Why Doesn't My Dog Listen To Me? 5 Reasons and the Solutions
Ever asked this question? I bet you have. It’s easy to become frustrated, especially if you have put a lot of work into your dog’s behaviour. You have likely done everything right. You went to every week of puppy classes; you were careful with your dog’s experiences and ensured they had adequate socialisation. So what went wrong? More often than not, our dog’s undesirable behaviour is not due to our mistakes, but due to our misunderstanding of the reasons behind their behaviour. Therefore, we are going to discuss 5 reasons our dogs don’t always listen and how we can address each issue.
So you learnt lots of obedience with your brand-new puppy or dog and everything went great but then you found your dog did not show the same obedience at home or out on a walk. If I had a penny for every time a dog owner has said “she behaves great during training but she’s a different dog at home”. Why is this? The answer is generalisation. When we learn a new skill, we are pretty good at generalising it to a variety of situations. For example, when we learn to drive, we can drive on any road, at any time of the day because we understand the same skills are needed in a variety of places and times, however, dogs do not generalise very well and don’t understand that certain cues are to be used in every situation.
If they have mostly practiced their obedience at a class or at home they associate the behaviour with those places. Therefore, if you have never asked your dog to sit, whilst on a walk, they may just look at you completely confused. You look back at your dog even more confused because he sat on cue perfectly at home. Your dog isn’t ignoring you; he just doesn’t understand what you want, therefore, its beneficial to teach the cue from scratch and practice in different places. Remember what your driving was like when you first passed? It was nowhere near perfect and you had to practice daily. You may have even displayed the Passed sign to encourage other drivers to make allowances for you. Sadly, our dogs don’t always get the same allowances made for them even when they are just puppies. In fact we expect a lot from them and this leads to reason 2.
There is a misconception that puppies are born hardwired to understand “No”, “leave it” and many other commands that are meant to stop unwanted behaviour. One of the main reasons people think that their dog doesn’t listen to them, is because they believe their dog understands why they are being punished. Ever shouted “no” at your dog for rummaging in the bin and then find them doing the exact thing the very next day?! Maybe even the same day! Telling a dog off, for them to do the very same thing again, can be really frustrating but once you recognise the level of your dog’s understanding, you will understand the reasons behind the behaviour, which is the first step to addressing it.
I know what you are thinking…my dog knows when I’m cross, so surely he shouldn’t repeat the behaviour? Well, yes dogs are excellent at recognising human emotions through our tone of voice and facial expressions, but it doesn’t mean your dog understands why you are cross. Even if you are cross every time they are rummaging in the bin (this can obviously apply to any undesirable behaviour) your dog doesn’t necessarily make the association between his behaviour and your angry response, in fact he may think “oh every time mummy comes into the kitchen she’s cross, now I’m nervous to be in the kitchen”.
That may sound strange buts that’s how dogs’ minds work. They learn through classical conditioning but the association they make might not be the most logical one. As humans we have the ability to reason and determine the most logical cause but dogs don’t have this.
You could carry on the same routine, allowing your dog to perform the negative behaviour and you telling them off in response; but you will be stuck in a vicious circle, that will not have the desired result. Instead of feeling like you are banging your head against a wall, you can prevent the behaviour occurring in the first place and teach a new mutually exclusive behaviour. How can you do that?
Well, using the example of the dog rummaging in the bin, we can choose several approaches. First we acknowledge why your dog performs the behaviour. All behaviours are usually reinforced and finding human leftovers after knocking the kitchen bin over is a pretty lovely reward and therefore a behaviour that is likely to be repeated, no matter what you say to them. A simple solution is to set your dog up for success and remove the bin out of reach or prevent your dog accessing the kitchen when they aren’t supervised.
We may also consider why the dog was foraging in the bin in the first place. Are they bored or possibly hungry? You could play some foraging games in the garden and provide a healthy outlet for your dog’s natural behaviour. You can also teach them another behaviour when they are in the kitchen, such as sitting and waiting and then getting a very high value reward, like bacon. This is effective because you are teaching them a positive behaviour that is far more rewarding than knocking the bin over. You will find that if you provide a healthy outlet for certain behaviours and remove any potential temptations you will set your dog up for success. Thus, you won’t need to say “no” at all because you are preventing a negative behaviour, rather than punishing it. If we know what our dog finds rewarding, we can use this to encourage any behaviour we want, however, we have to be more rewarding than the undesirable behaviour. This leads to reason 3.
Have we put high enough value on certain behaviours? What do I mean? Well we do value some behaviours more than others. We certainly expect a better reward when we work harder. For example, we may work overtime for extra pay. Offering a calm sit in the home is great behaviour but is easily done when there are little distractions. However, offering a calm sit when guests arrive is much harder to do because being fussed by guests is so exciting and rewarding. Now you wouldn’t apply to work overtime if the pay was exactly the same or even less than your regular pay. The only reason you would do it, is because you know you are getting a higher reward; therefore, the knowledge of the higher reward motivates you to do something that is not necessarily enjoyable or easy.
Our dogs are exactly the same. If they expect a higher reward for a certain behaviour, they will be more motivated to do it, even if it’s really tempting not to. For instance, if you gave your dog kibble to sit calmly for guests, your dog is more than likely going to ignore you because jumping up guests is far more rewarding and let’s face it, kibble is boring. On the other hand, if you are offer bacon, your dog is definitely going to focus on you and give you a lovely sit when your guests arrive. By placing a higher value on certain behaviours, you communicate to your dog how much you appreciate certain behaviours.. This encourages them to make far better choices in situations that cause high arousal and excitement.
