Sometimes your dog literally doesn’t get the message and you can’t really blame him for not responding. Other times, your dog has not been trained in a behaviour sufficiently — in all the ways he needs to perform it — so he doesn’t always understand what is expected. We’ve already talked about some great ways to address these situations and make it easier for your dog to succeed.
The third reason your dog doesn’t respond as you’d hope is a little more tricky and a bit more sensitive as well. Dogs perform behaviours for us for their own reasons. As thinking creatures, they have the capacity to make choices; they are not obligated to cooperate. So something must motivate them to work with us instead of doing their own thing.
Reasons Why Dogs Don’t Respond
It’s not worth responding even if they heard us and knew what to do. This can be one of the hardest things to accept about dogs. You might think your dog is just blowing you off or sulking about some imagined offense. But it’s important to remember that dogs have evolved as a scavenger species, taking advantage of the cast-offs of early human settlements. As such, they are very much self-centered opportunists who constantly perform cost/benefit analyses to determine what they want most right now. Is giving you the behaviour you asked for worth it for them right now? Dogs are not as altruistic as you might think.
There are two basic strategies for getting your dog to perform a behaviour for you. You can make it worth your dog’s time and effort, and reinforce the behaviour by rewarding your dog with something he wants. Or, you can make NOT performing the behaviour too costly – do it or face the unpleasant consequences — punishing him for choosing incorrect alternatives.
In my experience, reinforcement provides far better results than punishment for the simple reason that it does not discourage a dog from trying new things.
How much reinforcement is enough? Modern dog trainers often reward their dogs with food treats or “play” for all kinds of behaviours, even for well-known or frequently performed behaviours. Each time the dog gets rewarded for performing a behaviour, that behaviour is reinforced.
Over time, this creates what trainers call a “history of reinforcement” in that particular behaviour. Think of it as a bank account. Each time you “pay up” for the behaviour, you deposit good will into your account. And each time you ask for the behaviour without rewarding your dog, you make a withdrawal on that good-will account.
Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it looks. It’s not a one-for-one ratio. Behavioural science has taught us that behaviours with a long history of reinforcement are more resilient than less-often reinforced behaviours. To use the analogy of banking, the more you have deposited in your account over time, the less costly an unpaid behaviour is when you need to make that “withdrawal” from time to time.
The biggest mistake trainers make is not reinforcing the behaviour enough before asking for unrewarded behaviour. Some dogs can be exceptional at learning new behaviours and seem to “get it” within only 10 or 20 repetitions. A handler can then feel that the dog understands the behaviour and it no longer needs to be rewarded. Over time, the behaviour begins to break down. The handler may not realize that it is the absence of rewards that has caused the little scavenger to decide that doing the behaviour is less rewarding than sniffing that wonderful scent over there.
The good and evil of slot machines. Many trainers object to the use of consistent rewards to keep a dog motivated to perform. They believe a dog should respond on cue out of love or some other form of altruistic loyalty. Some trainers use the analogy of a slot machine that pays off only every so often and always as a pleasant surprise. They believe the sporadic nature of the reward will keep the dog motivated to keep working for them.
That’s a common misconception. This kind of sporadic reinforcement doesn’t strengthen behaviour. In fact, it makes some behaviours more resistant to going away — or it weakens them. Most learned behaviours do better with more frequent rewards.
The trouble is, many times people feel that getting the behaviour without having to reward the dog is the sign of great training. So it becomes their goal to get the dog to work without a reward. And that’s a mistake. The more frequently you pay your dog for working with you, the more likely he is to eagerly perform for you in future.
It’s a big world out there. If you want to reward your dog for good behaviours, you need to have something interesting to him. Fortunately, most dogs are just crazy about food, any food. Most of them enjoy playing as well.
But the world is full of other really interesting things too and sometimes the world will compete with you for your dog’s attention. It could be that something really interesting in the environment has his attention instead of you! This is where you need to refer back to Part 1 of this series which discusses the reasons why your dog may not have picked up on the signal you gave him.
As a good trainer, you need to be ready to have very interesting stuff with you if you want your dog to work with you in challenging environments. For instance, if my dog sees a squirrel at the park and all I have to offer is a kind word and a pat on the head, well, my dog will choose the squirrel over me. If, on the other hand, I have pieces of bacon with me, the squirrel is simply not a factor for my dog.
Being a good communicator. So it becomes a matter of being able to assess whether or not you have the ability to hold your dog’s attention before you ask for a behaviour. This is where all three of the reasons your dog might not respond will come together. Fortunately, you have some control over all of these.
Ask yourself three simple questions when your dog fails to respond to your cues:
Did my dog hear/see my cue clearly?
Did my dog understand what she was supposed to do when I gave her the cue in that situation?
Was I giving my dog a good reason (history of and potential for rewards) to give me the behaviour I was asking for just now?
Be sure that you are signaling clearly and consistently, and that you have your dog’s focus and attention.
Go back to training and “proof” with more work to be sure that your dog knows what to do in the situation by rewarding him in a training environment.
Do what you can to show the dog that it’s “worth it” to offer the requested behaviour by providing frequently providing the right incentive in the training environment.
As Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash, says, we have the big brain in the relationship. So it is our responsibility to identify where the behaviour broke down and to provide our dogs with whatever they need to be successful in the future.
Dogs are frighteningly honest creatures. If your dog doesn’t respond, there is a reason. And that reason is never a frivolous fancy, a mood swing, or revenge for some past disappointment. It’s either something you did or something you didn’t do – in the moment or during training time. It’s your job to fix it.
Just remember, your dog doesn’t lie. So learn from what you see, consider the questions above, and the answers will quickly follow!
Read more of Eric Brad’s articles on Life As A Human:
“Molly Dog in High Contrast By the Poo Bin” left-hand @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“Marvin” left-hand @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.