriendly dog
  • During a break in play, especially after particularly rough or intense play
  • After the removal of equipment such as a harness, backpack, or clothing
  • Before and during a Nose Work search

In all of these situations, the dog is shaking-off in order to move into a better state of mind, or to stimulate and awaken the body. Whether or not it starts with stress, the end goal seems to always be a better mental state afterward. When a coach tells his players to “Shake it off” after the other team scores, he’s telling them to stay in the moment, and improve their mental state for what’s coming next. I believe that dogs are masters at this mind set, and I strive to learn from their ability to live in the moment and not dwell on the past.

Once you start looking for shake-offs you will start to notice how often our dogs do this. I have gotten into the habit of praising dogs when they shake-off, because I want to encourage that “moving on” mentality wherever I can. I should probably start praising myself when I remember to shake it off!