“But He Knows It!”

These days, most people are on board with the trend towards gentle, reward-based training. They understand that, like children, dogs should be taught new behaviors by setting them up for success and rewarding that victory rather than by waiting for them to make a mistake and then correcting them for screwing up. The use of toys, treats, play, and praise are becoming more widely accepted as research shows us that these methods are more effective than collar corrections, scolding, or physical discipline. But what do you do when your dog doesn’t comply? How can a reward-based trainer deal with a dog who refuses to listen, even when he knows what you want? Let’s explore this common problem area.

Photo by mpliu on flickr.

Photo by mpliu on flickr.

There are many different reasons why a dog might not comply with your wishes, and before we get any further let me just say that stubbornness, “dominance,” and willfulness are rarely the motivation behind your dog’s refusal to perform a well-known behavior. As frustrating as it may be when your dog appears to blow you off, it’s worth your while to take a big step back and figure out the true reason behind his disobedience.

Gaining the necessary distance can be difficult, so I often find it helpful to transfer my situation onto a human example. For example, one of the most common reasons behind “disobedience” is a simple lack of understanding. While we may think the dog knows what he is supposed to do, he oftentimes doesn’t fully understand the behavior.

Remember, learning is not linear. Just because your dog has performed the behavior successfully once, twice, or even a hundred times, that doesn’t mean he will always be able to remember what he is supposed to do in the heat of the moment.

We forget and make mistakes sometimes too! How many times have you been completely familiar with some material, but been unable to recall it when you needed it? I can think of plenty of times when I needed to remember a fact for a test at school but just couldn’t regurgitate that fact at that instance. How often have you brain-farted on someone’s name or lost a word? Dogs are smart, but don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to ask your dog to have a better memory than you do?

If your dog doesn’t obey, the first thing to ask yourself is whether you are sure, completely and utterly positive, that your dog fully understands his job. Ask yourself how many times he’s performed that behavior in this exact context in the past. Just because he knows how to sit on cue in your house doesn’t mean that he’ll understand that “sit” means the same thing at the park, the vet’s office, or even the front yard.

This brings us to the second reason most dogs appear to “disobey” at times: competing distraction. It’s harder for us to perform any behavior, no matter how well we know it, when there’s more going on. You may be a whiz at solving algebraic equations, but can you perform complex multiplication or division at the top of a roller coaster? Perhaps you’re a really wonderful driver, but does that mean you’ll always keep your eyes on the road, even as you drive past a big fire or accident? In the same way that we can forget the words to a song when asked to sing in front of a crowd, many dogs have difficulty performing when there’s more going on in the environment.

If your dog isn’t listening to you, ask yourself whether you’ve worked up to this level of distraction or whether you’re asking too much of your dog. Just as we start a beginning driver off in a parking lot, then have them drive on quiet country roads and in the suburbs before exposing them to rush hour traffic in the city, dogs need to be prepared one step at a time. I may start working on “come” in my house, then in my fenced-in yard with the dog on leash, then off-leash in my yard, then on a long leash at the local park, and finally off-leash at the local park before ever letting my dog hike off-leash. Letting him off-leash on a busy hiking trail without first teaching him a solid response to “come” in less exciting situations would be every bit as irresponsible as taking a fifteen-year-old driver to downtown Chicago at 5pm and trying to teach them to drive.

Finally, some dogs will appear to disobey because the balance of reinforcement is incorrect. You shouldn’t be surprised at this point to realize that we do the same thing. Back to our driving example, if you ask me to take a left turn but the stoplight is red, I’m not likely to turn even though I completely understand what you want me to do. There’s a competing motivation: my fear of causing a traffic accident or getting a ticket. Similarly, many dogs will not comply because they are more worried about outside consequences than they are about listening to you. I see many nervous dogs who refuse to lie down when asked because they are too scared to put themselves in such a vulnerable position. Pain (or fear of pain) can also cause this sort of response: when Layla started popping out of the agility weave poles, it turned out that she was experiencing neck pain.

