5 Reasons Why Your Dog Doesn't Listen

"But he KNOWS what he's supposed to do!"

It's one of the most common phrases dog trainers hear. 

"He knows he needs to sit when I stop."
"He knows he's not supposed to jump on people."
"He knows his name."
"He passed XYZ Training Course, so he knows what do to."

This blog is going to be focused on the broader reasons why a good trainer asks "But does he really know?" We won't be focusing on fixing any specific behavior or training problems- the goal is that you look at your training system and see a hole we hopefully fill today!


#1 - Overshadowing

One of the first things that stands out when evaluating a problem of "he doesn't listen" is whether or not the dog ever properly learned the verbal cue. We actually go pretty in depth on this topic in one of our previous blog posts, so we'll keep this section short. 

Dogs don't speak our language, but they are incredibly adept at reading and interpreting body language and following physical prompts. Because of the language barrier, if your dog is not paying attention when you add your verbal cue "sit" because you are also gesturing the 'sit' motion at the same time, you may think your dog knows the word "sit" when they have actually never paid attention to it the entire time you've been training it. 

From our previous post:

In summary:
1. Adding the verbal cue does not occur until the behavior is proficient.
2. The verbal cue PRECEDES the physical prompt.
3. One verbal cue is associated with one behavior.
4. The verbal cue must be enforced and reinforced. 
5. If the dog isn't listening, instead of assuming disobedience, consider that it may not understand what you are trying to communicate.

Overshadowing can occur during any physical prompt, including, but not limited to: luring, leash pressure, and e-collar stimulation. So, next time your dog is sitting in front of you, cocking their head to the side trying to interpret a foreign language, and you're getting frustrated that they won't just lay down when you say 'down', I challenge you to reintroduce the verbal cue, this time keeping in mind the concept of overshadowing! I have a feeling you will like what you see!


#2 - Generalization

Generalized behaviors are behaviors that the dog is fluent in and can perform, when prompted, in any reasonable scenario. Generalization allows your dog the ability to learn effective decision-making skills throughout a series of increasingly more complex scenarios.   

Generalization is the learning skill necessary to perform any behavior anywhere at any time without coercion or bribery. It is the key to behavior fluency, an important factor in behavior confidence, and something that takes time and practice. 

It's easy to spot a dog whose behavior has not been generalized- you will see their handlers physically maneuver them into a position, apply nagging aversives, or shove food in the dogs' face in a vain attempt to bribe the dog into compliance. The latter results in a dog who learns to ignore you and your attempts at 'engagement', and the former results in unfair punishment. 

To avoid these pitfalls, we must consider three of the main factors of learning generalization:

  1. Age
  2. Environment
  3. Emotion

Age

Dogs are not born knowing everything about being dogs, let alone living in a human world. It is critical that when we design training plans that we keep in mind the age of the dog in question. Generalization, by its very nature, must take place over a period of time. We cannot expect a 4 month old puppy to have the same experiences as a 4 year old dog, and we cannot always expose young dogs to the same experiences as older dogs due to their physical and psychological development. Learning takes time- puppies are not just small dogs. Give puppies the time they need to learn and grow and experience- allow generalization to occur naturally and at the speed at which the puppy is comfortable. At the same time, acknowledge that mature dogs may have varied histories with certain stimuli or environments and their path to generalization in those respects may vary greatly than if you were newly introducing a puppy. 

Environment

A 'sit' in the living room is different than a 'sit' in the kitchen is different than a 'sit' in the backyard is different than a 'sit' in the front yard. A 'sit' on the floor is different than a 'sit' on the couch. A 'sit' in an obedience class is different than a 'sit' at an obedience trial.

A dog doing agility in your backyard is different than doing agility in a competitive ring. A dog playing flyball in your training building is different than playing at a tournament. A dog catching a disc in the park is different than catching a disc on a trial field. 

Dogs learn contextually- everything around them plays a part in their learning process. Through generalization, you open up the context of the behavior to infinity. This can only be done with time and careful consideration to the context under which the dog is learning the behavior. If your dog is doing something fine somewhere and cannot seem to understand how to do it somewhere else, consider that you have not shown the dog that picture, it does not understand the behavior in context, and that you should show the dog the behavior in context in a controlled, fair manner. 

