Ever attend a training class and all the dogs around you are quietly listening to the trainer and doing what their owners are telling them, and meanwhile your dog is throwing a tantrum and ignoring every word you say? You sigh in frustration and think to yourself, “My dog is so stupid!” and smile embarrassingly to the trainer as she responds with a pitied look from across the room. The puppy next to you knows sit; why can’t your dog?!
Well, there are many reasons why dogs have trouble learning sit, or any command. Most of these things aren’t as obvious to the typical owner as they are to professionals who are able to read what a dog is trying to tell us though. Sometimes it has to do with the environment, but sometimes it’s because of the owner himself! Here’s a list of reasons why your smart dog could be having trouble acting smart:
Unaware of Your Intentions: Dogs don’t automatically pay attention to you just because you’re standing infront of them. Sometimes you need to teach your dog on how to be trained. This is called Voluntary Attention and is actually quite easy to train, but is best if your dog is hungry. To do this, simply stand onfront of your dog and say his name or “hey” to get him to look at you. The moment your eyes meet, reward him with “yes” or “good boy!” and give him a treat or a kibble of his food. Keep doing this every time your eyes meet. Eventually, he’ll hold his gaze to you even after given a treat. Take advantage of this and wait a few seconds longer every few times until he can hold attention for what seems like forever. This is the best trick you can teach your dog. By teaching him to look to you for rewards and direction, you can get him to do just about anything. I taught Ringo Voluntary Attention right away when I fed him the first time. Now, whenever he looks at something new, he’ll look up at me for direction on how to act. Anytime I do anything, he pays attention to it and waits for any indication that I want him to do something. It’s great and can solve a lot of unruly behavior when your dog learns that you’re the leader he’s looking for.
Distractions: This one’s pretty obvious; your dog is too occupied with everything around it to listen to you. Depending on the dog’s breed, it can be too difficult to concentrate on the person standing infront of it screaming, “SIT!” when there are so many smells and sounds drowning the person out.
Herding dogs may prioritize a doggy classmate or anything running by, be it squirrel or child, over whatever treats you have to offer due to its herding instinct. A hound may be distracted by that amazing smell ten feet away if the treat you have in your hand isn’t as smelly.
One way to catch your dog’s attention during training is to flash the treat infront of your dog’s nose, then lure your dog’s gaze back up to you. Usually, this should snap your dog out of it and he’ll pay attention to the treat and what he has to do to get it. You can also stand in your dog’s line of sight if he’s staring at something as well, or if he’s freaking out due to sensory overload, try to move further from the source of the distraction if possible.
Too Much Energy: When your dog is lacking in exercise and everything is exciting, it’s impossible to pay attention. Yelling, trying to distract him with treats, yanking him around, or anything like that probably won’t help when he has enough energy to power the sun. If possible, tire him out first with a game of fetch or a walk around the neighborhood before you start trying to teach him something. Once he’s tuckered out and has been given some water, food might sound like the next exciting thing to pay attention to and training will be easy!
Too Nervous: If your dog is busy whimpering and trembling and won’t take treats, there’s no way he’s going to be able to learn anything or listen to anyone. Whatever’s going on around him has made your dog way too nervous to function, and tugging his leash, pushing his butt to the ground, yelling at him, or saying “No!” over and over isn’t going to help him learn how to sit down. It’s best to work on getting him relaxed and associate the place you’re in as a good place, and not the place where everyone’s screaming and the floor’s covered in mysterious puddles of pee.
You can do this by acting calm and not correcting his whimpers and trembling. This is your dog’s way of telling you, “I don’t like this place! I’m scared!” and yanking him or yelling is just going to tell him, “Oh god! This is place is horrible indeed!” Instead, squat down to his level and be calm and talk gently to him, but don’t pet or baby him because it’ll promote the way he’s acting. Offer some treats if he’ll accept them by hand or by dropping or placing them on the floor. The treats can be a good distraction and if they’re high value treats, teach him that the good treats are given only when in this scary place. You can also, if possible, offer a toy to help him relax. If all else fails, it’s best to ignore your dog until he eventually calms down on his own. If you’re not in a classroom or vet, maybe it’d be a good idea to leave and come back another day.