Sometimes, dogs will disobey not because they’re worried about something else but because something else is motivating them more. Even though your kids love pizza, if they’re playing a video game they may become so engrossed in the game that they don’t come running for dinner when the pizza delivery person rings the doorbell. You might step out of the line you’ve been waiting in for half an hour to pick up a $20 bill you spy on the ground. As much as you love getting enough sleep, you may find it hard to tear yourself away from the Internet at bedtime. Similarly, your dog may not come when you call him, even though he’s usually quite reliable and really enjoys coming, if he’s having a blast chasing a bunny. If your young dog is busy watching another dog play, she may not be able to focus on you. In each of these cases, the fault does not lie with your dog for doing what comes naturally. Rather, you need to ask yourself how you can make complying with your wishes more rewarding for your dog than whatever currently holds her interest.

It can be enormously frustrating when your dog refuses to perform a well-known behavior. However, the bottom line is that we’re only human, and we make mistakes sometimes. Dogs are only canine, and they, too, can be fallible. Instead of punishing your dog for their failure, it’s worthwhile to your relationship, your training, and the trust your dog puts in you to give him the benefit of the doubt. Next week we’ll talk about a few practical things you can do to improve your dog’s reliability, but in the meantime, please share your questions and stories below. What situations have you initially thought your dog was being stubborn or willful, only to later discover that she had a good reason for disobeying you?

28 responses to ““But He Knows It!”

  1. What an incredibly well written article. Fabulous. Pain is a great one for causing confusion. My so-called “people aggressive” rescue was suffering terribly with pain and, although we cannot completely solve the pain issue, the understanding of it made the world of difference and she is now so people orientated that I can take her anywhere and use her in school halls to teach children.

  2. kotikojafaridze

    Reblogged this on kotiko jafaridze.

  3. Laura and Amadeus

    While it is mostly resolved now that he has stopped growing, my large dog avoided sitting for more than a few seconds as a puppy. He loves to work and obviously understood what I was asking, but after a short sit would either lay down or stand back up. If we continued to work, he would skip the sit altogether and just down. I suspected at the time that his hips or butt may have been bothering him (he was putting on almost 10 lbs a month at the time), and have since confirmed that his hips are… less than ideal. I’m so glad I got the advice to give him the benefit of the doubt at the time, so I could ask him to do behaviors that were more comfortable. And as he ages, when the arthritis we are expecting in his hips comes along, I will be able to “read” him, so I don’t ask for behaviors that hurt.

  4. Susan Carlson

    What a wonderful and thought provoking article! I recently experienced what I first thought was a “disobedience” session, prompting me to end my attempts to enter my dog in a best trick contest at a dog loving event. As I worked rather diligently on the sidelines, trying to get my pup to pay attention and do his trick that he can pull off at home with a mere word cue – the sights, sounds, new smells, people, other dogs, weird weather…you name it,….distracted him so much, he had absolutely NO interest in what I was offering (and I DID have one of his favorite treats for reward!) I rather quickly realized we were not going to do his great little trick today……My frustration was brief, as the light went on in my head that I was asking too much of this little guy, in the midst of other way more thrilling things for him to focus on! This article really hit home with me, and it is one to keep in the back of my mind when those little “stubborn ” moments arise…..

  5. Last summer I took my dog to Canada where she got her last leg in her Canadian CD and then was moved up into Open class. She seemed a little slow in the ring, and when she took off after her dumbbell on the Retrieve Over the High Jump, but upon returning, halted just before the jump, put her head over the jump (dumbbell in mouth!) and looked at me, I was truly puzzled. Even though it meant an NQ, i called her again, but she eventually turned and walked around the jump. Since there were 3 more trials in the weekend, after that we went outside, set up jumps and practiced a few. She did fine. Back in the ring for the afternoon trial, same thing….I knew something was wrong. She wasn’t favoring any feet, her gait seemed fine. A few fellow competitors thought that maybe we just weren’t ready for Open or she didn’t know the exercise, but since she already had her AKC and UKC Open titles, I knew that wasn’t it. When we got home, going up the stairs for bed, she did a number of ‘false starts; before going up the steps. I made a vet appointment the next day, and thought that ‘old dog’ vision changes or arthritis may have caught up to her. It turned out she had Lyme Disease. So, although she tried a bit to do what i asked her, when she got in the ring (and knew I couldn’t really ‘encourage’ her to jump), she told me in the only way she knew that it hurt her to jump. If we take it back to the basics instead of thinking as adult human beings, it’s amazing what we can learn from our dogs. My friend and Obedience instructor always says “Dogs don’t lie”. Well, that’s for darn sure!

