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Why Is My Dog Not Listening to Me?


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.

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.

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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.

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Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 07, 2020:

With any type of aggression, the help of a dog behavior professional is important for safety and correct implementation. For instance, in the leaning/touching response most likely positive associations need to be made through desensitization and counterconditioning techniques. Your dog likely doesn't react when you lean/touch because he's more comfortable around you.

For leash walking, you will need to make it clear that a loose leash will make you move forward, while a tense leash will make you stop. While there are tools to reduce leash pulling, they are not meant to be used alone, we still need to implement training. Here are some pointers on how I train dogs to heel (please note that the first walks may feel like they take forever to go from point A to point B, but once your dog gets a hang of things, it gets better.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 07, 2020:

It is very important for all family members to be on the same page, the rules must be followed by all family members otherwise the dog becomes confused and the inconsistency will lead to problems.

Most likely your dog knows that you are stricter in certain things and that's why he was behaving better. For instance, if you have taught him to stay on a mat during meal-time and he got up, most likely you re-accompanied him to the mat until he stayed there.

Sometimes, it's best to provide them with something to do while on the mat such as a stuffed Kong/chew so that we create positive associations being there and not keeping on trying to get food from the table or attention.

With children it's easy for food to drop on the ground and sloppy eating only reinforces begging at the table. So with the dog away from the table, we can prevent that as the more a dog rehearses troublesome behaviors, the more they put roots.

Another thing to consider is that small children can often overstimulate dogs (and even stress them out) and may cause too much distractions for him to be able to pay attention and listen. Dogs often do better if they are trained first in areas with little distractions and then gradually distractions can be added.

So it could also be that being only you in the home, he was more relaxed and capable of paying attention.

Tori Leumas on April 07, 2020:

He also complains and snarls and jumps up when other people lightly lean on him or touch him. But if I’m alone with him, he lets me lean on him just fine with no issues. We use a Gentle Leader with him on walks and he still figures out how to pull on the leash. (I’m 28)

Tori Leumas on April 07, 2020:

The weird thing is, when my family was away for a week in January and I was alone at home with the dog, he didn’t do any of those bad behaviors. He knows that if I point at his bed and say “bed”, he needs to get on it and stay there. But he doesn’t obey the rest of my family very well at all. And none of the rest of them enforce him staying on his bed while we eat. And they don’t listen to me that he needs to be on his bed while we eat. They just yell at him to back up and he just barks at them. So, I don’t know what to do.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 07, 2020:

Hi Tori, your dog needs obedience training, exercise and mental stimulation. Ask for a sit before opening the door, teach polite leash manners, teach him to stay on a mat with a stuffed Kong when you are eating. Here are some starters:

For barking when somebody enters the home:

The snarling at your child requires behavior modification with the help of a professional for safety and correct implementation. Be careful, keep your toddler away from the dog until you can get help.

Tori Leumas on April 06, 2020:

My family’s dog is really annoying. Whenever he wants something he demand barks in our faces and if he’s corrected, he barks louder and shriller. He’s a black lab Great Dane mix. If he wants to go outside, he paces around the room, and if my 1 yr old niece gets in the way, he just bulls her right over. If he isn’t put out within minutes of his starting to demand it, he piddles all over the house. He also stick his head right in our laps if we sit in the living room to eat. He also pulls on the leash on walks. He also snarls at my 1 yr old niece and jumps up and moves somewhere else if she touches him. He also barks ever single time the door opens, even when he knows who is going in or out. I really don’t like him. My family got him when I was away for two months last summer. Nothing we’ve tried has permanently worked.

Kara Skinner from Maine on June 29, 2017:

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

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 12, 2016:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 12, 2016:

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.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on July 11, 2016:

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

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

Kristin Kaldahl on July 11, 2016:

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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