My Dog Just Won't Listen!
Troubleshooting Your Dog's Training or Behavior Problem
Julie Cantrell BSc, CPDT-KA, CDBC
(Some really good articles on this site)
Regardless of our involvement with dogs - as pet owners, breed fanciers, dog sports competitors, trainers, rescuers - there is one thing we all have in common: there are going to be times when our dogs don't respond quite how we'd like or expect. It can be embarrassing, frustrating, and disappointing! Most often (although it may feel like it at the time), these "failures to perform" aren't caused by stubbornness, willfulness, or dominance - more likely miscommunication. But what kind? Before you can take steps to address the problem, you've got to identify it. With that in mind, get your thinking cap on, because you're going to troubleshoot why your dog "isn't listening".
Your dog is being inadvertently rewarded for an alternate behavior.
This is one of the most common reasons for what appears to be disobedience. If your dog gets more attention - hands on him, your voice, eye contact, etc - for not performing (or breaking) than for performing, his performance of commands will get less and less reliable. Remember: give attention, praise and reward while your dog is minding, and withdraw attention when he is not.
Your words and your body language aren't agreeing.
Our expectations (or lack of them) can make our body language and our words seem in conflict. While dogs easily learn to associate words with actions and events, they are non-verbal animals. They excel at reading subtle changes in what we call body language and facial expressions, including tone of voice, body tension, and even changes in breathing. If you are nervous, unsure, distracted or preoccupied when giving a command, your dog's natural tendency to "believe" your body language will lead to confusion. Take a deep breath, put on a smile, and try to visualize giving your command confidently and the dog responding as you would like.
You haven't taught your dog that you expect a consistent response.
Do you sometimes give commands when you aren't prepared to follow through if your dog doesn't respond? Do you ask for a down, but accept a sit because what you really wanted was for your dog to settle? Have you asked your dog to come, but didn't follow through when he only came within 20 feet of you, because that was "good enough" at that time? Do you ask for a stay, then forget to release from it? We can only expect a level of consistency from our dogs that we - the teachers - have practiced and expected in training. There is no magic cure for this problem - once you improve your training, you will see it reflected in your dog's improved performance.
Your dog doesn't realize he can respond in that situation.
You may have moved forward too quickly for your dog to understand. If the lack of response comes in a new or especially difficult (for the dog) situation, make minding easier. Move the dog away from the distraction, to a point where you are getting a good response. Try again in progressively (but gradually) more difficult situations, not moving on till you get success at that level. Sometimes a dog will get "stuck", thinking that he simply can't do what you're asking. In cases like this, it's best to step back in difficulty until you can get a nice response, then quit for the day. Pursuing it when your dog is in that frame of mind is unlikely to be productive, and you run the risk of creating a persistent bad attitude in that situation. As an old trainer of mine used to say "Get Outta There!" - don't take a chance on teaching your dog that no response is the right response!
Your dog is over-stimulated.
Like children, dogs can get "wound up" by too many new sights, sounds, and - in a dog's case - smells. And like children, this improves with maturity as long as the dog is not allowed to learn that wild behavior is appropriate in stimulating situations. Treat an over-stimulated dog much as you would a child: model calm behavior, quietly reward responses to simple commands, take the dog out of the situation before he is "over the top", engage him some calming activity to redirect his attention. (For a dog, this might be lying on his rug chewing a bone or toy, playing a quiet game of tug, snuggling on your lap for a belly rub, or simply taking a nap in his crate.)
Your dog lacks the maturity required for what you're asking.
Very similar to #5. Certain breeds and individuals tend to mature late - as late as 3 or 4 years old. While these dogs are often extremely intelligent and fast learners, they can be quite impulsive or reactive as youngsters. Your best bet with these dogs is to be patient and have a sense of humor, while gradually increasing your expectations as your dog matures. Don't worry too much, some of our most brilliant and productive minds were late-bloomers!
Your dog lacks self-control.
This may seem to be the same as Possibility #4, but it's not really. A young dog can possess quite a bit of self-control, either natural or taught. An emotionally mature dog that has the potential for self control may never have learned to exercise it! At some point, early or late, every dog needs to learn that he can control his impulses. Obviously the earlier you start teaching this, the better. (Recommended: Suzanne Clothier's excellent article on teaching self control.)
Your dog is trying to figure out his options.
This is the possibility most often labeled "stubbornness". In reality, virtually everyone tests their job description; it's a normal and understandable behavior. If your dog thoroughly understands the behavior, and is simply testing to see if, for example, "go sniff the bush" works as an option when asked to sit-stay, you need to clear that question up for him. This usually involves calmly walking up to your dog, taking his leash or collar, and quietly guiding him back to where he should be. Remind him with your verbal and/or visual cue (AKA command), and repeat whatever you were doing when he broke. Repeat if needed. Praise well and warmly but with a hint of authority when he performs correctly after needing a "reminder".
While this certainly isn't an exhaustive list of possibilities, they are some of the more common I've encountered as a professional dog trainer (and yes, while training my own dogs, too). I hope it got you thinking and maybe even inspired some solid, positive ideas about how to proceed in your training. Now get out there and have some fun with that dog!
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