Some signs of a nervous dog are obvious: whimpering, trembling, barking, panting with tongue hanging out, pacing back and forth, jumping on owner, sniffling and licking things, tensing up, and chewing on the paws. There are less obvious signs too though: panting when it’s not hot in general, yawning over and over, not reacting to anything, and not taking treats. You’ll also notice when a dog is nervous when it flicks its tongue over and over, or licks it lips dramatically. A nervous dog will also turn away from people trying to interact with it, look at people with wide eyes where you can see the whites (whale eyes). They may blink slowly and obviously, or have wrinkles on the sides of its lips while panting or on top of the head between the ears. When a dog pants while nervous, the tongue is sometimes curled up and the panting is very rapid. If your dog seems nervous, don’t push him too hard, or at least back off alittle bit until he’s calm again.
Command Has Negative Results: When you call your dog to you, what does he expect? Pets, praise, treats, toys, fun things, of course! But what happens when you call your dog and when he comes to you, you pick him up and drop him in the bathtub? He won’t want to come to you anymore.
Whenever you say your dog’s name, you want to get his attention. Whenever I say “Ringo”, he comes running to me because I only say his name when I have something nice to offer or want him to do something fun, like start a game or get ready for a walk. When he does something naughty, I never say his name because you don’t want your dog’s name to be a punishing word. Use something you don’t say often like, “Oh no you di’nt!” instead if you want to scold your dog. Remember though, it only works when you catch your dog in the act of doing something naughty, not after he’s stopped doing it! The same is for when your dog has run off and you call him back: when he comes back, don’t scold him for running off; you’ll just be teaching him not to come back because dogs associate cause and effect one action at a time.
Command Loses Value: Dogs also can’t understand human speech, obviously, so what about when a dog knows a command and doesn’t seem to follow it anymore? It makes one wonder what the heck happened, right? Well, when you give a command, do it once. If “sit!” becomes “Sit! Hey, sit. Sit. SIT!” you have a problem that will be tough to solve. Say the command once, and if the dog doesn’t understand or messes up, let him know it was wrong with a simple, “Oops” or “Nope” and turn away for a moment then come back. This resets the command and lets your dog understand that you’re retrying to command, not adding to it.
There are also times when you give your dog a command he knows and he literally looks at you and then turns away. He knows the command, and knows that you know that he knows the command, but because nothing happens when he chooses not to follow it, he feels that he’s free to ignore it if he’s not interested in treats. Always follow up when you give your dog a command like “Come”, “Leave it”, “Stay”, “Off”, or whatever other commands that keep your dog out of trouble. You don’t want your dog to dive for a bar of dark chocolate and ignore you when you tell him to Leave It all because the word has no value.
If you teach your dog Leave It and he goes for the item anyway, don’t sit there and go, “Aw man! He ate my cupcake!”; you want to follow up! Block the food, and the moment he hesitates, that’s when you reward him with something better, like a treat or extra praise. You want your dog to hesitate when you tell him to Leave It, and if you’re far away, you can call your dog to you to get him away from the object. If needed, you can open your dog’s mouth and pull the food out before he swallows it. Be sure to give the command before or as you do this, and let him know that this is what happens when he tries to eat it anyway. Don’t hit him or anything like that though because then the command will mean, “I’m about to smack you!” instead of, “Don’t eat that!” and that’s not the point you’re trying to get across.
Wha’chu Talkin’ Bout?: Your dog doesn’t understand what you’re trying to tell it. Dogs aren’t born knowing their name or any commands, so telling every dog you meet to sit or shake hands isn’t only embarrassing, but it’s pointless. Like how dogs communicate, using body language with words/sounds is much easier to understand than just words in a foreign language. Until your dog has learned the command with body language and can do the command about 90% correctly whenever cued, your dog may not be able to follow just by speech. Saying a command over and over, but louder and slower, won’t help. It doesn’t help someone who can’t speak your language understand what you’re saying just like how it doesn’t help your dog understand what you’re saying.
Although training your dog in different places with different distractions is a good challenge for him, be sure to only challenge your dog when and where you know he can successfully accomplish it. Being patient and setting your dog up for success by training him in a place with no distractions, when he’s in a good state of mind, and with nothing that’ll make your commands negative or worthless will help your “stupid” dog show you that he’s actually quite intelligent. Remember these different reasons, and training sessions will make it much easier since you’ll be more aware of why your dog’s not paying attention to you. Other than these reasons, can anyone think of any others? Feel free to share your knowledge!