Why Won’t My Dog Listen? Part II

Yesterday on the Dogster's Dog Training Guide, we talked about what is perhaps the most common reason a dog may not listen to his owner...


Yesterday on the Dogster’s Dog Training Guide, we talked about what is perhaps the most common reason a dog may not listen to his owner – both parties just need more practice, in more environments, and more reinforcement! But maybe you have been practicing a lot with your dog in a variety of different environments and you are still not getting the level of response you’d like to see from your dog. We’ll spend the rest of the week discussing some other reasons dogs may not listen to cues.

Reason #2: When it comes to your cue, he hasn’t got a clue!

Cueing is the language we use to communicate with our dogs. In clicker training, we first teach a concept of “this is what we want” (for instance, capturing an offered sit with the clicker then rewarding until the dog is offering the behavior reliably), and then we label it or add a cue. Cues can be anything the dog can perceive – words, whistles, hand signals, environmental (sidewalk curb is cue to “sit,” for example), inanimate objects (food bowl as cue to “sit”), tactile, even scents can be cues!

Do you sound like this to your dog?

Here are a few reasons cues go wrong:

Your cue has multiple meanings.

This happens when someone uses the word “down” to elicit the behavior of lying down but also yells it to the job as a cue to “get off” something, like a counter, piece of furniture, or person they are jumping to greet. Each word you expect your dog to know should only have one meaning. If you want “down” to mean “lie down,” that’s all you can use it for. Dogs don’t really get the concept of homonyms. If you have a dog that jumps or counter surfs, you may want to separately train an “off” behavior which means “leave it” or “put all four feet on the floor.”

Your cue needs proofing!

The clearer you can make the signals you use to communicate with your dog, the easier it will be for him to understand you. Before beginning, make a list of all conceivable body position and apparel modifications which may effect your cue – do you need your dog to respond if:

  • you are sitting down?
  • you are lying down?
  • your back is to your dog?
  • you have an armful of groceries?
  • you are yelling the cue on an agility course instead of saying it softly and happily in your home?
  • you are hugging a guest who has just entered your home?
  • your dog is riding in the back seat of the car while you are driving?
  • you are wearing sunglasses?
  • you are wearing a puffy coat?
  • your back is turned to your dog?
  • you use a different tone of voice?

If any of these things are important to you, they must find their way into your training plan. The best cues are very easy for the dog to perceive – at a distance, close by, regardless of your body position. Keep this in mind when selecting cues for your dog’s behaviors. Make sure that your cues are consistent (it is always “down” and never “lie down”), and videotape your sessions or have a friend observe you to see if any extraneous, perhaps unconscious elements of the cue can be noted and addressed (hint – eye contact is usually a big part of the cue for many dogs!).

Your cue is too “Dr. Seuss”

Additionally, your cue should not sound or look like a cue for another behavior. A student once selected a verbal “sit” cue for the sit behavior and wanted to call a paw targeting behavior “hit.” Her dog thought these two words sounded an awful lot alike, and had trouble differentiating between them. Stimulus control on both behaviors cleaned up measurably when she transferred the cue for “hit” to a word that didn’t sound like an existing cue. She chose the word “target.” Avoid cues which rhyme with known cues or closely resemble known cues for other behaviors.

I couldn’t squeeze all the good info on cues into a single post. So stay tuned, more on how good cueing can go bad tomorrow, folks!

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