A common issue many people face after bringing their puppy home is that the puppy won’t listen. There is an old wives tale that you may be able to actually pick a puppy who listens and who doesn’t need training. Well if this was the case then a puppy not needing training would also be able to let you know they need to go potty outside from day one. Of course this is not the case.
You can however choose a breed of dog who has been bred to listen better than other dogs. Working dogs such as the Labrador Retriever, German Shepard, and other working breeds have selectively bred to please their handlers so they are positioned to listen, learn and please you. You will, however, have to make it clear what you want them to do.
Before I get into the list of points to focus on it is important that you change your thoughts from the perspective of “my dog won’t listen” to “I am not being clear, or patient with my dog.” It is not usually the case that a dog isn’t capable of learning but rather we aren’t clear or consistent in our expectations.
You should actually practice your technique used to train your dog because the better you are communicating your expectations the easier it will be for your dog to understand what is wanted. Once you have accomplished this, the rest will fall into place.
Knowing this I have created a list of points to follow so you can focus on changing what needs to be changed if your dog is not listening. That’s right, the change comes in your communication methods with your dog and once you master this, your dog’s behaviors will follow along nicely.
1. Have you earned your puppy’s trust?
Each and every interaction you have with your dog will either make a deposit into her obedience account or make a withdraw from their obedience account. I like to think of your dog having an obedience bank account.
There are some things you will do that will make deposits into this account such as playing games with you, getting a new toy or having an undisturbed nap. It’s important to have more deposits than withdraws so that when you call on your dog to listen it will.
A withdraw can be something like going to the vet, giving them medication, or teasing them. Here is an infographic demonstrating some deposits and some withdraws. Again, focus on more deposits so that your dog will like you and have a drive to please you.
2. Are you saying your command at the correct time?
For example, teaching the sit command and say out loud “sit” before your dog’s bum is on the floor then you may be confusing them. Dog’s don’t understand English, rather they associate a sound with an action.
When you begin teaching them to sit you need them to sit before you say the word. You do this by holding a treat by their nose and then moving back over their head so that they look up and move backward to sit down.
Once their bum hits the floor that is the exact time you say sit because that is the position you want to associate with the sound “sit.” If you say sit first, you are associating that sound with whatever position your dog is in. So in that case you are not being clear of what you want them to do when you say sit.
3. If you are being clear, are you being patient?
Different breeds of dogs need more or fewer repetitions before they learn a command. A Labrador Retriever for example may only need 8 to 10 repetitions before they understand what you want while a different non working dog breed may need 30 to 40 repetitions.
So depending on the breed you are training, be patient and be sure you are providing them enough clear instruction so they have time to learn your commands at their own speed. Your expectations may be too high for some breeds to learn in a short time frame.
Progress comes gradually, session by session after enough repetitions have been demonstrated. Don’t say “sit” and think they will understand you the first time, it’s your job to create understanding not theirs.
4. Are you being consistent?
In the example of “sit” are you saying only the word sit every time or are you talking to your dog in English? A confusing example might be sit Boo boo, sit boy, c’mon sit for mama, sit down.
In that example there are 4 different commands you are giving your dog. Limit it to one command and say it one time. If she responds reward her with praise or if you are rewarding with a treat this would be the time to do so.
The reward should come the moment your dog complies so she can understand what the reward is for. Rewards can be a treat, a type of touch like a chin rub, eye contact or even a verbal “good girl!”
5. Use positive reinforcement and training will go much easier.
The best way to understand this is to think of a GPS. When you enter an address into a GPS you tell the GPS where you want to go. You don’t enter all of the addresses you DON’T want to go. That would be silly.
So when you are training your dog be clear what you want them to do and leave out all the information about what you don’t want them to do. Sometimes people become so focused on telling their puppies no that they forget to tell them what behavior they expect.
In order to be a successful trainer focus on being clear what you want your dog to do and eliminate most of the negative. The best way to give your dog negative feedback is to give them no feedback at all. What this means is if your dog does something you don’t want, ignore them.
Don’t scold them or even look at them because they see this as attention and you will be accidentally reinforcing the behavior you don’t want. Ignoring means no talking, no eye contact and no touching. So ignore the undesired behavior and a few seconds later take another shot at showing them the behavior you expect.
So there are the principles to training your dog successfully. For a more in depth list please see 80 Lab puppy training tips. The tips are written with a Labrador Retriever puppy in mind but are useful for any breed. I hope you noticed the tips involved your actions and thoughts and not so much your dog’s.
If you are able to train yourself to follow these principles you will be able to make substantial progress training your dog no matter what breed or mix of breeds they are. The only difference between your skills and their genetic possibility set by their breeder is the time you require to train them and the amount of repetitions needed.
Oh, don’t forget that you can have fun doing this and they will also have fun if you have fun, so get started and have fun!
Dan Labonte is a professional Labrador Retriever breeder in Ontario who focuses on breeding intelligent, healthy Labrador Retriever puppies that are donated to be trained to act as service dogs for Veterans and first responders with PTSD.