Q: What do I do when my dog doesn't listen to a known command?
A: Figure out what went wrong in the training process.
Over the last 15 years, I've worked with over 4,000 dogs and their owners in both group classes and private lessons. And any time a dog doesn't respond to a previously-trained cue, I can always find a flaw in the original training. Here are the 5 most common:
1. FLUENCY. Does the dog reliably respond to the cue in most situations? No? The dog is not fluent in that cue. In other words, the dog doesn't "know" the cue. Fortunately, that's an easy fix. Go back and do more practice!
2. MOTIVATION. Has your dog been rewarded for performing that behavior on cue consistently AND with something that he/she finds high value?
Remember, we don't get to decide what the dog perceives as a reward. We have to work with what our dogs tell us is rewarding to them.
If you haven't been rewarding your dog for doing the right thing, it's going to take him a lot longer to figure out what you want. It's much faster to teach your dog the behavior you want, then reward him for it, than to wait for him to sort through a thousand wrong responses to get to the right one.
3. LEARNING HISTORY. Being rewarded for responding to a cue is good...but not if it is MORE rewarding to ignore it. Dr. Susan Friedman refers to this as a "bootleg reinforcer," a reward that your dog can steal from the environment.
You've practiced calling your dog in your backyard and reward him every time he comes to you, which is very consistent. Then, you take him to the dog park, where he loves playing with other dogs. Confident in your training, you call him to you...right as a group of his friends run by. Your dog runs off, chasing after his buddies. Your dog just got a HUGE reward for not responding.
The more opportunities your dog has to steal those bootleg reinforcers, the less motivation he has to do what you ask. Practice makes perfect. Your job is to make sure your dog is rewarded more for the behaviors you want, with little to no opportunities for the behaviors you don't.
Take a look at prior posts on management (12/29/14) and the Premack Principle (2/10/15) to learn how to turn this around.
4. ENVIRONMENT. You've been taking your dog to obedience classes every week since he was 12 weeks old. You've graduated from every class your trainer offers: Puppy Kindergarten, Basic Obedience, Intermediate Obedience, and Advanced Off-Leash Obedience, as well as Rally-O and Agility. Your dog is a superstar in class, where he can perform off-leash recalls and complex heeling patterns around the other students. Your dog is a rock star in class. Confident that he can handle anything, you take him to your local cafe to enjoy lunch with your friend and show off your dog's fabulous skills....only to have him break his stay and bark at other dogs. What happened?
You may have taught the cue, but you haven't proofed it. Proofing is what leads to reliability.
5. STRESS. Fear, anxiety, frustration, and over-arousal are all forms of stress. Stress affects behavior. It also affects learning.
Over-arousal is when a dog gets so excited that they seem to lose their mind; especially when they see a favorite person or dog pal. These dogs need to learn better impulse-control. There are a lot of great suggestions in Chill Out Fido: How to Calm Your Dog, by Nan Arthur.
If, on the other hand, your dog's stress is caused by fear or anxiety, that is going to require a process of desensitization and counter-conditioning.
I have a good friend who competes in a lot of different sports with her dogs. She is a wonderful trainer, even though she doesn't do it professionally. What makes her so wonderful? Because when something goes wrong - when her dog runs off-course or responds to her cues slowly or not at all - she doesn't blame the dog. She always asks, "What am *I* doing wrong?"
That's the question we should all ask when our dogs don't perform as we expected. If we have done our job in training, our dogs have no reason not to listen. Responding to our cues only results in their most favorite things!
If you realize you've messed up along the way, that's okay. There are plenty of things that I've had to go back and retrain my dog over the last 11 years...including his recall cue! No trainer, no matter how long they've been training or how many dogs they've worked with, is error-free in their training.
The difference between a good trainer and a bad trainer, however, is that a good trainer looks for their mistakes, while bad trainers blame the dog.