I’m not a huge fan of the term obedience. It conjures up the idea that a dog must always obey like some kind of robot and never has any option to say ‘actually I’d rather not thanks.’
Just imagine if you were tasked with never having the option to say ‘no’ when requested to do something. To never being allowed to feel too tired, too stressed or simply in the mood. To expect our dogs to respond without question or with any respect to their feelings suggests a dictatorship rather than a partnership. Yes, it’s important that our dogs respond to our requests but I like to think of it as a request rather than a demand. So it doesn’t matter to me if my dog doesn’t always want to drop the ball when I ask him to only that he drops something when I really need him to. In order to achieve this, I have an extra exciting drop cue for when I really want him to drop something.
Although the majority of dogs are eager to learn many owners struggle to get their dogs to respond to them in certain situations. This often comes down to increasing difficulty levels far too quickly during training and a misunderstanding of a dog’s ability to generalize learning to other situations. Ineffective use of rewards or an overreliance on punishment to control behaviour also has a significant impact on the success of training.
1. Increasing Difficulty Too Quickly
One of the most common problems I see with dog owners in class is trying to progress far too quickly. Quite often I show owners the very first steps of teaching a leave-it – holding a treat in a closed hand whilst waiting for their dog to move away and the next minute they are asking their dog to leave the biscuit on the floor. They just skipped the ten steps in-between! Most commonly, however, I find owners skipping steps when it comes to the recall. Mistakenly believing that because the dog does a perfect recall when there is no one else around, that the dog now knows what recall is and therefore will return when the park is full of people and other dogs. This is simply not the case and there are still many steps to go to achieve that all-important recall. If you work at the level you know your dog can be successful before gradually increasing the difficulty, your recall cue will remain effective. If you are shouting out ‘here lassie’ one hundred times when your dog has no chance of coming back, you just taught your dog that your words mean nothing.
2. Dogs Don’t Generalize
So you have taught your dog to respond really well when you are at home and your feeling pleased with your progress. Heading out to the park, you decide to ask your dog to do a couple of things and yet they don’t respond at all. Feeling frustrated it’s tempting to blame your dog and assume they are acting up. They have already been taught what to do after all. However, this is an unhelpful way of thinking that many owners often fall into. Unlike humans dogs don’t generalize very well. If you learnt something new at work, you wouldn’t then need to learn it again when you got home. You would simply know what to do in any similar situation. The thing is your dog doesn’t. Dogs struggle to recognize that the same cue in a different environment still means the same thing. In short, this means just because your dog can do something really well at home it doesn’t mean they understand what to do when they are somewhere else. To achieve a good response to your verbal cues, you need to train in multiple environments often at varying times of day working up to busier times and environments.
3. Ineffective Rewards
Quite often owners just aren’t exciting enough! Run around with that toy and have a great game if your dog comes back to you during recall. A bit of your dog's boring dry kibble or some fuss and a ‘good boy’ just aren’t motivating enough. You need to pay your dog well for the work they have done if you want to keep them working for you. High-value treats and rewards make all the difference especially for new or difficult tasks and particularly when working with distractions. Squeezy cheese, liver paste, a bit of chicken or a game with a favourite toy makes training a lot more interesting to your dog. Make it worth their while and they will be much more willing to work.
4. Relying on Punishment Rather Than Training
Using more positive training regimes creates dogs that are more motivated to perform the behaviours you want. Think about when you were at school; did you feel more motivated when you were told off for not doing well enough or when you were praised for trying your hardest? For example, punishing dogs for not returning quickly enough during a recall can create dogs that become reluctant to recall as they soon learn when they return they will get a telling off. In comparison, a dog that knows they are going to have a really fun game with their owner are much more likely to come bounding over when called.
These are just some of the reasons why dogs may not be as responsive as we would like, however, there can be other reasons that our dogs do not respond. In these circumstances we have to try and think about things from our dogs point to view to establish why things are not working as we would like. Sometimes it’s an easy fix such as an unclear hand signal or recognizing when our dogs are tired and distracted. At other times the answer may be more complicated instead relating to previous learning or an unnoticed increase in stress within our dog's daily environment. Either way, there is always a reason as to why our dogs are not choosing to respond. Yet if we learn to work with our dogs rather than looking to apportion blame then our chances of success are much higher and both we and our dogs will be much happier.
Tamsin is a qualified animal behaviourist having obtained an MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour from Lincoln University in 2013. In 2017 Tamsin started running Puppy School classes in Solihull, having received tutor training from renowned author, dog trainer and canine behaviourist Gwen Bailey. Prior to running Puppy School Solihull Tamsin spent over two years working at Dog’s Trust gaining valuable experience in caring for and training a wide variety of rescue dogs. In 2014 Tamsin and her husband adopted their own rescue dog, Milo, with whom Tamsin has worked successfully to reduce his reactivity towards other dogs. In addition to dog training, Tamsin enjoys writing articles and resources on the topic of dog behaviour for both professionals and dog owners.