As a starting point for today’s discussion, I want to delve a little deeper into a very common, deceptively simple question that all trainers have heard more times than they care to count:
Why doesn’t my dog listen?
This question, or some variation of it, is probably the single most frequent thing I am asked by beginner students in my obedience classes. Their dogs are jumping on visitors, pulling on the leash, having potty accidents in the house, or running off to chase deer as soon as the leash is removed – despite their owners’ honest efforts to change things.
For the first few weeks of every class, the story is much the same. The dogs sniff interesting spots on the floor, wag happily up to other humans for petting, or offer play bows to the next dog in line while their owners struggle. Lots of fumbling and confusion on both sides – owners who can’t figure out why their dog isn’t learning, and dogs who have no idea what they’re supposed to do.
“He’s so distracted!”
“I can’t get him to pay attention.”
“Why won’t he do anything I say?”
These owners are truly, genuinely frustrated – understandably so! They perceive their dogs as lacking respect for them, or being stubborn or unwilling to learn. Anyone who has ever lived with an adolescent puppy can vouch for the fact that it certainly feels this way, at times! But is this really why our attempts at training may not be effective?
To put it another way… if your dog isn’t doing what you want him to, is it truly because he just “won’t listen?”
In a word – no. It may be hard to swallow at first, but the answer is actually much more straightforward than you might think.
If your dog “won’t listen”, it’s very likely that the problem boils down to one of two things:
- He doesn’t understand what you want; or,
- You haven’t given him any compelling reason to do it.
That’s it. Really – in the vast majority of cases, it isn’t any more complicated than that.
(I’m purposely setting aside the possibility that your dog may not be able to perform a known behavior in a given situation due to stress or anxiety – see my previous post for more on this, if you wish, as it’s a bit beyond the scope of our current discussion. For today, we are assuming that our hypothetical dog is not anxious or overwhelmed – just distracted and/or genuinely clueless about what’s expected.)
When I’m helping clients troubleshoot basic training problems with their dogs, these are the two areas that always need work. Good training comes down to two main things – clarity and motivation. In this respect, training dogs is just like teaching humans… we all need these two critical ingredients in order to learn.
With humans, of course, we have the advantage of a shared language – we can explain the desired behavior to our students, and communicate clearly about expectations and consequences. But how can we do this for dogs?
This is really the crux of all animal training – and it’s a truly fascinating topic! How do we “explain”, to a member of another species who doesn’t speak our language, what specific behavior we are looking for? In the absence of verbal explanations, training relies heavily on communication via rewards (and perhaps corrections, depending on your training style) for behaviors that are offered. A well-timed reward says, “Yes, I liked that – do it again!”
And this, in a nutshell, is how we train dogs. It’s all about effective feedback.
The remainder of today’s post will be devoted to discussing what this looks like, in practical terms. I expect that it will be most helpful for beginner trainers who are still learning the basics of how to work with their dogs, but even those of us who are a bit more seasoned can still use some reminders every now and then 😉
So without further ado, let’s get down to some specific words of advice.
Use rewards that work
Now, I realize that this particular suggestion seems almost laughably self-explanatory. Obviously, no matter what task we’re trying to accomplish, we all want to use tools that “work”… right?
You might be surprised to learn that this is one of the most common problems I see with my beginner students. During our orientation class on Week 1 (for owners only – no dogs!) we always make a point of discussing recommended types of treats for class: hot dog slices, string cheese, roast beef, chicken, turkey, etc. In short – something incredibly smelly and delicious, with some type of “human food” being by far the most effective option for most dogs.
In spite of this talk, there is always (ALWAYS) at least one optimistic student who arrives on Week 2 with a bouncy adolescent Lab and a Ziploc baggie of stale Milk Bones. This leads inevitably to frustration for everyone involved, when it turns out that Buddy the Lab is far more interested in saying hi to everyone in the room, eating bits of lint off the floor, and flirting with the pretty Spaniel mix at the next station than in learning how to sit for a Milk Bone.
(If you have ever been this student, don’t feel bad! We understand, and it’s a very common mistake. Just please bring hot dog slices next time. Trust me. Your dog will thank you.)
In order for something to be an effective reward (or “reinforcer”, in behavioral science parlance), your dog has to want it. This is a hugely important, cardinal rule of training – so it pays to let this sink in for a moment.
If Buddy doesn’t want your Milk Bone, you cannot use it effectively to teach him anything. Period. It has nothing to do with how desirable *you* think a particular treat seems, or how much he likes it at home, or how expensive and fancy and grain-free it might be – the *dog* decides whether or not it’s an effective reward.
It’s also important to note that the relative value of any given reward will be very context-specific, especially for young or inexperienced dogs. Milk Bones, baby carrots, or kibble may be perfectly acceptable training treats at home in your living room, where things are otherwise quiet and boring. But in a class environment where there are lots of other things competing for your dog’s attention, you’ll need to bring out the big guns. Use what works!
Before moving on, I do want to note that food treats are certainly not the only type of reward that can be used to train your dog – far from it! Anything that your dog enjoys can theoretically be used as a training reward (play, social interaction, praise and petting, the chance to sniff things, etc.) but keep in mind that your dog has to genuinely *want* these things, enough to be willing to work for them. In my experience, many owners dramatically overestimate how much their dog values things like petting or praise, as compared to bites of roast beef.