Emotion

We talked a lot about emotion in our previous blog post, so we will touch on it briefly here.

The way a dog feels about something (your emotions, the environment, a specific person, a noise, etc.) can directly affect the dog's ability to perform a behavior. The veterinarian's office is the easiest example of this. If a dog is fearful in a situation, you may notice they lack compliance of many behaviors they "should know". Does your dog easily stand for exam in an obedience ring but flail wildly when actually examined by the vet? Can your dog hold a 10 minute sit stay or an honor down but is barely keeping its butt on the ground as it trembles in the waiting room? Is your dog an angel on leash on the street but straining on the end to flee the hospital as soon as it enters?

These behaviors are not disobedience, as many may believe. These behaviors, this lack of compliance, is due to adrenaline, fear, and a shift in what is and is not aversive or reinforcing in the given situation. 

We see emotion creep into many behaviors that have not been fully generalized on an emotional level- an IPO dog who will not out in a trial but will in training, a setter who busts game at a field trial but sets fine in training, an agility dog who cannot hold its start line stay in agility but does so in practice. Even positive, happy emotions (bite the guy, get the bird, jump the bar) can lead to working disaster if you have not fully generalized the behavior among all emotional states. 

before you blame the dog for non-compliance, think, "have I shown him this picture before".

If the answer is no, take a step back and prepare the dog for the context.


#3 - Ineffective pressure

The overuse of ineffective pressure in your training can and does have detrimental effects to your dog's clarity of behavior and, potentially, your relationship. Ineffective pressure is, typically, negative reinforcement or positive punishment utilized without the dog's clear understanding of how to escape or avoid the pressure, without consistency in your own use of the pressure, and/or without utilizing the pressure in a way aversive enough to be effective. 

One of the most psychologically detrimental effects of ineffective pressure is the development of learned helplessness

Helplessness is a state in which nothing a person opts to do affects what is happening. It is the quitting or the give up response that follows the conviction that whatever a person does doesn’t matter.[1] Learned helplessness (LH) was initially used to label the failure of certain laboratory animals to escape or avoid shock, despite giving an opportunity, subsequent to earlier exposure to unavoidable shock.[2,3]

At the very root of our training is the concept of operant learning, that the dog understands that its behaviors have consequences, that their behavior determines the outcome. Ineffective pressure can develop a psychological state in which the dog has given up trying because its behavior no longer seems to effect the outcome. In training jargon, we refer to these dogs as "shut-down"- they are no longer making any attempt to behave in any way since any behavior seems to have a punishing consequence, they appear sullen and depressed, they do not appear to try to learn new things, and, more than anything, they seem disconnected from their handler. A shut-down dog is neither well-trained nor behaviorally rehabilitated; the cessation of behavior does not indicate a change in response to stimuli if and when the dog relearns how to think on its own.

Ineffective pressure may also develop into the opposite problem- a dog who, no matter how much pressure is applied, does not yield to the pressure. If you have to keep applying more and more pressure to alter a behavior, your pressure is ineffective. Whether this is the case of poor generalization (see above) or other reasons, if you find yourself continuously adding more and more pressure to ensure compliance, your communication with your dog fell apart along the way.

Bottom line- your dog doesn't care.

Your pressure is no longer aversive. The end result is extremely unfair physical pressure that only ends up potentially hurting the dog without making a difference in their behavior. It's the kind of use of tools that results in municipal and national bans. 

A communications professor once told me, "all communication is meaningful".What you are communicating with ineffective pressure is "nothing you do matters".

Use pressure effectively.
Show them you care and what they do matters.


#4 - Demotivating motivators

For the sake of this discussion, we're going to call these "bribes". A bribe is something used to get someone to do something they otherwise would not do in exchange for something they want. Bribes are only effective for each presentation of the bribe, they may be ineffective dependent on the consequences, and they typically breed disillusionment between briber and bribee if the only means of relationship is through bribery. 

