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.
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?