Why Does My Dog Ignore Me?

Three Things You Must Understand to Get Your Dog to Listen to You

Why does my dog ignore me?Does your dog ignore you when you call him to come or give him a command? “Why does my dog ignore me?” is one of the most common questions I hear from week 1 students in my dog obedience training classes. Some of them take being ignored as a challenge to their authority. Others get their feelings hurt and worry that their dog doesn’t love them. In reality, most people whose dogs ignore them have unwittingly trained them to do so.

Dog training comes down to one simple principle: The behavior that is rewarded gets repeated. Set your dog’s life up so that behavior you want leads to Good Things for Dogs and behavior you don’t want doesn’t, and you will have a well-behaved dog. Simple, right? It can be, but first you have to understand how to make your dog connect rewards with the right behavior. To do that, you must understand 3 key differences between our brains and dogs’ brains.

Silence is golden

Your dog thinks you talk too much. Trust me. He does. Friends and family may hang on your every word, but not your dog. Dogs have their own natural “language,”, but it doesn’t have words. Dog language is visual. They communicate volumes with their posture, their tails, their eyes, and their ears. For this reason, their first instinct when trying to figure out what we want is to watch us; not to listen to us. Our constant talking is just noise to them.

Try following this simple rule. If you tell your dog to do something 5 times and he doesn’t do it 4 of those times, stop telling him to do it. Training happens every time we interact with our dogs, whether we notice it or not. If you keep calling your dog or telling him to get off the counter and he doesn’t listen, then you are actively training him to ignore you. We need to make our words count in dog training. So what do you do if you can’t repeat a command to a dog who is ignoring you?  You change your focus, which leads to our second big difference between how dogs and humans experience the world.  Learn more.

Timing is everything

When we get hung up on what we can do or say to prompt our dogs to behave, we have it backwards. Remember the first principle of dog training? The behavior that is rewarded gets repeated.  The consequences of a dog’s behavior determine how much of that behavior we’ll see in the future. If good things tend to follow a behavior, a dog will do more of it. If they don’t, he’ll do less of it.  We create motivation by controlling what follows behavior.  Once we motivate a dog to do something, putting it on cue is the easy part.

Proximity in time matters almost as much as order. Dogs are truly creatures of the moment. Our own brains stay busy analyzing past events and contemplating the future. Not our dogs. They live completely in the now. To communicate effectively with them, we must learn to do the same. Our feedback on their behavior must always be about what they are doing RIGHT NOW.  When your dog does something, you have about 2 seconds to weigh in on it, and that’s if you’re lucky.  If, for example, your dog sits when you ask him to, but then jumps up on you before you’ve had a chance to deliver a reward, you’ve lost your chance.

The hardest time to follow the rule that our feedback must always be about the dog is doing right now is when our dogs make us angry. When you displease us, we humans want to tell you about it … and tell you about it … and then make sure you really understand. A dog’s reprimands, on the other hand, stop when the offending behavior stops. If you want to make sense to your dog, you must learn to change direction on a dime. If your dog strands you at the dog park for an extra hour by refusing to come when called, for example, you’re going to be really frustrated. No matter how angry you are, you must praise and reward that dog when he finally comes. Because he associates your behavior with what he is doing right now, scolding will only make him less likely to come next time.

It all depends

I only ban one phrase in my dog training classes, “He knows this. He does it at home.” People are almost always wrong when they say this. It’s a natural thing to assume. If my dog lies down whenever I ask him to at home, but won’t do it in class, then he must be ignoring me or challenging my authority, right? Wrong.

Humans excel at abstraction and generalization. The gift of language allows us to effortlessly understand that the word “sit” applies to planting our rear ends on the ground, on the couch, on a bar stool, etc. Dogs don’t think that way. For them, everything is context specific. Just because that funny “sit” sound that you make predicts Good Things for Dogs who plant their butts at home doesn’t mean that it applies in other venues.  When our dogs fail to comply with commands in new situations, it’s not defiance.  They honestly don’t get it.  I prefer to think of mistakes as questions.  Do I have to sit when you make that noise in class?  What about when the doorbell rings?  What about when…Squirrel!!!

For this reason, I also like to think of training as more like exercise than like teaching commands. In weight lifting, you start with a weight that’s a bit of a struggle and lift it repeatedly until it’s easy. Then you add more weight. In dog training, we break our ultimate goal down into little pieces, start with something slightly challenging, and do repetitions until it’s easy. Then we make it a little harder.  Asking my dog to sit when we’re alone in the kitchen is like asking him to lift 5 pounds. Asking him to sit when the pizza delivery guy rings the doorbell, gets everyone barking, and stands outside smelling amazing is like asking him to lift 500 pounds. You don’t get from 5 pounds to 500 pounds overnight. You have to do lots of repetitions at ever-increasing levels of difficulty to get there.

You’ll learn numerous training techniques in obedience class, but you will apply them more effectively if you remember 3 things: every word counts, timing is everything, and it all depends (on the context).  Happy training!

 

Comments

  1. Chris Sanchez says:

    my dog tends to listen more while in doors than out doors. same applies to listening without the leash than listening to me less with it on. what can i do about this?

    • It all boils down to distractions. Work through distractions, starting with mild ones, increasing the intensity of the distractions as your dog is successful. For example if your dog can’t focus when there is a baseball game 20′ away, move to 40′ (or 100′, wherever he can be successful) and practice there. As he succeeds, you can gradually get closer, until he can work in the face of that particular distraction. Being off-leash is the biggest distraction of all — wait until he is fully reliable in a particular location on-leash, and then you can start by having him drag a long line (rather than going straight to off-leash). Using extremely high-value rewards (such as chicken, cheese, salmon, etc.) can help if you are struggling with focus around distractions. A good group class (or private lesson) is a great way to get started on these issues – if you are in our area, we have classes in both the Oxford area and in College Corner. If you are elsewhere, visit the trainer search at http://www.apdt.com to find a trainer near you!

