Is your dog being naughty or does he just not understand you?

We can be quick to get frustrated with our dogs when they ignore us, we can also be quick to label our dogs as ‘stubborn’ or as having ‘selective hearing’. The problem with this is that it puts the blame on our dogs and it can become an excuse for poor training. We might give up trying to improve our dog’s behaviour because we’ve decided they’re just stubborn and we can never change it. However, there are many more reasons why your dog may behave in this way, and all of them can be worked on with good training, so stop the excuses and find a way to make things work!

Generalisation

When it comes to training your dog, generalisation is a key concept. Your dog may understand ‘Fido come’ in your garden but that doesn’t mean he understands it on a walk. Likewise, you may have taught him an excellent ‘sit-wait’ when he’s on a lead but he may not understand the same behaviour at the front door when a visitor turns up.

Generalisation is the ability to respond to a cue regardless of the environmental influences. And dogs are typically not very good at generalising! We also don’t help them because we often expect them to respond to a cue anywhere and everywhere as soon as they seem to understand it. Most people will confidently say their dog knows ‘sit’, but if you were to turn your back and say ‘sit’, would your dog be able to respond?

Dogs pick up on so many signals, so when we change even the slightest things, they can act like they suddenly have no clue what we’re talking about. Your dog may not actually understand the verbal cue ‘sit’, he might be relying more on a subtle hand signal you give, or he may simply be anticipating what you want i.e. “you’re holding a treat, if I sit, I get the treat!?” It has nothing to do with what you said, you could insert any word in place of ‘sit’ and he might still offer the same behaviour … test it and see!

How do we generalise our training?

  • Firstly, accept that generalisation takes time, rushing it will only cause you to feel frustrated and your dog to lose his confidence or his focus
  • Take baby steps. Teach a good recall in your living room, your garden, a quiet field, add a few distractions, then move onto the busy, exciting park
  • Go back to basics in each new environment. Use a longline for recall, hold it shorter and practice close up recalls when you go somewhere new or distracting. Help your dog respond to cues by luring him into positions (e.g. for sit, down or eye contact – show him what you want!) before fading out your lure again
  • Increase your reinforcement. Use higher value rewards when you take your training to new places
  • Start with easy behaviours before moving onto new or harder ones. In a new place, start with some eye contact or name response first
  • Keep it fun and positive! If you start to feel frustrated then end the training and come back to it when you’re both calmer
  • Don’t be too picky to begin with, reward your dog even if responses are slow or sloppy and increase your criteria as your dog’s understanding improves

Reinforcement

Sometimes what we think is reinforcing to our dog, is not actually what they find reinforcing. A spaniel might find running through long grass far more reinforcing than the treat you’re offering them, so why would they respond to your recall when they’d rather continue their own activity. They may be performing a behaviour which is so intrinsically rewarding, they can’t respond to you … think breed behaviours.

You need to find out what your dog considers reinforcing and then find ways to use this in your training. You can also teach your dog to enjoy other reinforcement. Dogs who have long histories of treat-based reinforcement training often find the action of being rewarded just as reinforcing as the actual treat they receive. Not all dogs are ‘food focused’ but that doesn’t mean you can’t teach them to enjoy working for food rewards!

Read this blog for more tips on how to use reinforcement in your training https://www.adolescentdogs.com/post/the-power-of-reinforcement

Poisoned Cues

Despite our best intentions, we can be at fault for our dogs opting not to respond to our cues. Cues can become ‘poisoned’ if you pair them with something your dog doesn’t like, or if you use the cue repeatedly when your dog isn’t responding or understanding. Think how quickly you would switch off from someone if they repeatedly said your name but never followed it with anything else. We often do this to our dogs, we call them repeatedly or say ‘sit’ over and over without ever showing them what we want or helping them to understand.

Recall is typically an easy one to poison. If you call your dog and he takes ages to come back, there can be a temptation to tell him off when he reaches you, but this will only teach him that coming back to you can be quite unpleasant so next time you call, he’s likely to be reluctant to respond. This doesn’t mean you should necessarily reward him lavishly when he takes 10 minutes to come back, but at the very least, don’t tell him off! And if he’s taken that long, look at what you’re doing and work out how to make it more successful next time … for example, hold his longline so you can help him come back, call him more frequently, keep him closer to you, reward with higher value treats.

Don’t become confrontational with your dog when they’re not responding, remember there is more to it than them being ‘stubborn’, and most likely they just don’t understand or can’t respond in that situation. Repeating cues or forcing your dog to do a behaviour will only serve to poison the cue and make it harder for your dog next time, so look at the whole picture and then help your dog to respond.

Is your dog coping?

If your dog is unable to respond to a cue which you would consider reasonably reliable in most situations then it’s likely he’s having an emotional reaction to something in the environment. He may be feeling stressed because he’s worried, excited or frustrated and this emotional response is reducing his ability to listen to you.

If this is the case, you need to re-evaluate what you’re asking from your dog and find a way to help him focus again. You may need to leave the situation or you may be able to work through it until your dog is calmer and able to respond. There’s no point calling your dogs’ name repeatedly if he’s on the end of the lead barking his head off at another dog, he’s too far gone at this point and no amount of shouting at him will make any difference!

Sometimes an emotional response will be very obvious, your dog might be barking, lunging, whining or spinning around, and you will probably be able to see clearly that your dog isn’t in the right frame of mind to be listening to you. Sometimes it can be much more subtle though and this is when we risk labelling a dog as ‘stubborn’ because we can’t see so clearly that they’re struggling to cope.

If your dog is struggling to respond to you because of his emotional response in an environment, you firstly need to work on how he feels before expecting anything more from him. This will depend on what he’s reacting to, the underlying emotions and the intensity of his reaction. As an example, if your dog is so excited to be in the woods that he can’t hear you calling his name, then you need to work on reducing his excitement and improve his impulse control, from there you can build on a reliable recall response. Similarly, if he’s worried by traffic and therefore pulling on the lead to get away or trying to chase the traffic, you need to build his confidence around traffic and reduce his fear response before you can expect him to walk calmly on a lead.

Could your dog be in pain?

Pain or medical conditions can impact behaviour. A sudden reluctance to sit or lie down on cue could signal some discomfort, so if your dog has previously been able to respond reliably to cues and then suddenly shows reluctance or seems to not understand what you’re asking, he could be feeling some pain when performing these behaviours.

There are strong links between pain and behaviour, so anytime your dog shows a change in behaviour, perhaps displaying new behaviours or struggling to respond to previously reliable ones, it’s worth having a thorough vet check to rule out any underlying impacts.

The key is to remember your dog is still learning, not being intentionally naughty. Your dog isn’t intent on winding you up, making your life difficult or embarrassing you. He’s being a dog, he’s doing what he finds reinforcing and what he understands to do. If his idea of reinforcement isn’t in line with yours then you need to find a happy compromise, and if he doesn’t understand what you think he should understand then you need to TEACH him! We expect a lot from our dogs and we often fail to give them credit for the way they manage to adapt to our lives, we focus on the times when they behave badly, without considering where the behaviour is coming from and what we need to do to help them behave in a way we find more appropriate.

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