If I had a penny for every time I heard the phrase: “my dog just doesn’t listen to me!” I would have a lot of pennies. It’s a big accusation that implies your dog both heard and understood what you said. It sounds simple enough. But it isn’t.
Selective hearing affects all dogs at some point in their lifetime. If you have a dog, then there has been, and will be many more instances where you ask your dog to do something… and he doesn’t do it.
Let’s go over the top five reasons for this far-too common complaint:
One: Your Dog Didn’t Hear You
If I’m in the middle of reading and someone walks in and asks how my day was, there is a really good chance I won’t respond, not because I didn’t want to, but because I’m not listening. Similarly, if your dog is invested in something, she won’t hear you. Before giving a cue, get your dog’s attention. Instead of spurting out “sit” while your dog is shopping for floor crumbs, say their name first. Like so: “Fluffy, sit.” If that doesn’t work, or if your dog is distracted by something super interesting, make some silly noises to get their focus. By the way, the more you train with your dog, the easier it is to get attention.
Two: Your Dog Has No Idea What You’re Talking About
This happens a lot, especially with cues like “leave it”, “heel”, and “off.” These words often don’t actually get trained. You just one day announce to your dog to “leave it” and they do it. So they must know it – right? Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. It wouldn’t have mattered what you said because you probably had your stern voice on and startled your dog. So that “leave it” may have worked today on your shoe, but probably won’t work tomorrow with the neighbor’s cat. Before you can expect your dog to know how to respond to a cue, you have to teach your dog the behavior associated with the cue.
Three: You Have No Idea What You’re Talking About
Before training a cue, you have to be able to define it. For so many people, “leave it” means don’t touch it. But then what? What do you actually want your dog to do?
Should they sit instead? Or look at you? How about both? Does “heel” mean they should just not pull? Or does it mean they should walk next to you while looking at you? And on what side of your body?
You need to have a clear definition of what you want before you even start to train it.
Four: You’re Not Using the Right Cue
This is most common with dogs who have been trained with lures. You could say “sit” all day, but until your hand goes up their butt isn’t going down. In this case, you’ve accidentally put sit on a visual cue, but that is easy to change. Just give the verbal cue and then immediately follow it with the visual for a few lessons. Your dog will quickly learn that hearing “sit” means you’re about to ask them to put their bum on the ground.
There’s also the issue of cue repetition. It isn’t necessary, and can be confusing for everyone involved, if you continually repeat yourself until your dog responds. He isn’t more likely to do it the more times you say it. Unless, of course, you are guilty of doing this all the time and you’ve accidentally made the cue: “sit, sit, sit, sit”. In which case you’ll want to re-train it as just “sit”.
Five: Negative or Not Enough Reinforcement History
This one is a biggie. If a word has a negative history associated with it, you’ll need to change the word for a better response. For example, if “come” always means you are leaving or the fun is over, your dog isn’t coming to you. Cues need a strong positive reinforcement history before you can rely on your dog’s response. Train in all sorts of contexts – in the house, in the yard, at the park, everywhere. And use treats, always. You wouldn’t do laundry if there weren’t clean clothes at the end of the tunnel. I know I sure wouldn’t. Make sure it’s worth their while – give them a paycheck. Oh, and don’t forget give raises and bonuses when necessary.
So, if you’ve gotten your dog’s attention, your dog knows the word, you know what you want, you used the right word, and you trained it really well, your dog will listen.
Ann Marie Silverberg
Ann Marie has been working with animals professionally for over a decade. From dogs and cats to pigs and turkeys, her many positions in animal husbandry have taken her from volunteering in animal shelters to veterinary medicine. She recently started her own training and behavior consulting business in Massachusetts, Brainiacs Dog Training.