Take a walk through any park and it won’t be long before you encounter someone who is struggling with their dog. It sometimes seems that dogs just don’t want to listen to us when we give them cues (sometimes called “commands”) to “Come” or “Sit.” In fact, it often seems worse when we’re out in public than when we’re around the house.
As we pass these dog owners we can often hear them say things like, “Oh, he is such a defiant dog,” or “She’s just in a mood today; I think she’s still mad at not going for a ride with us yesterday.”
Animal behaviourists would disagree with both of those reasons. There are three good reasons why your dog doesn’t respond when you give him a cue to do something. On any given day, your dog could appear disobedient for any or all of those reasons. The important thing is to take responsibility for the dog’s failure to offer the correct behaviour. After all, we are the humans in the relationship and we have the bigger brain. We owe it to our dogs to stop and take an honest look at the situation to find what it is that we can do to make things better.
In the next installments, we will look at good reasons – some biological, some behavioural – for dogs to continue doing what they do and not respond to requests despite our confusion, frustration and annoyance. The good news is, there are things we can do to improve their response to us. And it’s not that hard at all.
The first reason your dog may not be responding as you would like is amazingly simple. It comes down to communication. It also comes down to a common misunderstanding about how dogs perceive the world. Considering how long dogs have been with humans and how much we interact with our dogs every day, it’s amazing how little most of us know about how dogs see and hear. We have enough miscommunication between humans with similar eyes and ears, so it shouldn’t be surprising that miscommunication can happen MORE frequently when more than one species with different sensory organs is involved.
So, what is the first reason a dog might not respond to our cue?
The dog didn’t hear/see/understand the cue. Dogs can be very literal creatures. It’s important that we be consistent when giving cues so that they learn through repetition to recognize our verbal and visual cues. Let’s not forget that our four-footed partners are working with different sensory organs than we have and don’t perceive the world the same way we do and that different situations and environments can distract from or obscure our cues to our dogs. Is the dog looking at us to see a visual cue or is in a position to hear us clearly when we offer a verbal cue.
Dogs see motion better than they see detail. Dogs are descended from wolves and have the eye sight of a predator species. Their eyes are designed to spot a running rabbit or deer at a distance and be able to then target the prey just enough to run it down. This is a very different design from the human eye. Dogs don’t need to know details about their prey, just the direction in which the prey is running. So when you signal, movement is more important than details. If you are going to point at something, moving your hand from your side in a sweep toward an object is more meaningful than the dog just seeing your arm stretched out and not moving.
Remember that dogs will pay more attention to more mobile objects than less mobile ones. So if you move your hand slightly to signal your dog and you are walking at the same time, your dog has to decide what to pay attention to – the relatively small movement of your hand or the movement and direction of your entire body. You could inadvertently be overshadowing your cue with unintended distracting movements.
Dogs hear in a frequency range higher than humans. That means that, just like us, they have trouble hearing in the extreme upper and lower ends of their hearing range. Unfortunately, the human voice, especially the male voice, falls in the lower end of a dog’s hearing range. It is difficult for humans to precisely locate the source of low frequencies and it stands to reason that this is true for dogs as well so it may be difficult for your dog to know where you are exactly, let alone what cue you are giving.
And there is competition in the auditory world as well. Our modern world offers a host of sounds which can mask or block the sound of our cues: traffic, bushes, wind, construction, people talking, and even the barking of other dogs. Our dog’s ears are not fixed like human ears; they can pivot to focus on sound. It may be that those amazing ears are turned toward something other than you when you give your verbal cue making it difficult for them to notice. So we need to make sure that cues are not just clearly and loudly spoken but timed so the dog is least bothered by audible distractions and can focus on them.
Dogs approach the world “nose first”. A dog’s sense of smell is arguably the most important sense in how it perceives the world. For humans, sight is our primary sense. For dogs, it’s scent — the overwhelming number of nerves devoted to the dogs sense of smell (10 – 100 times more nerve cells than a human nose) not only allows a dog to perceives smells beyond our capabilities, they also sense complexities and information in those smells that we cannot understand. Just as a visually stimulating object can be distracting to a human, an interesting or novel smell can be powerfully distracting to a dog while remaining completely undetectable by us. Consider how being so close to the ground brings interesting smells that much closer to those amazing noses — no wonder they can be so distracted! If your dog’s nose is to the ground when you give your cue or turned into the breeze, it’s possible they are caught up in the most interesting and wonderful smell and didn’t get the message.
Getting It Right. Then there is the matter of consistency. Did you move your hand in the same way you trained your dog to recognize? Did you say the right word? Did you use the same pitch and tone of voice? Dogs are not great at generalizing information — they are very literal minded. To expect them to understand a wide range of variations in our voice (or our hand and body movements) without exposure or training may be asking too much. As good trainers, we need to develop good habits so that we are sending the same cues as clearly and consistently as we can, every time.
Be sure you have your dog’s attention. Many times we unconsciously throw out a cue without confirming that the dog is focused on and receptive to us. We only see that they didn’t respond and we assume that they got the cue and just chose not to respond. Could they see you? Were they looking at you? Did you choose a noisy moment to offer that verbal cue? Was their nose glued to some bush when you gave the cue? The lesson here is that your dog is not “defiant” or “just in a mood.” There are legitimate reasons why your dog did not respond to your cue. Not getting the message clearly is one of them. Set yourself and your dog up for success by being good communicators and timing your cues when your dog is best able to use their amazing senses to perceive them correctly.
In part 2 and part 3 of this series, we’ll examine some other reasons your dog may not be as attentive as you would like — and what you can do about it. The thing to keep in mind here is that we have the greater intellect in the relationship with our dogs. We owe it to them to expect the best and give them every opportunity to be successful in their relations with us.
Until next time, let’s be clear communicators with our four-footed friends!
“Lazy dog” kirainet @ flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“Black and white dog” © 2009 Petra Wingate