  2. I was playing a game with my dog when she started biting me and running away from we to my sister Morgan. This made me sad. Please help!!!! I want me and my dog to be best friends..

  3. Abby, it’s hard to know what’s going on without seeing it in real time. It could be that your dog was worried about the game, or just that she had a short attention span that day :). Try learning to read your dog’s body language — that will help you know how she’s feeling about different things. Here is a great video that can get you started! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bstvG_SUzMo

  4. My dog is very clever and knows if she doesnt come when we call, we have no chance of catching her as she is a greyhound! she’s pretty well trained but is constantly stealing stuff off sides, the table, etc etc, especially if she wants our attention (which she does constantly) We have been taking her to training classes and do training sessions at home, plus walks and runs, but she still steals stuff and goes into rooms she isnt allowed constantly even when we are right next to her! Its very frustrating and tiring. I do think your right about praise as the more we keep telling her ‘no’ the more she keeps doing it, we are pretty certain she knows the command ‘no’ as she does leave things when she is behaving. Its soo hard sometimes when your cross or tired to remember to paise and not be cross or switch it round to positive as we thought she might of started to get the message by now, she’s one

    • Sounds like your dog could use a good “leave it” command! You might find a trainer in your area to help you with an in-home lesson or two, so you can practice teaching your dog not to steal/counter-surf in real time, or you might check out some YouTube videos on the subject — I especially like the videos by “Kikopup”, and she has a couple of great videos on teaching your dog leave it and not to counter surf :). There are too many variables to offer any specific tips in a blog comment, but I think that these videos will help you get started. Good luck!

  5. My dog is very smart and most of the time very obedient. She knows verbal commands as well as hand signals. She listens great when we go to the vet, groomer, when we go for rides or when she goes with us to someone else’s house. Our main issue is when we go outside at our house. She is a red heeler and I have read that a lot of people have problems with them trying to “herd” people. She barks obnoxiously, nips & jumps. When she does this I immediately tell her to sit & stay and walk away, but as soon as I tell her she can come she runs right over & starts again. It’s like she’s a totally different dog as soon as she walks out the front door. The other issue we have is she is extremely, extremely protective over me more than anyone else and it is also worse at home. The mailman came up and knocked on the door and she barked, but when it got bad was when I went outside. She literally almost busted through the window. If my mom or step dad go outside she’ll bark & if I’m home she’ll come sit by me and “puff” a little bit. When we go somewhere the only time she barks at anyone is if they get too close to me. She always puts herself between me and them. What can I do to stop the “herding” and how can I get her to relax when other people come around me.

  6. After reading this, the reason behind my dog’s continuous ignoring me makes sense and lets me know that even though he makes me angry, I should hold it in and just reward him when he finally does pay attention. Thanks for this! Also, does this also apply to how my dog always runs off? I could turn my head for a second and he’s already halfway down the street in the neighbor’s yard sniffing stuff and messing with the other dogs. It’s gotten to the point where no matter how many times I scold him and try and call him back towards the house, he always leaves. He even looks back to make sure no one is watching him when he goes! This frustrates me so much because I hate to keep him on a leash since I want him to run around and get exercise, but this is just out of control. What am I doing wrong?

    • Hi Shalondra,

      Sorry, we didn’t see that you had commented until today! I would suggest finding a good class (or scheduling some private lessons) with a positive trainer in your area — they can coach you on teaching your dog to focus on you, to respond to his name, and to come when called! You can find trainers in your area on the trainer search at http://www.apdt.com. You can also reward him every time he “checks in” or responds to his name with a high-value treat (like a small piece of hot dog, chicken, etc. — about the size of a pea is all you need). When he’s outside, if you want him to have some room to run around but are worried about him running off, you can get a 50′ cotton long line (essentially a really long leash) and that gives him a way to get some exercise while giving you a way to get him back :).

  7. Hi i have a westie x bichon hes 10months he is full of fun and played with when we are around he will not do anything inless he wants to we did take him to puppy class but it was constant treats he ignoes us and when we take him out he is ok until he sees another dog or human and refuses to come back im constantly googling for help he is well walked but im struggling the only time he listens is when its food time or walk time please can you advise

  8. Hi! We have a 2 year old lab that we trained early. He picked up on stuff quickly and we’ve never had a problem with him until recently. He will go outside in the middle of the night … And refuses to come back in. He simply ignores us when we call him. I don’t want to leave him outside, but don’t know what else to do?

  9. Kristen Winslow says:

    Our dog has recently started to jump at the door to go outside, then once outside he immediately jumps at the backdoor to come back in and when we go to the door to let him in he runs away! Sometimes it is not immediately he will ask to go out then 15-20min later he wants back in, so I walk to back door, open it and he runs away, I say come and he stands there staring at me, he ignores his name! I am getting to the end of my rope here I dont know what to do!

  10. I took my collie cross on her daily walk around the park. we have been letting her off her lead for about 2 monthS and she has been great. But the other day I let her off the lead and she followed me around the park as normal until we reach the gate where we used to put her back on her lead and walk home. Normally she would stop and come back to me to put her lead on but this time she completely ignored me and made her way home from the park. Why would she run off home without hesitation?

Speak Your Mind

*