Some of the most common comments that I hear from clients are “My dog only listens to me when he wants to.” Or “My dog has selective hearing. Or even “My dog doesn’t listen, he has a really bad stubborn streak…”
It may surprise you to know that the reason most dogs don’t listen to their owners is because the owners have actually inadvertently taught their dogs to not listen to them. How does this happen?
First we have to understand that humans communicate with spoken language. Dogs do not. Dogs naturally communicate with each other using different body postures and energy. When is the last time you have seen two dogs chit-chatting with each other in spoken English? If you have ever seen this, then perhaps it is time for a visit to a mental health specialist!
So now that we’ve established that dogs and humans speak in two different languages, it is logical that translation of language must me made to bridge that gap.
It is important to remember that our dogs can’t help what they don’t know. So anger or inappropriate corrections on a dog who doesn’t listen is not only unfair, but cruel. If we expect a dog to respond to our spoken words, It is our responsibility to first teach them our language. Just because WE know what “sit” means doesn’t mean that a dog does.
Each word (command) needs to be taught separately. Dogs learn best when things are kept simple. It is a matter of association from spoken word to action. In other words, when you say “sit”, gently put the dog into a sitting position. Once the dog is in that position, give him LOTS of praise and a special treat. Now, this is really basic stuff. Most dog owners generally know how to teach the beginnings of commands like this (sit, down, stay, come etc).
So why does a dog who has been taught these basic commands still not listen? The answer is simple. Because the owner has continually given commands and not backed them up with consistent action.
Many people report that their dogs only come to them “when the dog wants to.” These owners instruct their dogs to come while off a leash. The dog doesn’t respond because he does not have a firm understanding of the what the word “come” actually means. So the owner calls him again thinking that the dog is just ignoring him or being stubborn. Still the dog doesn’t come. After calling the dog over and over, the owner becomes frustrated and angry. Now negative emotions impact the situation and the dog has no desire to approach that mad, frustrated person over there. And the person is powerless to see the action through because the dog is in a situation where he will not be caught. A person who repeats a command over and over in a situation where the dog does not have to respond to them soon becomes background noise. Dogs simply don’t listen to background noise. To be fair, neither do we!
The most important thing in teaching a dog to listen to you is to be absolutely certain that you are not background noise to him. Give commands only when you are able to see them through with action. Most dogs who don’t come to their owners off leash, don’t come reliably ON leash. While on a leash, will your dog come to you on a dime every time you call him even when there are huge distractions nearby? Will he come on leash when called as a squirrel runs by? How about a deer? What if a little kid rides by on his bicycle with a big juicy hamburger in his hand? It is not a fair expectation to think your dog will come to you reliably off leash until he has learned to ignore all of the interesting things going on around him and come to you every time when called on leash. All of these distractions need to be taught to the dog while you have complete control of his actions. Not only do we need to teach a dog what our words mean, but also that our words always mean something.
I have a saying when it comes to training dogs to be responsive…”Say what you mean. Mean what you say.” It really is as simple as that.