Why Won’t My Dog Listen? Part IV

OK, last day of cue chat in this series on why dogs might not listen when you ask them for behaviors. More on "When Good...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Apr 7th 2011


OK, last day of cue chat in this series on why dogs might not listen when you ask them for behaviors.

More on “When Good Cues Go Bad”

Learned irrelevance.

Learned irrelevance is another common reasons dogs “don’t listen.” This happens a lot when people train the behavior, add the cue, and then immediately expect the dog to listen at all times, in all situations, without reinforcement. Effective positive reinforcement training often involves using a lot of food rewards for initial training and relatively few food rewards and relatively more life rewards for maintaining the behavior. Regardless of how well the dog is trained, occasional reinforcement (the amount and type needed for maintenance varies depending on the dog, the trainer’s ability to identify and use effectively life rewards, and the current level of training) is needed to maintain the behavior. If sitting in response to the cue never makes good things happen for our hedonistic dog, they are likely to conclude, “what’s the point?”

What’s the rush?

“Sit! Cuba, sit! S-iiiiii-t! Sit, please! Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit! Hey, boy, sit!”

We primates tend to repeat cues when our dogs don’t respond right away. Often, after asking your dog to sit approximately 473 times, he places his butt on the floor. You’re elated that he finally listened, so he gets a treat! Dogs often learn that reinforcement is available whether they listen the first or the fortieth time, so what’s the rush?

As an aside, many dogs (like ALL people) occasionally have an “in a minute” moment. If this is your dog, talk to your trainer about how you can reduce the latency (lag time) on her behaviors.

Your cue is poisoned.

Poisoned cues are, basically, what society refers to as “commands.” If the dog complies, something good happens. If the dog fails to comply, something bad happens to the dog – a scolding, reprimand, or “correction.” The combination of reinforcement and punishment makes the cue ambiguous for the dog and results, therefore, in an ambiguous response. The dog is not excited when he hears the cue, “I wonder what I’ll earn if I’ll do this right,” but is worried, “I wonder what will happen if I make a mistake?” One of the side effects of punishment is that it inhibits offered behavior, and this sometimes includes the very behaviors we’re trying to teach! Here is a nice article on poisoned cues from colleague and fellow Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner Rebecca Lynch of K9 Clicking.

Untrained humans are cramping your style.

Untrained humans can wreak havoc even on a well-taught cue. This happens frequently in homes where each individual living with the dog uses different cues, criteria, and has differing ideas on how the behavior should be trained and maintained. It also happens when guests, pet professionals, or other people in your community reinforce your dog for ignoring you or encourage him to jump up (after all your hard work!) while saying, “it’s ok, I love dogs!”

Here are a few things that may help:

  • Sit down with your family and create a “doggy dictionary.” What exactly are the behaviors your dog knows? What exactly are the cues? While I prefer to have one family member teach the dog until the cue has been added, when it is time to start generalizing the cue it is time for family members to get trained. Whomever taught the behavior should teach all family members exactly how to the cue the dog without the dog before they practice with the dog.
  • For critical stuff, don’t feel like you have to share every cue with everyone. If you suspect that your family may abuse your well-taught emergency recall cue and not follow it with appropriate reinforcement, use it in contexts which are inappropriate, or follow it with punishment, don’t tell them what the emergency recall cue is.
  • Prep your guests on the rules before they come to the house. If you will be working on door greetings and manners, for example, let them know what to expect. My guests are pretty much told to expect the door getting shut in their faces a couple of times – my dogs are taught that their butts on the floor magically make the door open and friendly humans enter. Similarly, when their butts leave the ground, guests go away for a little while. Giving my guests a the pregame plan saves me the trouble of looking like a jerk when I close the door if a dog breaks a “wait!”
  • Manage the environment – if you think your guests will reinforce unwanted behavior, put your dog in a crate, on a tether, or someplace safe with a marrow bone or stuffed Kong until everyone has settled in. You may not be able to train all humans in all situations, but you can prevent them from reinforcing unwanted behaviors in your dog.
  • Get out of there! If you really can’t train the humans and you are concerned about your dog learning or rehearsing bad habits or being made uncomfortable, just get out of there. Cuba and I were out at a park recently and got mobbed by what seemed to be a herd of approximately 20 feral orphans – children running around without any adult supervision. Rather than expose him to a situation which I may not be able to control, we just went home.