Why Dogs Don’t Listen!

‘My dog doesn’t listen’  is a common complaint. Let’s look at why dogs might appear not to be listening to their human companions.


Picture courtesy of Nosey Barker Dog Training


The animals who share the planet with us today are here because their ancestors performed behaviours which were of benefit to their survival.  Repeating beneficial behaviour means you survive to pass on your genes (or are more likely too).  Repeating unbeneficial behaviour makes you less likely to survive to pass on those genes.  Imagine an animal who searches for food in an area where there is never any food or visits a dried up waterhole which hasn’t provided water in years. Would they do this over and over, day after day?  Or are they more likely to revisit the waterhole which actually has water and a hunting or scavenging area that has food?

Dogs generally repeat behaviour when they perceive that it pays some kind of benefit. They do not generally repeat behaviour if no such benefit is perceived.

Dogs usually ignore us when they can’t see the benefit of doing otherwise.  Let’s take ‘SIT’ as an example (but the same goes for anything else).  Now let’s imagine we say ‘SIT’ to a dog who’s had no previous training at all.  If he’s had no training how would he know that ‘SIT’ means sit?  It’s just a sound made by a human and has no particular significance to the dog.   Repeating the word isn’t going to help. It is more likely to reinforce the words lack of significance

We need to do some teaching first. We need to teach the dog that sitting when they hear a human say ‘SIT’ is worthwhile.  I’m well aware that many people struggle with this concept.  Over and over, I hear people say that the dog should do it just because they ask him to.  This simply isn’t possible. Millions of years of evolution have produced animals which seek a benefit to their actions. There would be no reason for the brain’s amazing plasticity if we were all just going to repeat behaviour which doesn’t work for us.

We can easily teach the dog that sitting (when the human says sit) is worthwhile.  First, we could teach that sitting is beneficial.  There are various ways of doing so, such as, holding a treat in your closed hand just above the dog’s nose and moving it backward (away from you) very slightly; this will often get the dog to sit (when he sits, you pay). Another method might be to just stand with something in your hand (toy or treat) that the dog is interested in; the dog may try many things such as jumping, barking or sitting and looking. We would ensure that the jumping and barking don’t pay (nothing happens and the dog doesn’t get the item) and when the sitting behaviour is offered, it’s payday (dog gets the item).  If the sitting behaviour is the one that pays, then, of course, this is what the dog is likely to do in the same situation in future.

Once we can predict that he will sit (he is offering the behaviour each time in the given situation) we can start saying the word ‘SIT’ just as he is about to sit anyway.  Before long we have made an association (in the dog’s mind) with the word ‘SIT’ and the action of sitting.  Whichever method of training you use (there are quite a few), they all work by association. There is simply no other way.

The dog doesn’t necessarily need to be paid every time (once the behaviour has been learned). He simply needs to know that the behaviour is at least sometimes beneficial. I do however pay most of the time because that’s how I  roll.

So why does the dog respond sometimes and not others?


Picture courtesy of Nosey Barker Dog Training


Often a dog will respond much better at home than elsewhere.  We call the dog at home and he comes running, but call him at the park or try to get his attention when other things are going on and he turns a deaf ear. It is simply that coming when called at home may pay in comparison to not having much else to do, whereas coming when called at the park probably doesn’t pay because he has other things to do which are of greater benefit.  If you’d like to read more on recall training click here for my blog on it.

So, Why don’t dogs listen?  Because we have not built an adequate association with our words or made them beneficial to the dog.


If you could choose your guardian angel (let’s assume they exist), what kind of guardian angel would you choose?

Would you like a mean angel who prods you, pushes you, pulls you, shouts at you, ignores you, chokes you, takes out their frustrations on you and doesn’t even consider how you might feel?


Would you prefer a kind guardian angel who looks out for you, spots danger, keeps you safe, makes sure you get your fair share of the good stuff and ensures your needs are met and that you enjoy life?


Of course, this is a nonsensical question. It’s nonsensical, not because of the mythology of guardian angels, but because the answer is ridiculously obvious.  Of course, you’d choose the kind angel!

So which guardian angel would you choose for your dog?  This time you really do get to choose because their guardian angel is you!

