There are a few reasons why you might not be getting the responses you want from your dog.
Let’s discuss the reasons and solutions in depth to help us communicate more effectively with our dogs.
#1. Your dog doesn’t understand you
As a dog trainer I frequently see dog owners shouting commands at their dogs without any prior training. Dogs do not come to us understanding human language, this should come as no surprise, but since this is such a common occurrence it is worth mentioning. Dogs come to us knowing dog language, this is mostly body language indicating their state of mind. I will go over body language in further detail in a future article. Dogs have to be taught through the use of marker training how to communicate with us. See my how dogs learn article.
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Once communication is established and you have taught some obedience behaviors, you must make sure the behaviors are proofed. Dogs learn in stages, the four stages are; the learning phase ( this is when you are teaching the behavior) fluency ( the dog knows the behavior on verbal cue without any distractions present) generalization ( testing the known behavior in a variety of scenarios and adding the 3 d’s of dog training, distance, duration and distractions) and maintenance ( the dog understands the behavior under every scenario and you continue to practice on a regular basis.
Once your dog understands what you’re asking him to do and is in the generalization phase, then and only then is it fair to correct him for not complying
#2. Your dog isn’t motivated enough
Creating motivation is one of the most important aspects of dog training. I prefer to create motivation by training dogs for things they want, this is called positive reinforcement. If the value of your reinforcer isn’t high enough your dog won’t have enough reason to listen to you, they will also get bored of training quickly and view training as a bad thing.
I like to create motivation for obedience training by using food, chasing games for food, tug and fetch. There are some behaviors dogs naturally like doing, these are called self reinforcing behaviors. Some self reinforcing behaviors include; digging, jumping, barking and mouthing. For other behaviors such as sit, down, come, heel etc we have to make valuable. For example if your dog sits and you then have them chase you and feed them, sitting will be more likely to occur in the future. Depending on what you’re training there are other ways to motivate dogs. Specific things like working with reactivity and fear will be addressed in future articles.
#3. Your dog doesn’t respect you.
I covered this topic in depth in my pack structure and leadership article. For the purposes of this article I will cover the main points again.
Dogs need clearly defined rules to live by and as their owners we need to provide these rules. I personally believe dogs do not try to be “bad”, it’s just that their natural tendencies as a species do not fit in well we the human way of life. If we let a dog make their own decisions we wind up with a whole host of problems. Behaviors like jumping, play biting, food stealing, getting into garbage, pulling, barking out windows, destructive chewing..etc are all normal dog behaviors. I often feel bad for dogs because nearly every behavior that is completely natural for them as a species isn’t accepted in our human way of life. I feel like it’s gotta be tough when everything you inherently want to do is considered wrong.
The first thing we need to do is set our dogs up for success, this involves using our brains and being proactive.
1. Be prepared- Have leashes, bait bags, treats and toys in convenient easily accessible areas. I suggest having multiple crates, put these items on top of the crates so you do not forget them. Use treats to get your dog in the crate, have a bait bag with treats and toys handy to use for training and redirection once your dog is out of the crate and immediately leash your dog once they are out of the crate to better control/manage their household behavior. When you cannot or do not want to pay attention to your dog put them in a crate or playpen with appropriate toys and chews. This gives us full control of the dog’s life and prevents all of those unwanted behaviors from happening. I also use leashes and tethers for this effect. Sometimes when I want my dog with me but I am doing something like studying or am just watching tv I will tether my dog close to me or hold the leash. I do this more once my dog knows down stays and place.
2. Exercise your dog’s body and mind- I view energy like a meter, if that meter is full and you do not provide constructive outlets for it, it will come out in annoying or destructive ways. Your dog will start demanding attention by pawing at you, demand barking, bringing you toys( I have a rule about toys we will get to in a minute) getting into things, barking out windows, digging, chewing… everything you don’t want. Bottom line here is that you need to provide your dog with structured walks, play and training
3. Make your dog earn everything- There are so many opportunities for training to establish this rule throughout a day. Here is an example; releasing the dog from the crate for calm behavior first thing in the morning, making them sit and give you eye contact before letting them out to go to the bathroom, doing 5 obedience cues before you release them to their food bowl, doing the place behavior while you eat, heeling while you walk etc.. The whole idea of this is to create the impression to your dog that everything good comes from listening to you. This will dramatically improve your relationship with your dog and also require them to think before they act. View it like a mental speed bump that slows down impulsive behavior. This also gets our dog’s looking to us for direction and decision making which for right now is what we need. Eventually through habit and repetition dogs start making good decisions on their own.
This next part falls under this category and our first category, clean up toys and no free feeding. You want to control access to toys so your dog knows they are coming from you. This also prevents the novelty of the toy wearing off and object guarding behaviors. Same goes for food, leaving food out can encourage guarding, create picky eaters and will not show your dog that you are providing the food.
#4 You lack consistency
Lack of consistency is a major problem especially with family dogs. One owner lets the dog pull one doesn’t, one owner lets the dog jump one doesn’t, one owner lets the dog on furniture one doesn’t… sound familiar? A dog cannot learn this way. What this does is setup a variable reinforcement schedule for bad behavior. Variable reinforcement is essentially random reinforcement, it makes behavior resilient which is why we use it for obedience training. In obedience training it keeps dog’s motivated by never knowing when reinforcement might come, it’s an addicting guessing game. It can easily be compared to gambling, people mostly lose when they gamble, but the chance of a big reward keeps them gambling, so much so that people develop gambling addiction at times. To eliminate behavior you must never reinforce it period.
#5 Your dog is physically incapable
There are two ways I look at this issue. The first is making sure there is nothing medically wrong with your dog. Not feeling well, diseases or physical handicaps can affect not only how well your dog can listen, but whether they can physically do what you’re asking in the first place. The second is just being realistic. For example I have a Doberman that is around 100lbs, it would be unfair and unrealistic of me to train this dog to hop on his hind legs, he is just too big for that. Another issue worth talking about is the surface you are training on. Asking a dog for a down stay on hardwood or cement surfaces is going to be painful and therefore they may break command.