But he already knows this!

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Every dog trainer hears this.  The frustrated exclamation of a client whose dog isn’t doing as they are told.  About 95% of our clients assert a dog’s knowledge of a cue that he just won’t follow.  They can be both correct and incorrect.  The dog may not understand the cue.  Or the dog may have learned the cue but has at some point learned to ignore it.  Or, in some cases, the dog has a pretty good understanding of what you want, but the cue has been poisoned.

So, what’s going on when a dog doesn’t listen?

They don’t really understand what you want.

Sometimes the dog really hasn’t learned what you think he’s learned.  It’s possible that your dog’s success was just a matter of a few well-timed guesses (or accidents).  In our enthusiasm, we can believe that our dog has learned the cue when they really haven’t.  This is an easy one to fix if it’s just started.  Just take a step back, and practice the cue some more until the dog knows it.

Your dog may also not understand what a cue means if you change some variable.  He may have learned that when she makes the “sit” noise when I’m in the living room I am supposed to sit on this rug”.  We may have thought they understood that we wanted the bottom down on the floor regardless of where we were or who was around, but the dog has really only learned a behavior in a particular context.  The answer?  When you switch a variable, go back to the beginning as if the dog never learned the cue, and work up.  After working through a few variables your dog will start to realize that sit means sit no matter where he is.

Changing a variable can be as small as not holding your hand in the same way as you usually do.  If you make the same gesture with your hand every time you ask the dog to sit and one day begin leaving the gesture out, your training is very likely to fall apart.  Decide what your cue is going to be, decide what the result you are looking for is going to be, and stick with it.

They have decided that your cue is irrelevant.

If the result of a specific cue is not reliable your dog will learn to ignore it.  This is the “boy who cried wolf” problem.  Imagine a parent who has become accustomed to a child running around yelling “Mommy!  Mommy!  Mommy!” without actually needing the attention of his mother.  The mother is likely going to learn to tune the child out and go on about her day.  The cue becomes irrelevant.  During training, your dog is trying to figure out what parts of the noises you make are meaningful, and what parts are not meaningful.  Sometimes they make the wrong choice.  This happens a lot when we try to go too fast in training and the dog isn’t successful.  We repeat the cue over and over again while the dog fails to perform the behavior.  Eventually, the dog decides that the cue is not relevant and begins to ignore it.  This is different than deliberate defiance.  The dog just doesn’t understand what is expected of him.

The cue has been poisoned.

Sometimes a cue has been taught, but we have inadvertently created a situation where the dog does not enjoy performing the behavior because the cue has been associated with something the dog doesn’t like.  This often results from using mixed messages in training.  Sometimes we ask for something and the dog does it, and she gets a reward.  Yay!  Bingo!  Enough repetitions and we have got a solid behavior. But sometimes if the dog doesn’t perform quickly enough, or is not perfect in her response we react with frustration and even punishment.  The dog is asked to sit, and when it doesn’t happen instantly gets a leash jerk.  Enough repetitions of this and the cue is poisoned.  The dog has created a negative association with the cue and does not want to perform it.

In our next blog post, we’ll look at ways we can deal with the poisoned cue…

About Dawn Gardner, CPDT-KA

I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), an administrator of the Modern Dog Group, and a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). I am also a freelance writer for dog related publications. I have been training dogs since 1997, promoting force-free, science based training methods, instructing group classes and providing private in-home dog training. I have worked extensively with dogs with behavioral issues, including those suffering from anxiety, aggression and other stress related disorders. I have dedicates much of my free time to rehabilitating and re-homing shelter dogs with a variety of rescue organizations. As part of my passion for advocating science based dog training methods, I have had the privilege to lecture at Virginia Tech’s School of Veterinary Medicine. In 2014 I returned to Arkansas after 12 years in rural North Carolina, where Happy Hound Pet Services began in 2007. I live in Rudy, Arkansas, with my nine dogs and occasional foster dogs.
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