It’s you who controls their whole life. When they go out, when they come in, where they sleep, what they eat, whether life is interesting, who they meet, if they see a vet and whether they feel safe. Almost everything they do is controlled by you.

What type of guardian angel will you be?




How to get your dog to come back (the dreaded recall)

If your dog ignores you when it’s time to go back on the lead, you might be standing there without a dog, but you are most definitely not alone!  It’s one of the most common problems in the dog-human relationship.

Why does it matter?  Not returning when called can be frustrating for the owner (not great for the relationship), it leads to dogs not getting as much off-lead time as they otherwise might (not great for fitness) and has some serious safety implications.

Let’s take a look at the recall and what can be done to make you both the recall champions of planet earth.

Imagine you’re in the park. You call the dog, ‘Here Boris, come boy, come here‘ but Boris doesn’t come running back to you!

Why didn’t he come running back?

He doesn’t know that ‘Here Boris, come boy, come here‘ means that it’s a very good idea to get back to you as quickly as possible.  ‘But he does it at home‘ I hear you say.  He might well return when called at home, but in a different environment, different rules apply.  Is it such a good idea at the park to come running back when called?  Or does returning mean that the freedom and fun come to an end? Does it mean that the lead is going back on? Does it mean you are going home where you might wait another 23 hours for your next off-lead fun? Does it mean you get yelled at or yanked about by a frustrated human?  Returning is not seeming like a such a great idea anymore, is it?

I see it almost weekly. People struggle to get their dog back and then proceed to chastise him.  This will not encourage him to return quickly in the future. It will only teach him that when you call, you might get angry and are best avoided.

Whilst I do understand human frustrations (there’s nothing special about me, I get frustrated too), we really do need to show our dogs that we are a safe haven if we expect them to trust us.


My general procedure for ensuring dogs learn that returning is an excellent thing to do is as follows (I’m calling your dog Boris so that I don’t have to keep saying, ‘the dog’):

Boris may have learned to ignore the sound of your voice when you recall him outdoors. I suggest teaching him to come to the sound of a whistle; I use a gun-dog whistle (Acme Dog 211.5) because it’s a nice sound and a good tone for dogs.  Where the following instructions call for a treat to be given, use a small piece of chicken, a slice of hotdog or something else which Boris really enjoys.  Food treats should be approximately the size of a fingernail to allow for lots of training without the dog overeating or getting bored with the food. Food treats could also be replaced by a favourite toy for some dogs (common with Border Collies).

When should you move from one step to another?

If Boris is responding well at least 4 out of 5 times you may proceed to the next step.

If Boris is responding well 3 out of 5 times, repeat the step.

If Boris is responding well less than 3 out of 5 times, go back to the previous step.

Step 1: With Boris nearby (indoors), blow the whistle and give a treat. Repeat 15 times per day for three days.

Step 2: Within the home and with Boris further away from you, perhaps the other side of the room, blow the whistle and give a treat as soon as Boris reaches you. Repeat 10 times per day for three days.

Step 3: Within the home and with Boris in another room from you, blow the whistle and give a treat as soon as Boris reaches you. Repeat 10 times per day for three days.

Step 4: Within the garden, blow the whistle and give a treat as soon as Boris reaches you. Repeat 10 times per day for three days.

Step 5: In a safe area outside of the home, and with  Boris still on the leash, blow the whistle and give a treat. Repeat five times.

Step 6: Within the safe area, remove the leash and allow Boris to have a run-around for five minutes before you begin training. Continue with Boris running free (as long as it is safe to do so) but each time he comes within five paces blow the whistle and give a treat. Immediately allow Boris to continue running free. Repeat 10 to 15 times for three days. This step may be completed with a long line attached if you do not have a very safe area.

Step 7: Over the next 10 (approximately) training sessions repeat the instructions for step six but gradually increase Boris’ distance from you when you blow the whistle. So you may increase the distance by five paces per training session.

Step 8: Repeat steps six and seven with added distractions (this will be easier to do with the help of a friend and their dog). Maybe a dog on the other side of the field which is too far away to distract him too much.

Step 9: Repeat steps six and seven but increase the distractions slightly. Perhaps a little nearer to the distraction.

Step 10: Continue to add distractions in small increments. Perhaps getting closer to them or even playing with another dog if appropriate.  If you advance to the level of recalling when playing, then it’s best to wait for a pause in the play, otherwise, he may not even notice the whistle if he is in full flow.

