What to Do When Your Dog Won’t Listen

The World Is an Exciting Place

Dogs who respond to commands consistently at home are often highly excitable and unresponsive when they go anywhere new because they are not getting enough physical or mental exercise throughout the day. Adding in two daily walks that are strenuous enough to leave your pooch panting (being mindful to go out during the coolest times of the day and to adjust for the health and age of the dog) and using food puzzles can make a major difference in a dog’s responsiveness when he’s in a new situation.

Location has a lot to do with a dog’s ability to learn to respond to commands. Dogs may have a thorough understanding of a behavior when it is asked for in a certain place (at home, in your own yard, at the park), but may need to practice the same behavior again when brought into a new environment. Whatever behavior you are teaching your dog needs to be reinforced in new situations with different distractions. This way, your dog learns from experience to obey your commands no matter where he is or what else is going on around him.

I’m Not Sure What You’re Asking

Your dog may not respond to your requests because he does not fully understand what he’s being asked to do. I often see owners who repeat the command “sit, sit, sit” with an escalating volume until the dog finally plops his bottom down on the ground, often in response to a leash jerk (and not the actual verbal command).

Many times a dog has little association between a word or hand signal and a behavior that he is being asked to perform, so he will simply guess what you might be asking for. Alternatively, if a dog has been punished for a certain behavior in the past, he may hesitate to follow a command to do that specific behavior. Re-teaching a specific behavior and substituting a fresh, new word as the verbal cue enables your dog to respond faster and with less hesitation.

Related: Why Rewards Work Better Than Punishment

Getting Your Signals Crossed

Dogs are highly skilled at reading body language in other dogs and their humans. Often what a pet parent thinks the signal is for their dog to perform a behavior is not actually the signal the dog is responding to. For instance, although many pet parents think the signal for their dog to sit is by saying “sit,” many times the dog is responding to a body movement, such as moving a hand up in the air, taking a step toward the dog or doing a head nod. The dog may only respond when the body movement is done properly, and may not respond at all to anyone who doesn’t do the correct body cue.

It’s important to pinpoint exactly what your dog is responding to, whether it’s a specific word, movement or combination of both, and then practice this exact cue for the dog with every member of the family so the dog will readily respond to the command with whoever asks.

Related: Clicker-Based vs. Lure-Based Training

Let’s Talk About Feelings

Your pet may be experiencing a strong emotion, such as fear, which makes it difficult for him or her to respond to normal behaviors. Fear makes it extremely difficult for a pet to perform normal behaviors he may know in a relaxed environment because he is in self-preservation mode and is less able to do higher-level thinking. He also may not want to perform a certain behavior, like the lie down or roll over, because it puts him in a vulnerable position to other dogs or people.


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