Why You Can’t Get Your Dog to Listen to You

“Pit bull. One year old,” the adoption card read. “Still has that puppy energy!”

Jane looked down at the wiggly dog licking her fingers through the kennel bars. She figured she could use some puppy energy in her life.

She took him home and named him Watson.

The shelter staff warned he’d be a handful, so Jane enrolled in a beginner obedience class at a local pet store.

Watson had a hard time focusing, but Jane diligently practiced in the backyard every day, and they made it through the class. Proud mama Jane posted pictures of him in his graduation cap on Facebook.

She was eager to dive into life with her new buddy. It was going to be awesome.

On their first trip to the dog park, Watson was so excited to see all the new faces that he completely ignored Jane’s requests to “heel, Watson. HEEL.” He fired up the afterburners and dragged Jane down the path to the park gate. Once inside, he disappeared into the sea of wagging tails.

When it was time to go home, Jane located her dog and called out to him. “Watson, come!”

Yeah, no. He was busy.

“Watson! Come on! Let’s go!” Embarrassed that her dog was blowing her off in front of the other parents, she approached Watson and herded him into a corner.

“WATSON.” She stated, her tone taking on the signature dog-owner blend of assertiveness and desperation.

Watson finally looked up, as if surprised to see her. He smiled a wrinkly pit bull grin.

“WATSON. COME.” Watson wiggled over to Jane. Wordlessly, she clipped the leash to his collar and led him out of the park.

It was all downhill from there.

He developed a strong habit of pulling on leash. He forgot how to sit on command. Far too exuberant for polite company, he was banished to the backyard when Jane had guests over.

Visiting with friends outside a coffee shop one day, Jane sipped her latte and pleaded with Watson to sit. He ignored her, leaning into the leash and whining hopefully at passersby.

“I don’t get it.” she sighed. “He KNOWS what he’s supposed to do. He’s just stubborn.”

Screw it. “Watson, want a TREAT?” She broke off a piece of her pastry and waved in front of his face.

“Sit!” He sat. He ate the pastry. He jumped up to lick the face of a passing child.

So what do we do about Watson?

Is he really just stubborn? Probably not. Hate to break it to you, Jane, but…

Your dog has not been trained

“Sure he has.” Jane says. “We took a class. He graduated.”

He was introduced to the sit, stay, lie down, and heel cues. He performs them on command in class and in your yard. Boom! Done, right?

Not so much. Introducing a behavior and putting it on cue is only the beginning of training. The real work hasn’t started yet.

Today I’d like to introduce you to your new best friends, Generalizing and Proofing.

Make sure your dog has REALLY learned what you think he’s learned

Generalizing is the process of training in a variety of places and situations, so that the dog learns to perform anywhere, and not just in one training location.

Jane practiced in her backyard and at class. She thought Watson learned how to reliably follow commands, but he’d actually only learned to follow commands in those two specific situations.

Dogs don’t generalize commands (cues) very well. Just because Watson would perform a perfect heel in class doesn’t mean he’d be able to do it at the park.

Jane should practice each cue in a variety of locations. The more situations you work in, the better the dog understands what you want.

Are you attempting long division in Disneyland?

Get a nine year old kid. Sit them down at your kitchen table and introduce them to long division. Work on this for a few days. Then take your kid on their first trip to Disneyland. Load them up on caffeinated soda and stand in line for Space Mountain. Then hand them a pencil and a long division worksheet and tell them to have at it.

How do you think that’s gonna go?

This is basically what Jane did when she took Watson on his first trip to the dog park. You’ve got this adolescent pup, fresh from beginner class, in an exciting new environment. Dog park obedience is an advanced skill. You cannot expect him to flawlessly execute his beginner level heel and recall skills.

Proofing is the process of training a dog to follow commands in distracting or stressful environments. Start in an easy, low-distraction environment like the classroom or your backyard. Once Watson is doing well, increase the difficulty slightly. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Watson was totally comfortable in his backyard. And after a couple weeks of class, he was totally comfortable in his classroom. He never learned how to handle himself when he was excited and distracted.

Watson is a social butterfly. He LOOOVES people and dogs. They’re incredibly distracting. Jane could invite her nieces and nephews to play in the backyard while she works on heel with Watson.

Later, she could invite the kids to go on a walk down the street with her, with Watson heeling part of the way.

Then she might take Watson to the dog park during slow hours. They can work on heel, sit and come when no one is around.

See also: Training Your Dog to Reliably Come When Called is Hard. Here’s How to Make it Easier

For the love of dog, get that treat out of your hand! (Bribery is bad, kids)

Dazee bribery

A typical way to teach basic manners is to use food lures. Stick a cookie in front of Watson’s nose, raise it over his head, he follows it, and voila! He’s sitting! Yay!

