Courteous Canine: My Dog Doesn’t Listen
by Jane Finneran, Certified Dog Trainer
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this! My sarcastic side wants to ask if the dog is deaf. However, I can tell that the owner is really upset with their “defective” dog and so I go the route of counseling.
Dogs do not come to us knowing the English language. Dogs do learn words through association. Most dogs quickly learn the work “cookie” if owners say the word “cookie” every time they reach for a cookie. Some people teach their dogs to come by going outside with the cookie box and shaking it while yelling “COOKIE” at the top of their lungs. For years, my husband thought that was the name of the neighbor’s dog. I knew otherwise. In similar fashion, dogs learn words like “car,” “frisbee,” “out,” and “supper” by associating the word with an object or action.
In class and in private consults, I hear clients giving the dog instructions in sentence or even paragraph format. Save your breath. As Gary Lawson pointed out in a famous cartoon, all they are hearing is “Blah, blah, blah, Ginger.” Recent studies have shown that dogs understand signals much better than verbal cues. Doesn’t that make sense? When dogs are playing with each other, they use body language to engage the other dog. They also use body language to indicate that they do not want to play.
In her book The Other End of the Leash (a great read for dog owners), Patricia McConnell makes an argument backed by research for using visual signals. By the time you finish reading the book, you will stop explaining to your dog what you want and start showing. If I don’t want my dog running out the front door whenever I open it, I can explain to the dog how dangerous it is and implore the dog not to do that again–or I can body block the dog and use my body language to let the dog know not to run out. Of course, whenever I do not want the dog to do something, the best thing is to train what I do want. How about a sit at the door? (Editors note: Jane holds low-cost classes to show you how to train your dog to sit at the door).
The other common complaint I hear is, “My dog listens at home (but not here in class or here at the park or outside with squirrels in the area).” If you only train at home, the dog will only learn to “listen” or pay attention at home. Their brains are little and do not generalize well. If the dog is only asked for a sit in the kitchen, the dog will think that the kitchen is part of the sit. Though many of us can speak English, our brains aren’t that different from those of our dogs. If you smoke when you drink, you’ll want to light up a cigarette whenever you’re at the bar. Psychologists will tell you to stay home if you want to kick the smoking habit.
The dog must learn to sit, down, stay, and come in lots of different places and with lots of different distractions. So next time you’re out with your dog, practice sitting, staying, and other techniques in an unfamiliar place. One day, it might keep your dog from charging across a busy intersection.
Jane Finneran, CPDT (Certified Professional Dog Trainer) offers group and private lessons.
A Trained Dog is a Loved Dog