Not Listening? 5 Reasons for Failing to Respond--and What to Do
If it seems like your dog sometimes won't listen to you—or pays attention only when you have pulled out some food—well, it’s a common complaint. But don’t assume that your dog is just being stubborn or insists on being "bribed." The problem is likely due to one or more of the following reasons.
1. Luring became a habit. Anyone can easily become a prisoner of the lure if they begin each training session by opening up that bag of treats. Our dogs are experts at watching every move and understanding what our actions predict for them. Have you inadvertently taught your dog that seeing the food comes first, even before you ask for anything? Show me the money!
It’s all about timing. Bribes appear before the behavior occurs. Rewards come after. We want to get rid of the lures ASAP and replace them with real rewards (reinforcers) to get an attentive dog who is happy to comply because her good behaviors have been reinforced so many times.
What to Do: We want our dogs to learn that it’s worthwhile to pay attention and respond to your cues even when they don’t see the treats first. Get in the habit of wearing a closed bait bag, keeping it nearby, or hiding some treats in your pockets. Keep your hand out of the bag or pocket until you get the Come or Sit or whatever you’re expecting. Another option is to stash some in small containers with lids in various places around the home and yard. Surprise!
2. Reinforcement ended. Once you decided the basic cues were learned—like Sit, Down, and Come—you stopped giving treats or other rewards for responding. But if there is no payoff of value—whether it’s food, or attention, or anything else your dog really likes—any behavior will peter out (“extinguish”). That’s a law of learning, and it applies to all species.
Behavior is driven by consequences. The more frequently any behavior is reinforced, the stronger it becomes. And then it just becomes a habit. Very often, you won’t have to ask for it. Your dog already knows what to do in that situation, or needs only one reminder.
If you want to make a habit of good behaviors (and don’t we all), reinforcement should never end. Just mix them up. By definition, reinforcers need to be stuff your dog really enjoys, which depends on knowing your dog’s preferences. So start with lots of tasty treats, to get lots of repetitions—and later on, vary the rewards according to what your dog will work for besides food: big smiles, silly talk, sincere praise, butt scratches, play, a squeaky toy, a special ball, a walk, a car ride, or . . . ?
3. Training wasn’t finished. Similar to Reason #2. Every cue needs to be trained in (1) different environments and (2) with distractions. Generalizing and proofing are a very important part of the process, but those steps are often skipped when we mistakenly assume that the dog “knows” familiar cues and therefore can perform them anywhere, anytime.
Training isn’t complete just because your dog can perform reliably in the kitchen by the treat jar.
What to Do: Adding the conditions encountered in real life (but not all at once!) is the next step in training. Using higher-value food, or maybe favorite toys/games, in gradually more challenging situations will pay off when you really need your dog to come to you off leash. And when someone comes to the door. And when you have a houseful of guests. And when you are out in public. And so on, and so on.
4. Value is too low—or not desirable at all. Consider whether your reinforcers are strong enough. For easy skills and situations, $1 (a piece of kibble) may work; at other times we need to offer $5, $10, or $20, especially when there are competing distractions. So mild praise or a Milkbone, for example, are unlikely to work in those situations.
If a cue is not working anymore, it’s possible that the “reward” is something she actually doesn’t appreciate—or not at that moment—like head patting, kissing and hugging, or affectionate slapping, whacking, or roughing up.
Let’s take threats, force, and intimidation off the table entirely.
What to Do: For challenging situations, try bits of food that’s irresistible to your dog, like cheese, chicken, or high-value smelly treats. You can test which menu items are more or less appealing to your dog by offering one in each closed hand and let her sniff to choose. Practice your cues at close range with minor distractions before working up to major ones and greater distance.
5. Dog’s mind is focused elsewhere. When dogs are intently watching, sniffing, or listening to something other than you (which we may be unaware of), their ability to listen and respond to a verbal cue is weak. Dogs are just not good at multitasking.
What to Do: Be sure you get her attention first, perhaps with a kissy sound or a whistle, before you ask her to do something. Don’t run the name and the cue together. Visual signals often work better than verbal ones.
Please note that if your dog is worried or fearful of something nearby, you should not expect “obedience.” Just walk away from it. Your dog will thank you.
But Wait, There’s More!
Notice and reinforce all your dog’s good choices. Dogs are quite capable of being well-behaved without being told what to do all the time. Whenever your dog offers you her attention, calm behavior, or comes to you voluntarily, praise enthusiastically and give her something she LOVES!! Let her know when she’s making good choices, and she’ll give you more and more of those desirable behaviors.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2017