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Talk to the Paw:  On Dogs Listening

Jonathan Klein on November 16, 2012

Many years ago I had to choose a name for my dog training business. I picked “I Said Sit!” with no intention of yelling at a dog, but to represent the frustration of owners who couldn’t get their dog to listen. Almost 25 years later this still holds true and the first thing our clients want out of training is for the dog to listen to them.

What they really mean is for the dog to follow commands and not ignore them. It is common for owners to ask their dog over and over to do something without ever setting the dog up for success. What usually happens is that the dog and the owner fail and both of them get upset. In reality, the more you talk to your dog the less it listens.

It is not because your dog is stupid or defiant. It is not because you aren’t being alpha enough. It is because you have expertly taught your dog that your voice is meaningless. The scientific term is “learned irrelevance” which means that after a certain point of repeatedly hearing a command without any result or consequence, the command becomes meaningless. It is basically the principal behind the “boy who cried wolf”. By the time you yell “I Said Sit!” you can be pretty sure your dog has already tuned you out.

These same clients who want their dog to listen, usually also start by telling me how smart their dog is and that it already knows the “commands” sit, lay down, stay and come. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the dog actually only minds when it suits him, not around distractions and never at the time of whatever particular special situation the owner is calling about.

Giving your dog commands can get in the way of teaching your dog manners and the dog actually learning how to behave differently. I commonly see an owner repeat a command every time the dog stops behaving properly. For instance you tell your dog to go to its bed and lay down, and since you have taught your dog it does it. However a little while later it gets up and you tell it again and again and again. Often this process repeats itself for many behaviors.

The dog is actually getting attention and hearing the cue every time it disobeys. Instead of getting rewarded for behaving well, the dog gets attention for misbehaving. The dog is actually being reprimanded with a command. This is a particular drawback to the “psssst” method of getting the dog to do something popularized by training seen on television.

The basic philosophy of teaching our dog not to misbehave might actually be counter productive. Take the “leave it” command for example. Most people use “leave it” to ask their dog not to get into something bad, like food wrappers. In over 20 years of training dogs, I have never taught the command. Don’t get me wrong, I have taught all the dogs I work with to walk by trash and not pick it up, but I expect them to do it always and to do it automatically.

The same reasoning applies to teach a dog street and door manners. It is common for owners to tell their dog “sit” at the curb or front door. That works fine when you are there to tell them, but it does not teach them not to run out the door or not to run into the street. I think it is much more effective to actually teach them to stop at those boundaries automatically.

Walking my dog up to the curb and asking him to sit is fine when I am on a casual walk, nothing special is going on and I have time to stop and ask him to sit. However it isn’t helpful when the leash breaks, there is a cat or a loose dog and my dog is in high-energy mode. But since I teach waiting at a boundary to the dog while in motion, the dog learns to stop even in the event of pretty high drive action.

If we look more closely at how dogs learn we can be successful very quickly. They learn much faster and understand better through trial and error with appropriately placed consequences than when we try repeatedly to actually show them what to do. This is more effective and makes training a lot more fun than punishing the dog. There is a video on our DogProLA YouTube channel titled How To Teach “Wait” and “Leave It” for an example of the success and speed of this training method.

In addition to teaching them to wait at the boundary, I do feel it is important to teach a cue that goes along with it. The cue I teach is “Wait” and what it means to the dog is STOP what you are doing, hang on a sec, and I will then tell you what to do next or when you can go. You can then use that cue if you ever do need to stop the dog dead in its tracks.

To recap, the most effective training is to teach the dog how to behave rather than to tell it to behave. In effect it is better to teach it good manners, rather than tell the dog what to do when it isn’t behaving.

Expert dog trainer and behaviorist Jonathan Klein has been helping owners train their dogs for over 20 years. He runs the award-winning, boarding and training facility, “I Said Sit!” School for Dogs in West LA. Jonathan was recently honored with the “Best Training” award on the L.A. Hotlist 2009-2011. His training segments appear regularly in The Pet Press-LA, Tails Magazine and Dog Days in LA. He is a frequent interview source contributing to such media outlets as The Associated Press, Parents and USA Today. He also answers training questions on his website: The Dog Behavior Expert


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