Do you know what frustrates dog owners more than anything? The most common response I get from my students is “my dog doesn't listen to me.”
The reason your dog doesn't listen to you has to do with how you ask your dog to do something.
Your dog can only understand what you teach them. And if you teach them the wrong thing accidentally… of course your dog will be confused and act like they aren't listening to you.
The most important tool you can have, to successfully train your dog, is a reliable communication system.
You need excellent communication skills or else you're not going to get the results you want from your dog. You need to know how to communicate to your dog, and you need to learn how your dog is communicating to you. It's a little more complicated than just telling your dog to do a task. There's a bit more to it, and that's what we are going to shed some light on now.
Most importantly your dog is not born speaking the same language as you. Your dog only knows how to speak “dog” until you teach them your language. Dogs communicate through body language and vocal cues. That cute head tilt or tucked tail, maybe even ears pinned back are speaking volumes to whoever is “listening” or reading their language.
Your dog is regularly communicating with you, and I do not always mean through barking. They are always telling us how they feel or what they need through body postures.
You should study up on how to read your dog's body language it will indicate what they are trying to communicate to you. You want them to understand your language, and you should start to learn theirs as well! Check out the free cheat sheet on canine communication signals (under the Freebies Section on our website).
For example: Have you ever seen a dog excessively yawn or lick their lips (or at the air) maybe even continually scratch at their collar? You probably chocked it up to a tired dog, a thirsty dog or maybe your dog has dry or is extra itchy. You'll be surprised to know that most times those are signals from your dog that they are stressed and feeling much pressure. They yawn, scratch and lick to try and relieve tension or stress. The next time you see your dog display these behaviors repeatedly, check what's going on in their environment and see if something is stressing them out. They might need to move away from the stress or be reintroduced to the environment with more positive associations.
We as the human have this really bad habit of asking the dog do to something or stop doing something bad when the dog has no idea what we are saying until we teach them what the words mean. Humans know what the words mean, we know what we want them to do, but the poor dog doesn't have a clue what we are saying until we teach them each and every word we want them to recognize and follow.
When you are introducing your dog to a new word, there are some essential things to keep in mind.
Since we have to teach the dog each word we want them to recognize we have to be careful of how we teach them that word. In the beginning when you are first teaching a dog a word you have to make sure you only say the word when the dog is actually doing the behavior or else you are going to teach your dog the wrong word association. This means you'll know what the word means but your dog will learn the wrong behavior for that word.
If your dog is excessively barking at people passing by outside and you yell out “be quiet” or “knock it off” (and your dog doesn't stop, or they don't know what those words mean) your dog will start to learn “be quiet” means keep barking. You paired the word “quiet” with their barking. The only way you're going to teach “quiet” is by getting your dog to stop barking and praising them for quiet behavior. After the dog learns the word quiet, you can then ask them for the cue “quiet.” They will know what the word means and be able to follow your cue.
This same concept of pairing words with actions is all throughout training your dog. If you know what the word means but your dog doesn't, and you keep telling your dog to do follow that word, you're going to teach them the wrong word pairing accidentally…eeks!! This is actually what happens all the time. It's also why so many people tell me their dog doesn't listen to them. The human isn't communicating very well with their dog. The dog is very confused.
It's very common to watch people teach their dog to sit (the wrong way) by showing the dog a treat and repeatedly say “sit, sit, s.i.t.!!” The dog gets super confused and eventually sits. The owner gives the dog a treat and proclaims they've taught their dog the sit cue. What happened is that the dog tried to follow the treat. The owner has held the treat up high and just out of reach of the dog's mouth. The dog's head naturally tilts up following the treat. Like a teeter-totter, the dog's bottom end drops down into a sit position.
When you're teaching the “sit” cue, you do want to show the dog the treat. Lure it up and over the dogs head slowly to get their head to follow the treat. Wait until their bottom hits the floor and then call out “sit” (just one time). Your dog will learn to sit a heck of a lot faster when pairing the word with the action. This same rule applies to teaching all cues. Don't say the word until the behavior happens. Otherwise, you could teach the dog that standing or wagging their tail means “sit”. Remember, you know what a “sit,” or any cue is but your dog does not until you teach them.
Your body posture:
Your body posture plays a considerable role when communicating with your dog. If your shoulders are dropped, or you're kneeling down or you're standing tall you are conveying very different messages.
One bad behavior I get asked to help with almost daily is jumping. I ask my students to describe what the situation looks like that leads to their dog jumping. Inevitably it is someone coming home. The dog comes running up to them. The owner who is also excited to see their dog leans over to start petting their dog. The dog starts jumping and the owner starts to push the dog off.
First and most importantly you need to stand tall when you are asking your dog to do something. Very rarely do you learn over and ask your dog for a cue. I can teach you which situations warrant a dropped posture, but that's a whole other article. When you drop your body posture, even slightly, your dog gets super excited and usually pops up or out of a position that you asked for.
If you want the dog to stop jumping, you need to start standing tall as they come running to you. You'll also want to cross your arms and avoid eye contact or verbal cues if they are jumping. One essential piece of the puzzle is; don't give up your personal space. It's our natural instinct to react when a dog starts jumping on us. About 99.9% of the time we jump back and away from the dog as they start jumping on us or come running to us. Take back your personal space. Start taking large steps toward your dog as they come running and immediately ask for a sit. You should only be petting or praising a calm sitting dog. Any dog that is jumping should not get attention. This will only reinforce that you approve of this naughty behavior.
Let's take that sit cue we were talking about above. You are asking your dog to sit but your body posture is dropped or lowered. That gets the dog riled up and you are miss-communicating with your dog. Your verbal cue says one thing, but your body posture says another. The dog doesn't know what they should do; sit or get up?
It's important that your verbal cues and your body posture convey the same message.
There are so many other ways we can effectively communicate with our dogs as well. Your tone, gentle leash pressure and the value of treats are just a few additional ways you can communicate to your dog. Whether you are asking them to do a task or letting them know they did a phenomenal job.
The next time you ask your dog to follow a cue and they don't respond the way you were hoping, keep in mind they just might not know what you were speaking to them. It probably sounds like the teacher character in all those Charlie Brown cartoons…”Waa waa, waahhaa, wa” (You never really knew what she was saying)