Does your dog listen okay at home, but ignore you on walks or at the dog park?
This is probably the number one issue people have with their dogs.
If you’ve ever watched your dog – your loving best friend who showers you with kisses when you walk in the door – blow you off and ride away into the sunset to do whatever the hell he wants, you know that that shit stings.
It feels embarrassing, like he doesn’t respect you. But it also hurts. It’s supposed to be you and him against the world, but at the first sign of Princess the poodle, you’re nothing to him? What about all the pats and the pig ears? What about all the butt wiggles he has for you when you get home, or that night you comforted him through the big scary thunderstorm? Did it all mean nothing?
Is he just… using you for TREATS?!
As much as that feeling sucks, none of it’s really true. He’s still your best bud 4 life. But there is something going on, and we need to fix it.
So, why is your ultimate ride or die acting like you don’t exist?
1. You haven’t trained for this
There are some misconceptions we need to get out of the way:
Dogs don’t automatically understand that “sit” means the same thing at the dog park surrounded by all their friends, as it does in the living room when you’ve got a handful of hotdogs.
Your dog also isn’t manipulating or disrespecting you. These old-school ideas might sell a lot of books and tv shows, but they’re not real.
The truth is a lot simpler:
Dogs are clever little scavenger-predator beasts, who have evolved over at least 40,000 years to work directly with humans to obtain the resources they need.
So, figuring out exactly what it is you’re asking, and giving it to you so that you’ll help her stay alive, is what your dog wants to do. She’s scanning you, looking for ways to please you and earn her keep.
But in order to do that, she has to understand that you’re asking something in the first place. Which means that we have to take responsibility for her training, and actually put in the hard yards.
If you’ve taught Sparky to sit in the kitchen, he hasn’t yet learned “sit” – he’s learned “sit in the kitchen”.
Being so tuned in to what we’re communicating can backfire for dogs. When they learn a new cue, dogs notice everything – our body language and facial expressions, the actions we take before we give the cue, the environment they’re in and all of its smells and sounds – and those things become part of the cue.
We need to teach them that those extra things don’t matter; what really matters is our chosen verbal and/or physical cue.
We do this by practising a lot. We slowly introduce new and more distracting environments, and teach our dogs that they can earn rewards for the behaviour there, too.
If your dog seems to be ignoring a cue that you thought they knew, have a look at where you are and what’s going on around you. Have you practised that cue in that situation a lot in the past? If not, it might be time to take a step back and practise some more.
2. They’re not in the right headspace
Just like us, there are certain things that make dogs afraid, or excited, or anxious and unsure.
Me? I’m afraid of spiders. If I was in a room full of giant spiders and someone asked me to count back from 100 in lots of 7, I can tell you right now I wouldn’t be able to do it. I probably wouldn’t even remember what numbers are, because I’d be too focused on making sure none of those spiders were coming to get me.
Does that mean I don’t know how to count? Or worse, that I’m refusing to count because you’re not the boss of me?
Nope. It means I’m afraid of spiders, and I’m so consumed by my fear that I have no mental or emotional energy to devote to anything else.
When dogs are emotionally overwhelmed by their surroundings, we can’t expect them to be able to focus on us. In some of the more extreme cases of overwhelm (like with reactive dogs) they literally can’t hear us.
Learning to read your dog’s body language will help you determine if they’re in a space to focus and learn, or whether they’re feeling overwhelmed. Take our free course, Dog Speak 101.
If your dog shows signs of being overwhelmed, try and find out what exactly is triggering them: this could be strangers, other dogs, cars, loud noises etc. Once you’ve identified what’s making them feel this way, you can start a desensitisation and counter-conditioning training plan to help them feel more positive and in control in the face of their trigger.
If your dog is in a calm headspace and still isn’t responding to your cues, that’s a sign that you haven’t practised enough in that environment, or your reinforcers are too low-value to compete with everything else around them. Grab some cheese cubes, some real chicken, or some steak, and go back a few steps in your training.
3. Your cue is poisoned
When our dogs do what we ask, we want to reward them! That’s what helps them understand that it was the right thing to do, and what makes them excited enough about doing those things that they’ll abandon Princess the poodle.
But oftentimes, we end up accidentally punishing our dogs for doing what we ask.
If you’re running around the dog park chasing Fido down, saying “COME!” as assertively as you can, and Fido finally stops what he’s doing and comes over to you, only to have you leash him up and take him away from his friends, that’s a punishment.
So the next time he’s having a riot at the dog park, and he hears you say “Fido, come!, he’s much less likely to listen.
This is called a poisoned cue. Fido now associates the recall cue with bad things.
In these cases, what most people see as their dog “ignoring” them is actually their dog avoiding them. He may still come when called in your backyard – either because the dog park environment has become part of the “bad” recall cue, or because in the backyard he sees no way to avoid what’s happening – but getting him to do it in distracting, exciting places is going to be tough.
The most common poisoned cue trainers see is actually dogs’ names. Owners often say their dog’s name when they’re trying to get their attention, and it’s more often than not followed up with something unpleasant – like, say, a bath, or being removed from the fun.
If a cue is so poisoned that your dog is making a real effort to avoid you – like maybe running away from you – or is showing stress signals, it might be time to pick a new cue and start the training for that behaviour all over again.
But if your dog is just not listening to you, the cue may be able to be salvaged. We can do this by reminding them that that cue means really great things, and by going on a strict no punishment diet.