Why doesn’t my dog listen?


Knowing when to add a cue to instruct your dog is a fine art. When we get a puppy, our human tendency is to constantly repeat key words all day, every day – surely if they hear it enough they will understand what we need them to do?? But all they hear is white noise.


Corrupted cues.


Dogs learn differently to us, and we have to remember they are not pre-programmed to understand humans, or English (or whatever language you use). They start by learning what is relevant around them, and these things take on importance eg where to find their water and food. Additional noises, like a constant name or ‘come’ is actually irrelevant at that time, as it does not link to a specific behaviour – yet.


Then when we try to link that already used word to a new behaviour eg. Come needs to mean ‘come over to me now’, dogs struggle as the word is already irrelevant to them – they have already blocked it out. Getting it to mean something else (ie. what you want it to) is tough going.


Another problem is that dogs also learn by associations. If as a puppy, you kept saying their name whilst they are running around, then their name will prompt them to run around when they hear it – they have learnt that association even though it was unintentional on your part.


So what do we do?


Dogs learn by repeating what is rewarding and as food is a major motivator – they have to eat to survive – then using treats as a lure to show them what is needed of them and then quickly converted to food as a reward for completing that manoeuvre. This is why reward based training is so effective. So using this method, we can use force free methods to teach them the behaviour mostly by our body language and hand gestures. The association is building for moving their bodies in a particular way (the behaviour) in response to our hand gesture. When this is strong and reliable, then we add the verbal cue – we do love to talk!

If you say the cue word at the same time as doing the hand gesture, then the dog is only responding the hand as the noise is irrelevant – they are already following the hand. So we need to add the word JUST BEFORE the hand gesture. Dogs like predictors, so the new word becomes a signal to the hand movement, which predicts them repositioning themselves as that has already meant a reward is coming – you see the chain of events here? With a bit of practice, the cue word soon becomes a strong prediction so the dog already is moving the right way before the hand gesture – we have a short cut in instructing our dog, the dog has a short cut in the process to get the tasty reward.


We want the response to be strong and this is built by each time the dog hears the word eg sit, and he has a good response by putting his bottom down, and a treat is forthcoming, then he has a good response – it is highly predictable that he will sit for you. Each time ‘sit’ is said but nothing happens, then that link weakens, so ‘sit’ almost becomes irrelevant to the dog. This is why you should only give the cue ONCE only. Otherwise you degrade the significance of the word ‘sit’ as a rewarding event. This can also happen if you ask your dog to sit if they are already sitting. Be careful not to weaken your special words or you may have to start again with a new cue word for that behaviour.


When you are teaching your dog a cue, as they like predictors, then where they are is key to them. They have learnt something in an exact environment, with you wearing a specific set of clothes but they soon learn to filter out what is irrelevant (eg. your shoes) so we have to isolate the other environmental factors so that your dog can focus on what is really important – the cue word and hand gesture. To counteract this problem, practice in different locations with fewest distractions around. Your dog soon learns that where they are is irrelevant, it is what they do that gets the reward.


Not sure if your cues are strong enough? Say it once and see what your dog does. Don’t repeat the cue if they struggle – you don’t want to ‘poison’ your cue.   Say similar words and see if your dog does respond to the right one. Be careful to not move so you don’t give any non-verbal cues.


If your dog is a ninja and is super responsive – excellent! But keep the maintenance going and practice occasionally. Like our school subjects, if you don’t regularly practice you soon forget everything!

Dog struggling a bit? No worries, we all need refreshers sometimes so revisit your training and practice with your hand gestures, then add the cue just before the hand movement. They will soon remember.


Has your recall word lost it’s meaning and now means run away? Redo your initial training but use a new word/noise as they are running up to you.


As a recap, remember to teach your dog what to do before you add your cue word or you may find it means something else entirely to your dog! Be consistent, and to keep it strong, only say the cue word once only and treat for the right response.


Happy training!


PS; need help? Book us for a 121 session to get you back on track. Why not join one of my popular workshops here.