  6. Great article that I’m going to share. It drives me crazy when people come into my vet office & keep telling their dog to sit & the dog doesn’t sit because one of the cats is running around or there’s another dog or whatever may be distracting. I try & tell the client that it’s ok that the dog doesn’t sit. because there’s too much going on for him to listen. And still the client doesn’t listen. Ugh!!

  7. Excellent post! I am sharing as well – with everyone in our house. I have seen this happen with our Jasmine and I see the reasons. I do try to give her the benefit of the doubt, and I’m glad I was on the right track.

  8. Superb. A friend of mine related at work last night how she recalled her Golden, who was going hell bent down the busy road, with “Cookie!” Sassy stopped in her tracks, zipped around, and came right back to my friend, who gave her 3 cookies. Her take (and I agree) – doesn’t matter what you use as your recall cue (calling her name failed); be consistent and follow-through (with even more than one cookie).

  9. Thank you for this information!!!!!! Great reminders for those who know and dog saving for those that don’t

  10. Great post, I love hearing this message. It’s so disappointing to come across people who just want to show off their dogs and don’t really care how the dog feels about it. My dog (English Staffie) Rufous is over 12 and after a joyful life of running over hills, swimming in the creek and chasing kangaroos he’s had two knee reconstructions, survived cancer, developed arthritis, poor eye sight and stomach problems but I’m so glad that all the way along we ‘listened’ to him and paid attention when he had reached his limit. He now spends more than half the day on the couch and I no longer demand that he sits on slippery floors, I give home made treats when he asks (and it’s not too often), I always take him outside when he tells me and I made sure we have fun times every day. This dog has given us so much happines over 12 years and all I have to reward him with is my care and attention. It is true that dogs never lie and often they know so much more than we do. As the human in the relationship we should be able to say that our dog had a good, healthy and happy life. Love your dog, get to know your dog and let them be a dog.

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  12. Great article! My sister was at a park with her dog (Suki) and was preparing to leave. They had reached the “gravel” parking lot (it was gravel, but the pieces were much larger and sharper than normal gravel) and she asked Suki to sit before getting into the car. This behavior is always expected and basically ALWAYS followed perfectly (on all sorts of surfaces). Much to my sister’s surprise, Suki hesitated and then turned around and began walking away! Luckily, my sis the dog trainer recognized that something was up and so waited to see what Suki would do. About 10-15 feet away, Suki made it out of the gravel and onto the grass, where she turned around and obediently sat down! She knew what she was supposed to do but had no desire to sit on that sharp pointy rocky surface, so she found a more comfortable place to do so. Amused, my sister decided that was good enough and let Suki get in the car. We still laugh about the incident to this day!

  13. Great explanation!
    Recently at the beach a guy asked my normally obedient dog to sit for a treat. When he didn’t sit after several asks the guy asked me if he knew what it meant? I replied, yes he does but your asking him to sit in the sea and he doesnt like that. Once away from the sea he sat when asked every time. Its true often we don’t see why they don’t respond but if you know your dog you’ll know there is a reason.

  14. This article is very interesting and helpful. I struggle with how to make it more rewarding to my dog to listen to me rather than chase a bunny (or whatever is currently more interesting than treats) . I hope you will address that in the follow up article!

  15. It is very nice to read articles like this , we are never to old to learn new things.
    I left a comment at the article ” he is so protective ” i hope some one wil read it and give some advice !

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  19. I think these are all very important issues to understand and take into consideration and NOT forgotten. HOWEVER, when we understand how dogs learn, we must also realize that dogs will test the parameters of a behavior to see what is acceptable to “get by on”. Dogs are opportunists by nature, and they will take the easy road or the road that seems to be the best opportunity for them. Sometimes YOU are the best opportunity, but sometimes the distraction is the best opportunity (i.e. food drive vs prey drive). Not dismissing health reasons, there comes a point where the dog needs to understand that just getting by when he feels like it is not acceptable. This is especially true of service animals where the lives of their partner are at stake. There are consequences in everyday life for every living creature. To take consequences away is creating an unnatural learning environment for any living being. When we take away fair, consistent, reasonable consequences to lack of response, the dog (and even a human) soon learns disrespect and that the distractions are the better deal for them. It takes enormous skill to read a dog correctly to be able learn when he is not responding because he doesn’t know the behavior, whether it is a health issue, or whether he is indeed not “proofed” well enough to perform the behavior/command, or whether he has figured out that if he doesn’t do the behavior there are no consequences so who cares? When you understand the basic nature of any canine to be an opportunist, you can truly understand how to be an effective trainer/owner. Opportunism is hereditary from the wolves. Wolves choose the prey with least resistance – the sick, the slow, etc. He doesn’t choose the largest, fastest elk. When we accept that dogs are wolf descendents, we understand this basic behavior motivation. Let’s honor dogs for who they are. :-) After all, that is why they are so endearing to us!

