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Why Is My Dog Not Listening to Me?

Updated on July 12, 2016

The process of training a dog is something that requires patience, time and understanding. Dog trainers know well the saying "be a splitter and not a lumper" a quote by reputable animal trainer Bob Bailey. What this saying means is that it is best to split the exercise in baby steps so to help the dog succeed rather than asking too much at once and risking overwhelming the dog.

However, sometimes despite breaking the exercise in small parts, the dog still seems to be in another world, why is that? There are many reasons for this and understanding them is key to overcoming these moments of distraction. Don't just assume your dog is being stubborn and hard-headed; rather, consider the possibilities listed below so you can troubleshoot the problem and work on training more effectively.

Eight Reasons Why Your Dog May Not be Listening to You

Make Yourself Worthy of Attention!

Is your dog giving you deaf ears? When this happens, avoid repeating the cue over and over and imposing yourself until you get a response; instead, take a step back and consider the following scenarios which are some of the most common issues encountered when training dogs.

1) Low Value Treats: Are Your Treats Worth Working For?

It's a romantic myth hard to debunk that dogs work for us to just please us. In reality, as opportunistic beings, dogs are rather thinking "What is in it for me right now?" according to Association of Pet Dog Trainers. The right use of treats can really make the difference between a dog who is eager to work and one that can care less. The use of high-value treats is detrimental especially during the initial stages of learning or when there are distractions around. Make sure your treats are worthy of attention. Ideally, they should be soft, smelly and in small bite sizes. Skip your dog's regular kibble or those stale doggy biscuits forgotten in the cookie jar. A suggestion? Try to use what respected veterinarian, trainer and writer Dr. Ian Dunbar calls the Ferrari of dog treats: freeze-dried liver.

2) Low Rate of Reinforcement: Are You Missing Out on Rewarding?

In the initial stages of learning and when there are too many distractions around, your dog may find sniffing the grass, looking around, marking territory and pulling, more rewarding than training. Why is that? It's probably because there are stimuli that are extra interesting and are worth paying more attention to. If your dog has received little training at all, he may have been doing this for a good part of his life. Increasing the rate of reinforcement during this time, may help motivate the dog and teach him to attend more to you than the distracting environmental stimuli. Also, a too low rate of reinforcement may cause your dog to get easily frustrated and give up trying; remember during the initial stages of learning you need a continuous rate of reinforcement, and only once your dog gives signs of responding well, you may move on to a variable one./

3) High Criteria: Are You Asking too Much at Once?

This is where the "be a splitter and not a lumper" comes into play. It is often tempting to try to teach new behaviors all at once in an evening. When your dog stops working for you start thinking: "Am I asking to much?" Truth is, often when dogs fail to respond to a cue it is because it is too hard for them. So try not to raise the criteria too high; rather break the objective down into several attainable steps to help your dog succeed. Try your best to avoid your dog from going into a stall and do not make your training sessions too long! Keep them short and sweet!

3) High Level of Distractions: Is there too Much Going on?

Dogs learn best when there are little or no distractions around. Start in a quiet room where there is not much going on. Then build from there and gradually start asking the behavior in a noisier room. Afterward, progress to the yard, a busy street, the dog park and so forth. If you start on a busy street right away or the dog park, your dog may not respond because you have not yet build a foundation for the behavior to be proofed.

4) Lack of Training: Has Your Dog Ever Been Trained Before?

If the handler has a history of being inconsistent not following through with the dog, there are chances the dog may have learned he could get away from certain behaviors and has learned to ignore the handler. Dogs who have never been trained and that have been allowed to do as they please for a good part of their lives, find the initial stages of learning difficult because the concept is entirely new. It is up to the handler to become interesting and worth listening to by investing in a reward-based training method.

5) Unclear Cues: Are You Confusing Your Dog?

Dogs thrive on consistency, so make sure you always use the same cue and that all other people training the dog are on the same page. If you ask a cue and your dog just stares at you, consider if that cue has a history of being used consistently. It is not uncommon to encounter a family in classes where the wife uses "come " to call the dog, the husband uses the dog's name, and the kids just say "here"! Don't ask behaviors using different cues and make sure your body language is congruent with the verbal cue. Dog find body language more salient then verbal cues. Also, try your best not to repeat cues over and over, otherwise your dog will learn not to attend to the first cue but rather will wait for you to finish your sentence!

6) Frustration Buildup: Are you Getting Frustrated?

Dogs are masters in body language and they can easily detect frustration. When the handler's frustration builds up, dogs often shut down rather than becoming more compliant. In this case, it helps to ask the dog a behavior he knows well so to end the session on a positive note and try the exercise a little bit later, possibly further splitting the exercise in smaller sections if it was too hard. Also, keep in mind that if you start raising your voice, bending down or getting into the dog's face, you are intimidating your dog which will feel the need to send you appeasement signals and default behaviors, rather than listening to your cues.

7) Emotional Problems: Are Emotions Getting in the Way?

If a dog is fearful, anxious or nervous, its emotional state may interfere with training. This is because the dog is often in a flight or fight state which affects the dog's cognitive functions, impairing the dog's ability to learn. In such a case, you may need to work in areas where your dog is less likely to be frightened and then gradually introduce more and more stimuli sub-threshold.

8) Health Considerations: Is Your Dog in Pain or Uncomfortable?

Last, but obviously not least, consider your dog may not be feeling to well or feels uncomfortable. If your dog has always been obedient and now is slacking off, it is best to have your veterinarian rule out any medical problems. Sloppy sits or a reluctance to lay down may be indicative of orthopedic problems. Some dogs may not like to be trained on certain surfaces or it may be too hot, too windy or your dog may be thirsty. Often, a distracted dog may simply need to relieve himself or get a lap of water.

As seen, there are many reasons why your dog may not be listening to you. Don't be fast to label your dog as stubborn, shouting commands as a drill sergeant or giving up training altogether, try to give your dog a break and consider what may be really going on. A better understanding on how dogs learn should pave the path to better training.

Alexadry,© all rights reserved, do not copy.


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    • Kara Skinner profile image

      Kara Skinner 

      2 years ago from Maine

      There is a lot of great information here. I really hope I can implement these to help my dogs.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      3 years ago

      Thanks vocalcoach, I hope it will turn helpful for many people who are struggling with their dogs. I often print it out for my clients as a reminder that we must closely evaluate if we are paving the path for success.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      3 years ago

      Thanks Agilitymach, sometimes people may think dogs are the ones being "stubborn" but when we turn the tables and take a closer insight, we may actually discover that they're doing something that's not helping the dog succeed.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      3 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      You've given some good tips for training our beloved canine. Thanks~!

      Dogs like to learn effective strategies for behavior - with a reward.

    • agilitymach profile image

      Kristin Kaldahl 

      3 years ago

      Super great information here!! So many people think the dog is ignoring them when the problem has to do with other factors. Love it!


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