Think about it this way- if someone you love asks you to help them move, you may jump to help them. You love them, you want to help, no ifs ands or buts. 

On the other hand, if your friend who you have maybe talked to twice in five years asks you to help them move, you may say no... that is, unless they bribe you with beer and pizza at the end of it. Now, there's only so many times that beer and pizza are worth a day of your life, straining your back, and wasting your gas. If you don't have a good relationship with your friend, you may begin saying 'no' until the bribes get better- instead of beer and pizza you may be offered money, and then after that, more money, until at some point the friend decides it's cheaper and easier to higher a moving company. 

The bribe is not developing value in your relationship. It's not changing it in any way.

at some point, you may start ignoring the bribes, and, consequently, your friend all-together. 

Sound familiar with your dog?

Your dog is sniffing the ground instead of walking nicely on leash with you. You shove a hot dog in its face. It may eat the hot dog, it may even wait for another, until, eventually, the hot dog bribe is no longer worth it and it goes back to sniffing. 

Your dog runs away when you try to call it in from outside or at the park, that is, until you shake the bag of cookies. No cookies, no recall. And if you try to trick the dog and leash them without a cookie, well, there goes another hour of your life waiting for your dog to exhaust themselves enough to come back on their own. The bribe and the trick taught the dog you're not worth it and you can't be trusted.

We can go on and on, but I'm sure you're already coming up with your own household 'case studies' of bribery. It's easy to fall into the pattern of bribery. It seems easier. You don't actually have to teach anything, you just need access to the bribe and *magic* the dog does what you want it to do. But, like with any bribe, eventually you're going to have to up the ante and, eventually, another decision is worth whatever the consequence is for ignoring the bribe. 

Primary reinforcers that we use in our positive reinforcement training should NEVER be bribes. They should only ever be provided when the dog performs a discrete behavior and knowingly understands that, because it performed that behavior, it is receiving the reinforcer so as to ensure the behavior is more likely to occur in the future. 

People that have been bribing their dogs often find they are constantly trying to find better and better treats or better and better toys. 

in reality, there will never be a good enough bribe.

It is the nature of bribery. 

Bribes can work the other way, too. "As long as you're good, you won't be subjected to collar pressure." As soon as the collar comes off, the dog suddenly because deaf to your pleadings. 

Go back to the beginning, make sure you've actually taught your dog the behavior you want (taking into account everything that has already been mentioned in this blog), vary your rates of reinforcement, and make sure your dog has been desensitized to any tools you plan to use long before you plan to use them. 

The truth is this- if your dog stops listening as soon as you drop the leash, take off the collar, or run out of treats, you have been bribing your dog into compliance.


#5 - Unreasonable expectations

It should go without saying, but dogs are not, in fact, robots. They are living, breathing sentient creatures with their own feelings, emotions, and thoughts. While we have developed and domesticated them into the most helpful, inherently human-loving species on the planet, they are still autonomous animals and we must keep our expectations for their behavior in check

Some important things never to expect from your dog:

  1. Total and complete compliance for every behavior all the time no matter what.
  2. Any compliance without complete and continuous generalization.
  3. Any compliance without complete understanding of consequences (good and bad).
  4. A puppy to act like an adult.
  5. A dog to never have any fears or insecurities. 

This summarizes everything we have talked about in this blog. Just because a kid can add doesn't mean they can perform calculus- sure, they're both math, but one is a far more complex and generalized form of the other. If your dog is still memorizing its times tables, don't take it out off leash at the park and expect it to come back. Don't walk it through Times Square and expect perfect leash behavior. Don't enter an obedience competition and expect to pass. 

Be reasonable with your expectations. To do this, you must be honest with yourself.

Have you put in the work? That's what it really comes down to. Did you do what you needed to do to ensure total, complete understanding from the dog, and have you formed a relationship with your dog that ensures consistent compliance without force or bribery? 


There are no shortcuts to learning, but, if you are effectively communicative, reasonable, patient, and fair, you will get the results you are looking for!

Any questions or thoughts? Leave a comment below or send us a message