    • I don’t disagree with you but I think you’re completely missing the point. The point is that people treat dogs exactly the way you described – which is ok. But they’re so focused on “dogs as opportunists” that they fail to accept that there may be other reasons behind a failure to obey. The point of this article is that, as an owner, you need to be able to look past the “dogs as opportunists” point of view and accept that there may be other causes for your dog’s misbehavior. If your dog is misbehaving because it’s afraid of something, you need to be able to see that and take action to help your dog overcome its fear before working again on the behavior. If your dog is misbehaving because it has an injury that causes pain, you need to be able to see that. If your dog is misbehaving because it’s distracted by something far more interesting than yourself, you need to find ways to help your dog overcome its distraction. If you dog is misbehaving because it doesn’t want to sit on the big sharp pointy gravel rocks, this isn’t “dog as an opportunist” – this is “dog doesn’t want to hurt its butt” – and you, as an owner, should respect that. But if the dog is disobeying because it doesn’t feel like doing what you want it to do, this is “dog as opportunist” – and you, as an owner, should react accordingly. This article isn’t about letting your dog get away with things. It’s about reminding you to look at all the possibilities and not just always assume that your dog is trying to “pull the wool over your eyes.” Because that’s not always the case; in fact, in my experience (and I’ve experienced a LOT of dogs), it usually isn’t the case.

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  21. Great article, look forward to the next to hopefully get some tips for my terrier !!!!! She knows come & sit but when off the lead & you call her she will always have a good look round first to see if there is anything more interesting. Even though she gets rewards

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  23. Good article, I have a couple of friends who really should read this.. Over and over I watch them yell at their dogs, certain beyond a shadow of doubt the dog understands them, when clearly the dog does not understand what the owner wants. That said, the article treats training a dog as if you have to choose either “gentle, reward-based training” or “by waiting for them to make a mistake and then correcting them for screwing up”.

    This is a false choice. Science shows us learning occurs from consequences to actions, both positive and negative. There is no reason you cannot use negative consequences just as well as positive consequences and have a better outcome by thoughtfully using both.. Some things are better learned through negative consequences, some things better learned through positive consequences..

  24. Very sensible advice

  25. I love this so much, its so true, my dog is in a display team at Crufts and the first day she is always ‘disobedient’. Luckily she is a cute Toy Poodle so the crowds LOVE it when she does her own thing! She will make up her own routine and its normally better than I have worked with her on. She has been totally shaped from 8 weeks old and can be very inventive. She makes me laugh everyday :)

  26. I came across this article at the exact moment I needed it. It’s thundering this evening. Our dog appears to be greatly afraid of thunder. Not so bad if my husband is home. He tells her everything is OK and she lies down and relaxes. If he’s not home she’ll start her panting, pawing, jumping and climbing me while the sky is still clear and no thunder is apparent (to human ears) but I recognize from her behavior that thunder will start soon. I also calmly tell her all is OK but my saying it doesn’t relieve any anxiety in her. I’m not afraid of thunder so I shouldn’t be giving off any signs of distress. I’ve thought maybe I’m somehow communicating that this is how I expect her to behave, except the behavior begins before I’m aware of any thunder. I read once the thing to do is distract her. I’ve tried to do this by asking her to sit, which she’s a champion at obeying and learned by gentle reward based training, but she refuses. I didn’t understand her refusal until I read your comment: ‘Similarly, many dogs will not comply because they are more worried about outside consequences than they are about listening to you. I see many nervous dogs who refuse to lie down when asked because they are too scared to put themselves in such a vulnerable position.’ So instead tonight we tried getting in the car and going for a little ride. She calmed down as soon as she was in the car. Now that I know I was trying to put her in what she perceived as a vulnerable position I won’t ask her for a sit when it thunders. Thank you for a very helpful article.

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