It also takes quite a bit more creativity and finesse to use these kinds of rewards effectively, so I rarely suggest them for beginner students. For novice dog owners, particularly in the initial learning phase of any new behavior, I strongly recommend using food – you can work on transitioning to other types of “real-life” rewards later on, once your dog is happy and confident about what you’re asking 🙂
Tighten up your timing
As the saying goes, timing is everything. It’s true in music, in comedy, in relationships, and most assuredly in training dogs. The reason is simple – whatever you reward, you get more of. So it pays to be specific!
When you’re teaching a new behavior to your dog, he believes he is being rewarded for whatever he’s doing at the instant the treat enters his mouth. (A conditioned marker signal like a clicker can give you some leeway here – but again, that’s a discussion for another time! For now, let’s assume that you’re not using a clicker or any other type of secondary reinforcer. Just a regular old treat, in your beginner obedience class.)
So ideally, if you’re teaching your pup to sit, you will be popping a tasty piece of chicken into his mouth at the precise moment his rear end hits the floor. He learns that sitting = tasty treat, and therefore offers this behavior again. Once he’s offering it quickly and confidently without any extra help, you put a verbal cue with it (“sit!”) and voila!
Your dog has now learned to sit on cue. Easy-peasy, right?
In practice, there is usually a brief delay between the behavior and the reward due to simple logistics – it takes a moment to reach forward with the treat and actually give the reward. Experienced trainers can generally make this delay extremely short (1-2 seconds) because they know exactly what they’re watching for (rear end on the ground, in our example above), and they’ve had lots of practice at the mechanics of delivering treats quickly.
In short, their timing is excellent – which makes it easy for the dog to learn.
Beginner students, in contrast, often have trouble with both of these skills. If you’ve never taught a dog to sit before, you may not be watching closely for the precise moment his rear touches the floor – perhaps you accidentally reward him for backing up, or jumping for the treat, or pawing at your hand. When he does sit, you also may find that getting a treat to him before he gets up is harder than it looks!
The result is hopeless confusion for the dog. Rewarding haphazardly for a slew of different things (jumping up, standing still, backing up, and occasionally sitting) without any predictable pattern makes it very hard for him to learn what you want. Remember that he doesn’t speak English, so shouting “sit!” doesn’t help to clarify the situation – if your rewards are poorly timed, they’ve lost their power to communicate. Everything else is just noise.
At best, if your dog is highly motivated and very tolerant, poor timing means that it’s going to take a long time to get a successful sit. If your dog is more independent, environmentally focused, or stresses easily, he may well check out of the entire process – meaning no sit at all, and lots of sniffing or other “distracted” behavior to boot.
(It’s worth noting that this is true even if you are not using any corrections in your training! Confusion, all by itself, is extremely unpleasant for most dogs – so much so that they will actively avoid the situation, even if you have fabulously tasty treats. All the more reason to be as clear as possible!)
So – as a novice trainer who is still learning the ropes, what can you do to improve?
You won’t do everything perfectly at first, but that’s okay. No one does! Start small, and focus on the details – the rear end touching the floor, or whatever the current equivalent is for the behavior you’re working on. When it happens, you need to be ready… so I would also recommend investing in some type of easy-access place to keep your treats. This is more important than you might think!
I see far too many dogs who finally, finally execute a perfect sit, only to have their handler spend an excruciating ten seconds carefully extracting a single piece of cheese from a folded paper towel inside a plastic baggie. By the time this process is finished, the dog has long since stood up, sneezed, scratched his ear, and completely forgotten what he’s being rewarded for.
Take my word for it – get a bait bag, a jacket or vest with loose pockets, or even an ultra-fashionable fanny pack to hold your treats. It’s no exaggeration to say that being able to grab them quickly can be the difference between clarity and frustration for your dog during any given training session. I promise – that unattractive fanny pack will change your life. Wear it proudly.
This last piece of the puzzle deals with the transition from training class to real life.
If you’re like many beginner students after the first few weeks, you may put lots of effort into being attentive and quick to reward the behavior you like in class – and kudos to you for doing this, as it’s a great first step! But if you go home afterwards, take off your handy bait bag, and lapse contentedly back into your usual routine, the unfortunate truth is that nothing is going to stick.
Dogs are masters at reading different contexts, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s why experienced competition dogs can easily distinguish between the show ring and the obedience ring (and offer the appropriate behavior in each one) based on nothing more than the type of collar they are wearing and the way their hander is dressed. It’s also why many pet dogs are rock stars each week in training class, nailing every exercise perfectly, only to revert back to their jumping, leash-pulling ways in everyday life.
It’s all about being consistent.
If you want your A+, star student pup to be on his best behavior at home, you have to do your part as well. This means a snappy sit on cue must be rewarded every single time, whether it’s in your living room, on the sidewalk during a walk, or at the front door when visitors are arriving. It’s hard, I know – real life is not always convenient for training! But this is the price of a well-trained dog.
So bite the bullet and keep your treats handy. Wear your bait bag if you must, and pretend your instructor is watching. Reward your dog and make her proud.
If these things are challenging at first, don’t beat yourself up! All of us, without exception, started out as fumbling beginners with our very first dog – dropping our treats on the floor, forgetting to pay attention, and rewarding for all the wrong things. There’s nothing magical at all about good training. It’s all cause and effect, and it can be learned with practice – just like any other skill.
So be patient, and have faith in the process. Your dog isn’t stubborn or stupid, and neither are you. Learn how to communicate effectively in a way he understands, and I promise –
Your dog will start to listen.