Step 11: Continue to practice in other safe areas where you may want to let Boris off leash. New areas should first be practised without the added distractions.

Note: The reason Boris comes to you when you blow the whistle is that he gets a treat and is also permitted to continue to play. This behaviour should be maintained by regularly blowing the whistle during off lead time, giving a treat and allowing Boris to go and play again.  On any occasion when you need to put Boris back on the lead, give him a few treats after attaching the leash. This will help to ensure that he is always happy to go back on the lead.

The advantage to using a whistle is that it is very distinctive.

The disadvantage is that you may leave home without it.  I always keep one on my keyring. However, the very same process can be done using a distinctive word or sound. I often use a WUB sound, just because it’s distinctive and can cut across other noises.




How to prevent dogs from destroying their toys

As an advocate of canine enrichment, ‘my dog destroys his toys‘ is something I hear a lot.  I can certainly understand the frustration. Some of the toys are not cheap and to have them not even last the day is disappointing, to say the least.

Looking around the pet shops,  I often see notices displayed beside the toys, stating something like ‘THESE TOYS ARE NOT INDESTRUCTIBLE’. They obviously have a fair few disappointed customers.  So the first thing to note is that if your dog destroys his toys, you are not alone.  The reason you are not alone is that chewing is an innate behaviour of dogs, it’s a genetic predisposition.  Your dog isn’t faulty, naughty or bad; he’s good at chewing,  he’s good at being a dog.

You can stop there if you like and just not buy things he is capable of chewing to destruction.  Maybe try some of the toughest toys like Nylabone, Kong Extreme, GoughNuts or West Paw (these are tough but nothing is truly indestructible).  You may also like to take a look at what people are recommending in the Canine Enrichment group post dedicated to tough toys


However, there’s also plenty you can do to reduce the likelihood of toys being chewed to destruction.

Don’t just give the toy to the dog and walk away.  Watch how he interacts with it. If he thinks the fun is in chewing it up then that’s what he’s going to do. Maybe stick around and make the toy fun in other ways, like chasing it around, playing fetch or tug.

If you have difficulty getting the toy back from the dog, have two identical toys.  Play with your dog using one toy. When you want him to leave it, make the other toy the interesting one by playing with that one and paying no attention to the dog’s toy.  They often want what somebody else has and will leave their toy to play with the interesting one (it’s your job to make it the interesting one).  The toy, therefore, is not being destroyed and you can keep swapping in this way without ever having to take the toy away.

Often it’s enrichment feeding toys that people report their dogs are destroying. Strictly speaking, they are not really toys because the dog isn’t playing but he’s getting something interesting to do (enrichment) as he works out how to access the food.  We will stick with the term ‘toy’ for ease.  We need to ensure that the dog is introduced to this type of feeding in an appropriate way. A way which gets him focusing on the food rather than destroying the toy.  The idea is that we start off as easy as possible for the dog to be successful (you can always build up the challenge later on).

Some of the vast number of food enrichment toys available

Let’s take two examples of how this might work.

Example 1: Using a Kong

Start off by filling it with loose food, such as kibble. This will fall out very easily allowing him to be successful and learn that the idea is to get the food.  Over time the challenge can be increased by adding wet food, then compacted wet food and then wet food, compacted and frozen. If at stage one the dog didn’t show any interest then we could make things even easier by smearing a favourite food on the outside of the Kong (cheese, peanut butter (ensure it doesn’t contain Xylitol) or Kong easy treat paste perhaps).  Once the food has gone you should remove the toy. Leaving it down risks the dog chewing it.  I don’t like the idea of dogs thinking I’m taking their things (it can induce resource guarding) so I save some of their food and sprinkle it on the floor.  Whilst they are occupied with the extra game of finding all the sprinkles I remove the Kong trouble free.  This depends largely on the dog. One of mine is very happy to bring me the empty toy and I exchange for a few pieces of food. The other prefers the former method.

Example 2: Using a snuffle mat

It’s been reported to me that some dogs ignore the mat or they pick it up and all the bits of food fall out. For either problem, you can make it easier by placing the mat down but just putting food on the edge, a few inches from the mat. Over a period of time, you can move the food closer to the mat. Then onto the edges of the mat, then all over the mat, then just under the top pieces of fleece and finally right into the depths of the mat.


