why won't my dog listen

Your dog isn’t stubborn. Your dog isn’t trying to dominate you. Your dog isn’t mad at you!

Many people get upset when their dog doesn’t listen to them. But there are many reasons why this can happen and they’re all fixable if you know what’s going on. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why dogs don’t listen to us!

When your dog doesn’t listen

WHAT problems – Does your dog know what you want?

Many people think their dog KNOWS what they want, but is blowing them off.

You may be surprised to know that dogs often don’t know what we think they know.

Sometimes they’re good at guessing!

Your dog may think something like:
“Sit” seemed to be the right answer a lot, I will try that”, when you asked for a down. (Or sometimes you did ask for sit but they were still just guessing.)

WHY problems – what’s in it for me?

Many people think their dog should “do it for love”.

But a dog that isn’t motivated, is a dog that can’t be trained and won’t work.

Dogs do what works for them from their own point of view.

Some behaviors are relatively easy, like sitting on command when nothing else is going on.

Others are behaviorally expensive, like coming when called. So we need to make it really worth the dog’s energy.

Your dog can’t learn everything all at once!

People can get frustrated when their dog doesn’t listen to them or learn everything all at once. It can help to remember how we humans learn things and then look at some differences in how dogs learn.

Babies first learn to pick up food, find their mouth, and put the food in.

As they get older, they will hold a spoon and wave it around. Sometimes they accidentally get some food on it and it makes it to their mouth! But sometimes the food ends up flying around the room.

Over time, the baby grows into a child who can use a spoon, and reliably get the food into their mouth.

We celebrate every step along the way, all the way up to full table manners!

Similarly, we can teach dogs by rewarding the steps along the way to the behavior we’re looking for.

Successive approximation

If we wanted to teach a dog to go into a crate and lay down, we can’t just expect that to happen especially on command.

We need to break it down into small steps.

The plan could look something like this:

  1. walk into the crate to get a treat that was tossed to the back
  2. walk into the crate and stay in there for 3s
  3. walk into the crate and lay down
  4. walk into the crate when a person points to the crate
  5. etc

NOTE: this isn’t a blog post on crate training but it’s just an example

Every time we raise the criteria for what we are rewarding, the dog tells us if we’re going too fast. And if the dog is struggling, we can go back to an earlier step, or find a way to break it down further.

trained by successive approximations and shapingBreaking it down to small steps gets to the end!

Zahra, (horse posing on a stand), isn’t a dog, but all animals learn the same way! She learned to pose on a platform using successive approximations. First she was rewarded for sniffing the stand, then pawing at it, then setting a foot down. In the end, she could “strike a pose” and look like a circus horse.

It’s hard to force a horse to do anything. You can’t push on their butt or mold their body into a shape you want.

You have to find the smallest bit of the behavior that they can do right in the moment, and then find a path to the end.


Start with what your dog can do right now!

The art of shaping and successive approximations is to start with what your dog can do now, and breaking it down, so that they can be successful all the way to the finished behavior that you’ve identified as the goal.

Dogs don’t generalize well.

A dog that knows how to do something in your living room, may need to learn it again in the bedroom.

This is definitely a difference from humans who can easily understand that sitting in a chair in the living room, is the same as sitting in a different shaped chair in the office.

But sometimes dogs need to learn in various places to really have it down.

Distractions are hard!

Even when a dog knows something, if there are distractions, they may not be able to focus on what they’re supposed to be doing.

“Sit stay? Sure! Great! Ooh, someone moved, must be time for me to move too!”, says every dog everywhere!

And so just as we shape and get successive approximations for complex behaviors, we can shape and get successive approximations for distractions. We start with low intensity distractions and work our way up as far as we need to go!

Emotions can interfere.

Imagine being in a room with a bunch of rattlesnakes and someone asks you to sit down. You literally won’t be able to listen to that as your focus is going to be almost entirely on the snakes.

Strong emotions can interfere with any animal’s ability to process information. The emotion may even be intense fun (chasing squirrels), as well as negative emotions like fear.

In some ways, strong emotions are a type of distraction. And we can work through these issues gradually, just like we work through other types of distractions.

Duration is hard!

Duration is one of the hardest things to master. When we ask a dog to go to their mat and stay there, that can’t and won’t happen without building it slowly.

So just like we do for crate training or posing on a stand, we break it down!

We start with short durations and work our way up, always keeping close to what the dog can do NOW but also pushing for more.

There is an art and a science to this. But if your dog is struggling, make it something easier, and pay them generously when they do it. And then go to the next step.

If you’re in the Sacramento area, and need help with your dog, let’s talk

Kayla Block, MA, CTC