"My dog has selective hearing."
"My dog only comes when he wants to."
"She knows how to sit, but she won't do it when guests come over."
"My dog ignores me!"
Sound familiar? It's a common complaint in the dog training world. The dog doesn't listen. Why is that? It usually falls back onto one of the following three reasons.
Reason 1: Lack of Understanding
When a dog is born, he is born a dog. Sounds like an obvious statement, right? But no, seriously. He is a dog, not a human. This is a conversation we have quite often with our clients. Dogs aren't born genetically programmed to know what humans want from them. They also aren't born understanding commands or with a knowledge of "right" and "wrong." It is our job as owners to teach them.
Wouldn't it be nice if your dog would understand why coming when called is so important?
"Hey Flare, listen. If you run into the road and a car is coming, you could get badly injured. Please come when I call you. It's for your own safety. I love you and don't want you hurt!"
And from there on out the dog understands. It's a lightbulb moment. Flare now listens every time, because she understands her safety relies on it! Wouldn't that be so nice?
Unfortunately, dogs don't have the cognitive ability to process the "why" like people do. In order for a dog to understand what is being asked, we have to train them what the command means. Dogs don't come pre-programmed knowing, so many times a dog's "selective hearing" is simply a matter of lack of understanding and lack of training.
Reason 2: Lack of Reinforcement
So now that we are on the same page and we have established that dogs don't just naturally understand us, it leads to another question.
What does a dog understand? Reinforcement.
Let me give an example. My family raises Golden Retriever puppies. Each and every puppy goes home at 8 weeks of age knowing how to come when called. This might sound impressive, but it's not. It is actually really, really easy. Every meal, we call the puppies to come and set down the food dish. The word "come" is now associated with food (positive reinforcement) and those puppies love to come when called.
Now jump ahead a few weeks. One of the puppies, Jake, is settled into his new home, but he all the sudden isn't coming when called anymore. It's not by chance. It's not selective hearing. It's a change in reinforcement.
Jake's owners call him to come a lot. They can't figure out why he did it before, but now he refuses to listen. I ask them to give me some specific examples of times they call him to come:
"He's playing in the yard running around having a blast, and we call him to come inside."
"We are trying to leave for work, so we call him to come to crate him, and he doesn't listen."
"Jake is digging in the garbage, so we call him to come away from the garbage."
"He is playing with our other dog and won't stop playing and come when called."
What do all these scenarios have in common? The dog was doing something he was enjoying, and then the word "come" ended him fun and brought him to something less enjoyable. The positive reinforcement is no longer there. It's not worth it.
Dog's learn through reinforcement. It is simple science. If every time your dog sits, he gets a treat, he is more likely to offer to sit. If every time your dog jumps on you he gets attention, he is more likely to jump.
But it goes both ways. If the fun ends every time your dog is called to come, coming when called is no longer reinforcing. It's not worth it, and now you have a dog that has decided listening isn't worth it.
Reason 3: The Dog Has Been Taught to Ignore
Okay, so time to air the dirty laundry. I'm not a perfect mom. I'm talking about human mom to human kiddos. We are putting a pause on the dog topic, and you might be thinking I'm a horrible blogger because I just switched topics mid-blog. Hold up. It'll come back around.
Sometimes I wonder why my children don't listen, but most of the time I know it's because I'm allowing them to ignore me. For example, I tell my daughter to clean her room, and she continues to play with her toys. So what do I do? I say it again. "Please go clean your room." My child continues to play. I get busy. My phone rings. I pick it up, while my child continues to build her dinosaur wonderland. After the phone call, I am now frustrated because I ask my daughter for the third time to go clean her room, and she still doesn't listen. I've had enough, so I say it one more time and stand there next to her. She finally goes as she sees that I'm going to stand there and wait for her to do it and not allow her to continue to play. The playing is no longer an option.
So what should I have done instead? Asked my daughter one time to go clean her room, and then if she didn't do it I simply grab her hand and bring her upstairs to her room. No repeating. No frustration. No teaching her she's allowed to ignore me. The simple art of following through.
Dogs are the same. If you tell your dog to come three times and he comes on the third try, you equally taught him he was allowed to ignore you twice. That may not fare well in an emergency situation. But if instead you call your dog to come and you pick up the leash and run backwards when you see him ignoring you, now he learns he has no choice but to follow on the leash. Simple follow through.
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About The Author: Megan is the owner and lead trainer of Havana Dog Training. She has been training canines for over 8 years and specializes in behavior modification, foundational work, and working with families and young children.