My Dog just doesn’t listen to me!

“My dog just doesn’t listen to me” must be the most commonly used phrase in the history of dog ownership. We all go through it – in fact, even I’m going through it right now with my dog, who’s in need of a little spring training catch up. Typically, there are only a few reasons why this is occurring, and I can assure you it has nothing to do with who is alpha (a theory long since debunked by scientific evidence).

First and foremost, dogs will ‘not listen’ because they just don’t know the rules. I usually see this in the form of a dog who’s owner doesn’t necessarily attribute it to the dog not responding to cues, but to the dog just not knowing all on his own what he is and is not allowed to do. For example, the dog who climbs up in the lap of the visiting trainer; obviously, I like dogs, and their close proximity to me doesn’t bother me in the least, nor does their climbing up on me lead me to believe that they have an inherent behaviour problem as a result. But, I always ask the owner if the dog is allowed to do this, and more often than not, the answer is a shrug or hands up in the air in defeat, followed by “I wish he wouldn’t, but he does it anyway”. If you have very few visitors, or if all your visitors love your dog and you’re ok with him climbing up on them, then it’s ok if he climbs up on them. If you have a lot of visitors, some of whom may not like this, or any other reasons why you don’t want your dog climbing up on visitors, that’s ok too. But you need to decide what the rule is, because if you don’t know, how can your dog know? Whenever I consult in situations where the main complaint is general obedience, I always ask the whole family to get together and make a list of rules for the dog, which everyone is expected to follow, and which are clear and final. Dogs are highly intelligent, sentient beings who are certainly capable of understanding complexities in rules, but if we don’t understand those rules ourselves, our dog won’t either, and the end result is frustration on both parts.

The list is also helpful in identifying what your dog’s vocabulary is. Knowing his name and the word ‘no’ isn’t enough to adequately communicate to your dog what you want him to do in the moment. Imagine this scenario: Your name is Suzie, and you are sitting on the couch in your living room quietly reading a book. Your husband Dave walks in and suddenly starts repeating your name, growing in emphasis with each repetition. Eventually you’re going say “What?”, and he simply responds with “No. Suzie, no. Suuuzzziiieee, NO!!! SUZIE!!!”. Unfortunately, you have no idea what he wants, until you start doing things to see if it stops the pestering. Is it the book you’re reading? Is it the expression on your face? Is it the fact you’re in the living room? Finally, Dave blurts out “you’re sitting on my suit jacket and getting it all wrinkled!”. Had he walked in and told you this in the outset, all the confusion and strange interaction, and eventual frustration for both parties could have been solved. The same thing happens to your dog when you are repeating his name, saying no, and so on, without any clear communication as to what exactly he’s doing wrong and what you want him to do about it. So, the next time your dog jumps on the counter to lick the night’s roast beef dinner, you can use words such as “Max, Leave it! Off! Good boy!!”, and he will understand, follow through, and no one will end up frustrated.

On occasion, though, you can say these words to your dog and absolutely nothing happens. One of the reasons for this is that your dog doesn’t know the word to begin with. As a species so heavily reliant on verbal communication, we tend to forget that our dogs don’t speak any English, and cannot immediately understand the meaning of a word that they’ve never been taught before. Imagine someone instructing you over the phone on how to prepare a meal you’ve never made in your life without using a single word in English (assuming your only language is English) – it would impossible. This is how dogs feel when we speak words at them without any prior training on what physical response we expect the dog to perform. Most dogs will begin offering behaviours in hopes that your ever increasing volume and proximity to them will stop if they hit the right movement, and every once in a while they guess right. However, most of the time, they need to be taught the meaning of the word with a more basic, step by step approach (think about how you taught your puppy to lie down for the first time). Once you’ve made your list of words you think your dog knows, test them. Set him up in such a way that you need to use the word, such as Leave it: Stand at the kitchen counter pretending to prepare food while your dog looks on. Accidentally drop an appropriate and small piece of food on the floor (like a piece of cheese or meat) and if your dog approaches it, say Leave it. If he does, have a treat ready and praise him!!! If he doesn’t, it’s possible that he doesn’t understand the words, or that he hasn’t been trained that level of advancement. This doesn’t mean your dog is purposefully disobedient, it just means he doesn’t understand, and that you need to go back to some training basics.

Notice how I said to reward the dog if he Leaves it? This is the final reason why many dogs appear not to listen – because their behaviours have no positive consequences. This is also why many households will say that one spouse can get a response from a dog while the other cannot. I see this most commonly with busy mothers, and this has nothing to do with being the fairer sex, having a higher voice, being smaller, being nicer etc. The dog’s insubordination has to do with the fact that busy Mom normally has her attention in more than one place, and will ask the dog to do something, but before he does it or before she can praise him for doing it, she’s off to break up the fight over the Barbie that the twins are having in the living room. Compare that to the spouse who may not be required to attend to many things at one time within the home, and can give a cue, see it performed, and reward it. In this case, the dog will begin to ignore Mom because there is never a reason to pay attention to her. This is my issue with my own dog, as the spring season is so incredibly busy that when we’re together, if I ask him to do something and he doesn’t do it, I’m rarely following through. Spring training will simply involve taking a couple of extra seconds to ask him to perform a behaviour, waiting to be sure he does it, and then offering a food reward (they are fastest and most effective in his case) immediately, at which point I can go back to my other tasks. Within a few days, I’ll see my regular, responsive Toby back again, and won’t be frustrated with his return to Toby the Terror!

Make a list, check the list with your dog for accuracy in performance, and reinforce the behaviours on the list, and you’ll soon find a much more well behaved dog!

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