5 Reasons Why Your Dog Isn’t Listening to You

A common group of grievances I hear from pet parents is:

“My dog doesn’t listen to me.”

“I want my dog to listen better.”

“My dog is stubborn.”

“He doesn’t do something unless he wants to.”

Let’s explore why that might be! Below is a list of 5 common reasons why your dog isn’t listening to you. 

  1. You haven’t trained the behavior well enough. The learning process is more involved than many of us know; check out our blog post on “Why You Should Care about the Stages of Learning” for more info. Oftentimes the dog doesn’t actually know the behavior in question in that particular situation and simply needs more repetition or breaking the training down into smaller pieces to be more successful. 
  2. Your dog doesn’t know what you’re asking for. There’s a lot of overlap between this one and the one above. I’ve seen many people lament that their dog isn’t coming when called anymore but it turns out that they aren’t using the cue they taught! Dogs don’t understand synonyms like we do. If you taught “come” but are now saying “c’mere” or “c’mon” your dog won’t know what you’re asking for. Additionally, if you reinforce multiple behaviors for the same cue, you’ll keep getting multiple behaviors (i.e.: saying “sit”, dog lies down, giving them the treat anyway). This is why some dogs consistently lie down when asked to sit! You get what you reinforce. To combat this make sure that you’re being consistent with both your cue and what you’re reinforcing. 
  3. There isn’t a strong enough reinforcement history. There is absolute truth in the last statement in the above list: “He doesn’t do something unless he wants to.” Yep– that’s true for all of us! Behavior serves a function to the individual performing it. If it doesn’t serve a function then we stop doing it. For instance, if your boss stopped paying you you would stop going to work. If a light bulb burnt out you would either replace it or eventually stop flipping that switch. Building strong, solid behaviors should rely on strong, solid reinforcement histories (e.g.: how much you’ve been reinforced for that behavior in the past [there’s a bit more to it than that but that’s beyond the scope of this post]). This means that we need to practice, practice, practice, and reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. 
  4. There are competing reinforcers. The environment provides a lot of reinforcers for our dogs that compete with whatever we want to offer them: chasing squirrels, sniffing the grass, protecting oneself from harm, etc. If we’re offering them the equivalent of $5 and chasing squirrels is worth $100 then we’re going to lose out to the squirrel. This is why you’ll often hear trainers talking about “high-value treats” and “being more exciting than the environment”. It’s not enough to have a reinforcement history of shelling out $5; we need a reinforcement history of paying $100. 
  5. The dog is experiencing fear or anxiety at that moment. When any individual is in fight-or-flight mode their brain cannot respond to other stimuli around them. They’re essentially in their own world. The best thing to do in this situation is to remove the trigger (preferable) or remove the dog (careful! This can be dangerous.)

Now what?

  • The next time your dog doesn’t respond to you, pause and assess the situation. Ask yourself:
    • What does my dog’s body language say? Are they comfortable or stressed?
    • Am I asking for something that I have taught?
    • Has my dog been successful with this behavior in this situation before?
    • Have I recently practiced this behavior in a variety of situations? How did my dog do?
    • What’s my reinforcement history like for this behavior in this situation?
    • Are they doing something else that they like better? 
  • Use the above questions to figure out where your dog’s lapse in training is. Once you know then you can work on it!
  • If you’re experiencing number 5– the dog is experiencing fear or anxiety at that moment– email us at [email protected] to set up a consultation so we can help you work on it. Working with fear/anxiety is very different than working on basic manners. 

Happy training!