Why Won’t My Dog Listen? Part I

There are many reasons a dog may fail to respond to a cue for a behavior. Most commonly, dogs who do not respond to a...


There are many reasons a dog may fail to respond to a cue for a behavior. Most commonly, dogs who do not respond to a cue immediately are deemed “stupid” or “stubborn;” which is sad – it’s not fair to blame a dog for what is much more likely a breakdown in the training process. This week on the Dogster blog, we’ll discuss some of the reasons your dog may not listen when you ask her to “sit,” “come,” or “lie down.”

Reason #1: You Need More Practice!

I think the most common reason, by far, that dogs fail to respond to cues is that they need more practice. Behaviors are like muscles – they are built through repetition, perseverance, and commitment. If you stop building your muscles, they go flaccid. Similarly, if you stop practicing behaviors your dog knows, the behaviors fall apart.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of repetitions are required in many different environments before a behavior is truly reliable. A very common problem is that owners will get a behavior on cue within a few sessions and then assume that their dog “knows” the behavior – so they quickly abandon the clicker and any reinforcement. Behaviors, like muscles, are not built within a single or few sessions – they are built over weeks, months, years. Would you be skeptical if a local gym issued the following advertisement – “Come to our gym! We can get you into perfect shape in six one-hour long classes and then you will never need to work out another day in your life, can eat 10,000 calories a day, and will always stay in perfect physical condition?” While I have no doubt such a gym would be wildly successful, the fact is that such a thing does not exist. Physical fitness, like dog training, is a lifestyle change – it must be a permanent change in how you live, or it’s a waste of time.

Getting a behavior on cue usually happens quickly. While many handlers think this is the end of learning, in fact it is only the beginning. Much like learning your ABC’s is only the beginning of language, you need to develop this new skill for relevant aspects of fluency, which takes a lot of time. Once the behavior meets your criteria, maintenance training, occasionally pulling the behavior back out and practicing it, takes relatively little time.

Lack of adequate practice is probably the most common reason dogs fail to respond to cues for behaviors which you have taught them. Distractions can be the most difficult challenge in “proofing” behaviors for fluency – your dog “knows” sit in your living room but not at the dog park. Increasing distractions carefully and incrementally will help you and your dog make more rapid progress while reducing frustration for both of you. There are a lot of considerations to keep in mind when proofing for distractions – the weather (but I don’t like to sit in the rain!), the surface you’re working on, smells, sounds, other dogs, other people, other animals, the position of your body relative to the dog, etc.

Stay tuned for more reasons your dog won’t listen later this week!

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