‘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.
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?
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.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read