Luring is a perfectly acceptable way to train a dog. But it’s only intended for the very beginning of teaching a behavior. Two or three training sessions max.

People tend to get stuck in the luring phase. They always have a treat in their hand when they tell their dog to do something. The result? A dog who only listens when someone waves food in front of their face.

At the cafe, Jane repeatedly told Watson to sit. He ignored her. At this point, had Jane realized her dog wasn’t fully trained, she would have left it alone. She should’ve taken Watson home. She could bring him back later, in Training mode, instead of Visiting With Friends mode. Then they could proof and generalize sit-stays to perfection.

But Jane, understandably impatient, ended up bribing Watson. Ruh roh! Watson has been taught that he can safely ignore her chatter, because she will always end up offering food no matter what.

Bribery vs Rewardery

  • Bribery: behavior is contingent on seeing the reward beforehand. “Hey, Watson. Want a treat? Sit!”
  • Rewardery (shhhh): reward is contingent on the behavior happening before the reward appears. “Watson, sit! Good boy! Now let’s go get a treat from the kitchen.”

Reward-based training is an effective way to create a well-behaved dog. Bribery is a great way to create an incorrigible “show me the money first, sucker” dog.

See also: Dog Training 101: How to Teach Your Dog to Do Practically Anything

Try not to train your dog to misbehave. Also try not to punish good behavior

Sorry, Jane, but you really did a great job of teaching Watson to pull on leash and ignore you.

Make sure your dog does not inadvertently get rewarded for behavior you don’t like. We’ve talked about this before, remember? On the other side of the coin, it’s easy to accidentally punish the behavior you want.

Let’s review what Watson learned on his outings:

  • Pull on leash: if he pulled really hard, he could make Jane walk faster. Pulling was rewarded by entering the dog park.
  • Ignore the recall cue: rewarded by getting to continue playing with his friends.
  • Bad things happen when you come when called: When Jane managed to get his attention at the park, he did use some of his baby recall skills. His “reward?” Immediately being taken away from the park.
  • Ignore the sit cue: he tuned out Jane’s commands (a habit that was well developed by this point) and was rewarded with a piece of overpriced pastry.

It’s about making an offer they can’t refuse

For a behavior to become reliable, the dog needs a damn good reason to do it.

Traditionally, much of this motivation would be of the ominous variety: “do what I say, or else.” (Dun dun DUN) If you choose to do this, the correction must be clear, swift, and gain the dog’s immediate compliance. But that’s not exactly what I want my relationship with my dogs to be based on.

Instead of physical punishment, we trade in the distribution and management of positive reinforcement.

And it ain’t all about cookies. Don’t get hung up on cookies. At some point, you gotta get more creative. We have a good idea of what motivates Watson:

When Jane trains in the backyard full of distracting children, Watson could get rewarded with playtime with the kids. Pit bull heaven!

Later, access to the dog park depends on how well Watson listens. “Heel. Good boy! Sit. Good boy! Let’s go play.” No compliance, no dog park.

At the coffee shop, Watson could earn the right to say hello to people. Sit-stay, then go say hi. Just remember to ask first. Some folks get weirded out by a sixty pound pit bull in their face. I don’t get it.

The paradox of positive reinforcement

What do you think happens when you do all this rewarding? If you’re like I was back in the early days of my dog training career, you probably figure you end up with a spoiled brat of a dog.

Admittedly, I once heard the words “I don’t want to train my dog with food. He should work to make me happy” come out of my mouth, so I understand where you’re coming from.

But here’s what REALLY happens: when you build up a history of positive reinforcement, careful proofing, and clear instruction, you build a strong bond with your dog. Watson learns that you’ve got his back no matter what. He learns to respect, love and trust you.

And a funny thing happens. Watson thinks you’re more fun than a barrel of monkeys. He wants to work with you, not just because of the rewards, but because you’re awesome.

The more you reinforce, the less you have to reinforce. Crazy.

Here’s to the Janes and Watsons of the world. Here’s to being clear, consistent, and reinforcing – and making sure your dog actually learns the thing you think he’s learned. May you live happily ever after.

How to teach your dog to pay attention to you in public and come when called:

We have a new online course for dogs just like Watson. With step-by-step instructions and video tutorials, the Focus & Come When Called course will teach you how to get your dog to focus and you and looove to come running when called, with just 15 minutes training per day.  Click here to learn more.

Do you know what your dog is saying?

Understanding the subtle ways dogs communicate is a critical skill for dog owners. It can help with choosing the right dog, solving training problems, and building a strong bond.

This free video course from our online academy will give you a basic, yet detailed, introduction to the wonderful world of canine body language and communication.

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