Mr B. and his snuffle mat


As with the Kong, you should remove the mat when it’s not being used.  Throughout the process, the dog is learning that the toy represents food. The food is very easy to acquire so that becomes the focus. The toy is really only a cue to the dog that food is available.

If the dog shows little interest interacting with enrichment feeding toys it is most likely to be that the task is simply too difficult because it’s not been introduced slowly or the dog simply thinks that the reward isn’t worth the effort compared with getting food, effort free, from his feeding bowl.  Changing to feeding more of his food from enrichment activities and much less from a bowl can help with this problem.  It’s worth the effort when you are not getting it for free.  I personally don’t feed any food from a dog food bowl because I strongly believe that dogs need more enrichment in their lives.  See my blog on why dogs need enrichment for more info on that.

Enjoy your dogs, give them something interesting to do, let them enjoy life.


Dogs need a one hour walk everyday, or do they?

It is often said that dogs need a one hour walk every day.  What I don’t like about this piece of advice is that it couldn’t possibly suit every dog and there is certainly no evidence to even suggest that it is true.  Somebody just made it up and it sounded right so it got passed on and on and on and on.

Many dogs, mine included, love the great outdoors. They love the stimulation of going outside and they love to meet up with other dogs and generally have a good time. However, for some dogs it’s not such a great thrill. They might, for various reasons, hate the great outdoors and be afraid or anxious.  Should these dogs be walked for an hour every day?

Enjoying the great outdoors

What is a one hour walk? Is it walking roadside for 60 minutes, not stopping, not interacting, not letting the dog sniff or take in his environment, yanking him back into a steady pace each time he stops?  Or, is it 60 minutes off lead, running, playing, fetching and training?   Or, would a slow walk around the block, allowing the dog to stop and sniff at whatever takes his fancy be more appropriate?

Maybe it depends on the individual dog, what he enjoys, what he needs or what he likes. What is for sure is that dogs, like us, need to feel safe. They also need mental stimulation and something to live for.  Are those needs always being met by a one hour daily walk?

How about when it’s really hot? How about when it’s too cold or stormy?  How about if the human isn’t up to a one hour walk each day?  Doesn’t it make sense to incorporate other forms of mental and physical enrichment into their lives?  Doesn’t it make sense to provide other outlets rather than depend on the one hour walk which in most cases isn’t going to happen every day and might not even be the most appropriate thing for the individual dog.

Some of Mr B’s enrichment feeding toys

Play with your dogs, interact with them, feed them from food enrichment toys, hide food around the house and garden for a treasure hunt, do a little training whilst the kettle boils, teach them to fetch a favourite toy, then start hiding it for them to go and find.  There are many ways of keeping dogs happy and healthy other than, or in addition to, their daily walk in the park. Make dogs part of your everyday life. They are not dogs for only an hour per day, they are dogs 24/7.  Dogs can benefit greatly from daily outings, but these should be adding to the dog’s quality of life rather than reducing it due to anxiety or being yanked around like a yo-yo.  Enjoy your dogs and let them enjoy life.

Be kind to your dog

Now, right from the get go, let’s be clear.  Training can be awesome and some behaviours can be life savers, for example, emergency stop or recall.  I’m a bit of a training geek. At Uni I achieved a 100% grade in advanced dog training (I like to mention that) so I’m in no way, shape or form putting training down or suggesting it’s not needed.  Absolutely not!

But there is something even more important to me and to Mr B; a good relationship.2014-07-05 21.50.45All training and care should be built on a good relationship.  What’s the point of the most obedient dog in the world if he doesn’t actually enjoy what he’s doing? Doesn’t he deserve to live in peace? To live without fear?  Isn’t it a better situation for us all if he enjoys training rather than being compelled to perform?


People ask, how can I train this or that?  There is so much more to training than the procedural steps of the behaviour you wish to develop. Be kind to your dog, it’s the first step to teaching anything, it’s the first step to living in peace, it’s the first step to a happy dog and a happy dog is much easier to train.   Every behaviour I can think of is more easily and more pleasantly trained when there is already a good relationship in place.