So, in order to do this, you need to create what’s called a reward gradient. This is literally a record of your dog’s favourite treats numbered 1 to 10, with number 1 being the most favoured and 10 being least favoured (which would likely be kibble). You can then assign a behaviour to each number and give the treat accordingly. For example, a sit at home is a 10 = kibble because its easy. A sit when guests arrive is 1= bacon. This not only keeps your dog motivated, it also helps you to look out for positive behaviour rather than negative behaviour, which leads to our next reason.
Trainers often find that after training classes or sessions end, dog owners tend to let training slide. This can simply be due to believing its time consuming or because they don’t enjoy training, they struggle to motivate their dog or they think 6 weeks of training is sufficient for life. Sadly, when this occurs, communication can inadvertently become quite negative. What do I mean?
Well when your dog was a puppy, you may have asked for a sit before you put his food down or you may have asked for a “watch me” and a “this way” when you saw an off-lead dog. All these cues would have been given to ensure positive behaviour but sometimes this communication can steadily decline as your dog gets older and you may stop communicating with your dog before a choice is made. Instead you may now allow them to bark and jump up until you put the bowl down or pull and bark at the off-lead dog.
The communication with your dog may mostly consist of you saying “no”, “stop that”, “behave”, “bad dog” etc. You may not even realise it is happening. Since you didn’t tell your dog what to do in the situation, he made a decision and sadly its not always the right one. If this happens on a daily basis, your dog can develop low self-esteem because he is subsequently failing on a regular basis and isn’t sure how to please you.
Although we should be able to eventually phase out treats, we should still use our cues with praise. If you learn anything from this post its “use your words”. If your dog doesn’t respond to the cue, consider why this might be from what you have already learnt from this post. Your dog just may need more practice with different distractions or higher value treats. On the other hand, your dog may not understand the cues, which leads to our last reason.
Does your dog really understand the words you are saying? Although we are likely unaware of it, we give a lot of other non-verbal cues when we say certain words. For example, when we say down to our dogs we may automatically make a down motion with our hand. Therefore, your dog may actually understand the hand signal rather than the actual word. While both are fine to use, dogs need training cues to be consistent, in order for them to respond reliably. Sometimes we may believe our dog understands the cue, when in reality we are making the choice for them.
To illustrate, a lot of clients tell me their dog understands “leave it”. So I ask them to demonstrate and as they do, they say the cue and yank the lead away. What really cued the behaviour? The word or the pulling the dog back? When I mention the lead pulling, they weren’t even aware what they had done. I would then ask them to put a tasty treat on the floor and take the dog off lead to repeat the exercise. At this point the owner repeated the cue “leave it” and the dog grabbed the treat regardless.
Just because you say a word and sometimes get a desired result doesn’t necessarily mean your dog understands it. Unless you teach your dog what each cue word means, by creating a consistent association with positive reinforcement, your dog will not respond to it reliably. Regarding “leave it”, you have to teach your dog that they get a better reward, if they leave whatever they have found. If you do not teach them this concept, saying “leave it” will not make a difference because the thing they want will be more rewarding than turning to you. It’s often just a case of they can’t get to it because they are tethered to your side.
As mentioned, we need to use our cues and communicate what we want our dogs to do, however, we do need to be careful how we use them. If I came up to you and shouted “down” over 10 times within 20 seconds, I think you would feel a little awkward and rather irritated. The same goes for saying your name over and over. It would drive you bonkers and you would eventually just ignore me and walk away. So you need to be careful how often you say your dogs name and how many times you are saying a cue before you get the desired behaviour. If you say “sit” 5 times for just 1 sit, you are just reinforcing your dog ignoring you and you are making your cue words sound redundant because they aren’t getting a treat for each time you say it. The more you say a word, the less weight it has.
Therefore, when you give you’re a dog a cue, give them chance to respond. They may need a few seconds to think. If its been more than 40 seconds, then repeat the cue once more. If this doesn’t work, consider if there are any distractions or if your dog needs a little help remembering by using a lure. Rather than saying the cue word over and over till you get really frustrated, try again later and use higher value treats to motivate your dog. So, you need to ensure the cue you give is consistent with the hand signal, the word and the tone of voice used each time. If you only want to say the word but you taught your dog with a hand signal you can gradually phase this out.
Also, use your cues wisely and have patience when you have asked your dog for a behaviour, so that you don’t have to keep repeating the cue. Remember to not ask for a different behaviour when your dog hasn't responded to the first cue such as "sit, sit sit, down, sit". Stick to the cue you have chosen and help your dog to respond. Changing your cue only confuses them and sets them up to fail,
Finally, we have to remember that training doesn’t stop after puppy classes/training finish. Your dog is constantly learning and making associations. They are always learning about the consequences of certain behaviours and repeating whatever they find reinforcing/rewarding. Hence, you should continue your dog’s training throughout their life, even if it’s only 3 minutes per day, with intermittent treats. Remember the saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it” and this is so true with your dog’s training. If you keep using it, your dog will always be set up for success, you will have great communication in any situation and your bond will be so much stronger.
More often than not, our dogs do listen to us but we should regularly ask ourselves if we listen to them.
If you would like help understanding your dogs behaviour and opening the lines of communication, please feel free to contact me to arrange a training consultation.