Six Reasons Dogs Don’t Listen

Why might your dog not respond to a cue for a behavior you've taught her? Today we'll explore a variety of behaviors break down and...


Mocha_0507_2-1-1Why might your dog not respond to a cue for a behavior you’ve taught her? Today we’ll explore a variety of behaviors break down and what you can do to address each of these training obstacles.

Need more practice: Dogs are notoriously poor at “generalizing,” meaning that it takes lots of repetitions in many environments before a dog begins to understand that it is worth her while to respond to your cues for behavior in novel environments. The following articles will help you better understand the concept of “proofing” behaviors for reliability in novel environments:

Everything You Wanted to Know About Proofing But Were Afraid to Ask

What Squirrel? 10 Techniques for Training with Distractions

Solution? More training!

Sloppy cueing: Cues are the language we use to communicate with animals. Whether you use verbal cues, body cues, a combination of both, or other various types of cues, it is best to make your cues clean and consistent. If you are using a verbal cue, you will want to use the same tone of voice each time you cue the behavior. If you want your dog to respond to the cue no matter what tone of voice you say it in or what body position you are in, you will have to help your dog “generalize” the cue by reinforcing him for correct responses when your body movements or intonation might be a distraction.

Cues can also become irrelevant if owners say them over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again in environments beyond the current level of training. Often at class, the dogs are too stimulated on the first night to respond to cues for “sit” which has been taught in the living room. When owners say, “sit,” “SIT,” “Puppy sit!”, “SIT SIT SIT” as their dog jumps up, barks, or lunges on the dog’s leash, the word “sit” becomes ambiguous – it is now a multiple choice question.

Kathy Sdao’s Improve Your I-Cue: Learn the Science of Signals is a fantastic resource. Granted, it’s an expensive DVD, but is worth every penny if you are able to save your pennies for it. Kathy Sdao DVD? $120. Communicating effectively with any animal you ever live with? Priceless.

Solution: Clean up your cues and help your dog generalize the cue to environments where you body or intonation may be distracting.

Yucky treats: Are you using reinforcement your dog values to build and maintain the behavior? Reinforcement value should be contingent upon performance and difficulty of a given exercise. You must use a currency your dog values and is willing to work for. These high-value items will either work against you as distractions or for you as reinforcement – you decide.

Solution: Use better stuff!

Poisoned cues: Do you think your dog is stubborn? Perhaps what is actually going on is that you have poisoned your cue. A poisoned cue happens when the dog is reinforced for the correct response and punished for incorrect responses. Then the cue becomes a command – it is no longer a reliable predictor of access to reinforcement but there is the implied threat of “do this or else.” The cue is ambiguous and its potential to predict punishment leads to hesitance and reluctance in the learner.

Poisoned Cues: The Case of a Stubborn Dog by Rebecca Lynch will help you better understand what poisoned cues are and how they effect training success.

Solution: Retrain the behavior, add a new cue.

Not listening is more rewarding than listening: Friend and colleague Laurie Williams described this phenomenon best in her DogStarDaily blog, Your Dog’s Just Not That Into You.

This often happens in situations where dogs are allowed to self-reinforce for non-compliance through inadequate management or training (off leash dog is allowed to blow off recall cue to chase deer), when a trainer uses unappealing reinforcement, or when the relationship between a dog and his person has been damaged through what the dog perceives to be negative experiences. Or perhaps your recall cue is poisoned, a predictor of “bad stuff happening” to your dog. “When my owner calls me when I’m playing with my friends, she puts me in the car and takes me away from play.” Or, “When my owner calls me from the bathroom, she is going to give me a yucky bath.”

Sometimes, the entire process of learning can become poisoned through overtraining (work on one behavior for so long and so frequently it becomes boring to the dog) and not taking the dog’s enthusiasm or boredom level into account when planning training sessions. You may find this article Poisoning the Process to be helpful in understanding how and why this occurs.

Solution: contingent upon the cause. If the cue is poisoned, retrain the behavior and add a new cue. If the relationship is poisoned, be creative in finding ways to reestablish your dog’s trust and enthusiasm. Keep training sessions fun and novel by: reducing session length, using a high rate of reinforcement, using reinforcement variety, and displaying the enthusiasm you’d like to see in your dog.

Your dog is in pain: Often, when a dog has a well-trained, beautifully proofed behavior but suddenly stops responding to the cue, there may be a physical problem. A dog with painful arthritis, for instance, may find it difficult to hold a very long sit-stay. If your dog is well-trained in the environment you are working with and is suddenly reluctant to work, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out medical problems. Stop practicing the behavior until medical causes are ruled out – you do not want to poison your well-trained cue by having your dog associate cue compliance with pain.

Solution: Get your dog to the vet!

A subcategory of this reason is that dogs feel uncomfortable. Your short-coated dog may not feel comfortable lying down on the ice. Your dog may refuse to walk because the hot pavement or icy sidewalk burns his pads. Perhaps you have only trained a behavior when your dog was “naked” and it pinches her under her arms when she wears her harness. Always look for signs of discomfort and modify your training plan accordingly.

ETA: I wrote this entry a month ago and had it scheduled to publish for today. Little did I know that my friend, fellow dogster mom, and current Karen Pryor Academy student Mary Penny would be posting this fantastic blog yesterday. Enjoy! <a href+””>10 Times You Should NOT Expect Your Dog to Listen to You</a>. Click, treat, Mary! Great blog!

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