What to Do When Your Dog Won’t Listen
Published on May 14, 2012
There’s nothing more annoying than feeling like you’re not being listened to. When it’s your dog who’s not listening, though, the situation can be more than annoying; it can be downright dangerous.
There are various reasons why your pet may not be listening to your commands. In most cases, it’s not that your dog doesn’t want to listen, he’s just so worked up over something exciting that it takes a lot to get his attention focused back on you. Fortunately, there are also some simple things you can do to solve this problem.
What’s My Motivation?
Often, dogs don’t respond to commands because they are distracted by something else that is of much greater importance to them at the moment. While a reward of kibble for sitting may be enough motivation for your dog in a distraction-free environment, another dog or a squirrel can distract your dog from the kibble and make him unlikely to respond to the “sit” command. There are a few ways to handle this. You can increase your distance from the attention-grabbing stimulus, such as starting your training 100 feet away from the dog park fence (or whatever else is distracting your dog). Gradually move closer as long as your dog remains calm and able to respond to your commands. Slowly introducing distractions can help your pet remain focused and responsive.
You can also raise the level of your dog’s motivation by employing a really exciting reward; turkey hot dogs, bits of cheese or highly palatable bite-size dog treats can help keep your dog’s focus on you. For dogs with a high play drive, a reward of a game of ball or tug can be more effective than a treat.
While playing games may make it more likely that your dog will pay attention to you, there are some situations in which the distraction itself can become the reward. For dogs who enjoy greeting people or other dogs and are highly distracted until they get to greet, the ultimate reward for good behavior, such as a heel or a sit, can be permission to say a warm hello to other people or pooches after obeying the command.
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.
Frustration or extreme excitement can also make it difficult for a pet to pay attention. Training can best progress in these situations by changing the baseline emotion and helping your pet to relax, which may involve the recruitment of a behavior professional, such as a veterinary behaviorist.
Both humans and dogs have a limited supply of self-control, according to a study done at the University of Lille Nord de France, and can suffer from what has been deemed “self-control depletion.” Just as humans are less able to exercise self-control when they are mentally fatigued, dogs may be less able to respond with proper judgment when they have been required to display self-control for an extended period of time.
In the study, two groups of dogs were brought into a room where an aggressively barking and growling dog was caged. One group had been allowed to freely roam in a large kennel for 10 minutes before they came into the room; the other group had been asked to do a sit stay for 10 minutes first. The second group of dogs — the ones that were required to exercise self-control in the sit stay — spent a longer time in close proximity to the aggressive dog than the dogs who had been freely roaming.
For pet parents, the lesson is that your dog has a finite ability to perform behaviors requiring extreme self-control. It is essential to keep training sessions short and only give your dog limited self-control exercises at a level at which he can be successful.