"I can't get her to listen to me no matter what I do!"
"Why doesn't he do anything I say?"
"My dog was born without listening ears."
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These statements and questions - or other variations of, "Why doesn't my dog listen to me?!" - are common among frustrated puppy and dog parents. Despite our efforts, there are so many times we find our dogs pulling on leash, jumping on guests, racing AWAY from us instead of TO us, or chewing up our shoes. When my dog was a puppy, "We're working on it," (in an embarrassed tone of voice) was my tagline, so I get it.
When we find ourselves in these situations, it's easy to get frustrated, discouraged, and even start thinking that our SideKicks are stubborn, un-teachable, born without listening ears, or (worse!) not listening on purpose! Before jumping to conclusions, though, ask yourself: are your training issues and difficulties really a result of some flaw in your SideKick...?
The answer, of course, for the vast majority of dogs is No; there's not some flaw in your SideKick's coding. It can be hard to swallow that answer because that means we've got to look around for a different reason for our training difficulties - and it's not easy to know where to start looking! This is where I come in, though! When your SideKick "won't listen" to you or isn't responding to cues you're giving, there are a few easy explanations. A decent chunk of the time, our training difficulties can be boiled down to one of the causes below:
1. Your SideKick doesn't know what you're asking.
We're sometimes quick to say, "Oh, yeah; my dog definitely knows how to [insert behavior]!" But, as a general rule of thumb, if your SideKick isn't able to perform a cue 8 out of 10 times in a variety of situations, it's not a "known" cue. It's possible that your SideKick isn't responding to your cue because the two of you haven't had enough practice or enough practice in a variety of situations.
If, on the other hand, you're working on a new behavior with your SideKick - something you wouldn't consider to be a "known" cue, yet, it's possible that your SideKick is confused about what you're looking for. Take a look at the techniques that you're using to teach the behavior and, if using a clicker, check on the timing and consistency of your clicks. Work to bring a little more clarity to your training sessions and/or lower your criteria, so that you're not asking for too much! Sometimes, a few easy successes in a row can refresh your training sessions and bring a little more confidence and creativity back!
2. Motivation is lacking.
I joke with my clients that our SideKicks are - a lot like us - mentally calculating, "What's in it for me?" every time we ask them for something. So, when you're teaching a new behavior, let your SideKick know there's A LOT in it for them by offering "the big bucks" - something your SideKick loves, is excited to work for, and rarely - if ever - refuses. If working with you pays off, they'll be motivated to work with you!
If your SideKick isn't doing so well with known cues, it may be because they haven't been paid for it recently! The behaviors that pay off for your SideKick are the ones that stick around; so, even though your SideKick may be proficient at a behavior, keep paying them for it! Offer them the big bucks every now and then, but also be sure to offer other payments (praise, pets, ear scratches, baby voice, etc.) regularly, so those behaviors stick around and those cues stay strong and fresh.
As a side note: Keep in mind, too, that your SideKick chooses what you should use as "the big bucks"! We don't get to decide what our dogs perceive as a motivating payment; it's up to you to experiment and find out what motivates your SideKick.
3. The competition in your environment is too great.
The second you step out your front door, you've got a lot of competition: squirrels, delivery trucks, other dogs and people, and ALL. THE. SNIFFS. In order to be able to compete with all of that, begin teaching early and often that you're a worthy competitor; teach your SideKick that you're worth paying attention to! Offer rewards for engaging with you in difficult environments and for checking in with you even though there are other things your SideKick may be interested in.
That said, teaching new behaviors with all of that competition is extremely difficult. So, start out teaching the new stuff in the quiet, low-distraction environment of, say, your living room. It's boring (no offense) and familiar, so you've got very little competition for your SideKick's attention. Before you try taking that brand new behavior out on the road, test drive it in other familiar, low-distraction environments, slowly working your way up in difficulty.
4. The stress is simply too much for your SideKick to respond accurately or at all.
Between trainers, it's called being over threshold. And, by stress, I mean that we're talking about fear, anxiety, frustration, and even over-excitement.
With my clients, I describe this all as an invisible line between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When your dog is Dr. Jekyl, they can learn; they pay attention; they're engaging with you; and they are their usual selves. At some point, your SideKick can slide across that invisible line and become Mr. Hyde; they're no longer able to focus; they have tunnel vision for only one thing - perhaps finding safety, defending themselves, or getting something they really want; and they're not their usual selves. When your SideKick has passed that invisible line, they're not able to focus on you, your cues are not going to be reliable, and they're definitely not in a state to be learning anything new. It isn't until you're able to get them back behind that invisible line and in a calmer state that you'll be able to start working and getting through to your SideKick again.
So, the next time your SideKick isn't performing as well as you expected, try not to ask yourself not why your dog won't listen to you or blame some flaw in your dog; instead, ask yourself if one of the factors described in this post is affecting your SideKick's performance!
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