Why Won’t My Dog Listen? Part III

Yesterday, we discussed a few of the ways that our cues might be misleading to our dogs and considerations we may want to keep in...


Yesterday, we discussed a few of the ways that our cues might be misleading to our dogs and considerations we may want to keep in mind when trying to make our communication with our dogs more, er, dog-friendly. We’ll continue with that topic today!

Reason #2 (cont.): Your dog still doesn’t have a clue about your cues

Added cue too quickly.

Perhaps your dog does not yet understand the connection between the cue (signal which elicits the behavior), and the behavior itself yet. This frequently happens when a cue has been added too early in the training process. If your dog has a well-established history of confusion in response to the cue, your best bet may be too retrain the behavior and add an entirely new cue, one without the baggage of being ignored or misunderstood dozens of times.

Whether I am capturing, shaping, luring, or targeting to get a new behavior, what I look for the most is rhythm. I want a nice rhythm of behavior, click, treat, behavior, click, treat, behavior, click, treat. I want the animal to receive reinforcement and nearly immediately offer me the desired behavior in an effort to make the click happen. At this stage, I begin adding the cue AS THE DOG IS OFFERING the behavior. Initially, when you introduce the cue, your dog may give a truncated or partial version of the goal behavior – it’s important that you reinforce this attempt to make a connection between the cue and the behavior. Once your dog makes the connection, you can delay your click to get the full behavior again and then begin establishing stimulus control by only clicking the behavior when you offer the cue.

To avoid the situation I mentioned yesterday where handler body position can become a part of the cue, you can practice your capturing and shaping sessions in different body positions before you even add the cue so that your dog knows this behavior pays off no matter what your body is doing. “Get rhythm” in one position before changing to the next.

Not listening pays off better than listening.

Sometimes, ignoring the cue is more heavily reinforced by the environment than responding to the cue is reinforced by the handler. You can use life rewards (The Premack Principle), varied reinforcement, systematic introduction of distractions at levels which set the dog up for success, management tools (leashes, harnesses, gates, etc.), and other techniques to teach your dog that listening is more fun than not listening. A good trainer can help you implement these techniques if you’re not sure how.

Classical conditioning for ignoring the cue.

This one is a real doozy and very frequently mentioned. Classical conditioning asserts that dogs learn by association. It’s pure Pavlov – if the sound of a bell predicts the arrival of food reliably, the sound of the bell acquires the emotional and physiological response properties associated with the presentation of food.

Has your dog ever learned words that you didn’t intend to teach him? Dogs pick up cues by association all the time. If you say “outside” in the same tone of voice as your dog goes outside, eventually, your dog will make the connection between the word and the trip to the yard. This is how dogs learn what having leashes grabbed means (walkies!), sounds of can openers mean food may be available, knocking means someone is at the door, a car door slamming in the driveway means “mom’s home!”

This can also backfire. Let’s say that someone has taught their dog the word “sit” means “put your butt on the floor.” They bring their dog into an environment which surpasses the dog’s current level of distraction training, and the dog begins jumping on guests. Each time the dog jumps, the owner says, “sit!” This may happen ten times in a row – that’s ten times the dog heard the word “sit” as he is jumping on a guest. That’s ten times in one session that the word “sit” has been paired with jumping instead of sitting. Unless the dog is actively ignored or walked away from, each of these jumps is also getting reinforced. Perhaps on this particular walk, the owner encounters ten strangers who want to greet her dog, and the sequence repeats each time. In a single walk, the word “sit” may be paired with the behavior of “jump” well over 100x!

It won’t take very many walks like this before the owner will say the word “sit” and her dog will leap into the air in a “jump,” even without strangers approaching. When “sit” means “jump,” we’re all in trouble!

Yikes. Looks like we’ll be talking about cue SNAFUs again tomorrow! Stay tuned!

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