Ignoring Commands

We all tune each other out sometimes, and dogs are no different. But sometimes they deliberately ignore their owners' requests. Here are some of the reasons why.

"I don't understand." Giving a command the wrong way is a recipe for confusion. "Unless you're clear, brief, and consistent, your dog may not understand what you want of her," says Greg Strong, a trainer in Easton, Maryland.

"Some people tell a dog to sit, but then they put a kind of question mark at the end -- like they're asking her to sit instead of telling her to. If you do that, your dog may not obey the command," says Strong.

Use brief, one- or two-word commands, he advises. "Be careful to use the same word or words every time, and be sure to use a distinctive, upbeat tone of voice."

"What's in it for me?" Dogs know they're supposed to obey, but sometimes there's no way they'll drop a bone or run back to their owners unless something good is going to come out of it. As far as they're concerned, the merits of ignoring their owners may outweigh the benefits of complying.

Owners who don't praise their dogs enough will soon find that their dogs "forget" to obey, says Kovary. Just like people, dogs need an incentive to continue doing their jobs. For most dogs, these jobs are to do what their owners tell them, and the reward should be enthusiastic, immediate praise -- whether that praise comes in the form of a treat, a pat, or an exuberant "Good dog!" explains Kovary.

"I'm afraid of what you'll do if I do what you tell me." If every command were followed by something exciting and fun, there would be a lot more attentive dogs. But in the real world, commands such as "come" or "down" can often indicate that something unpleasant, like a bath, is about to occur. Dogs have long memories, and the ability to put two and two together. Once a dog makes the connection between "come" and "bath," she will be likely to ignore you in the future.

It's a good idea to follow any command with an action that pleases your dog, Kovary says. This is important if you want her to come when you call her. In fact, it's a good idea to never call a dog to you when you know you're going to do something she'll dislike, like giving her a bath or crating her. In these cases, it's better to go to her rather than expect her to come to you.

"Hey, things look interesting over there." Some dogs tune out their owners occasionally because there's too much else going on. Distractions, and maybe a bit of daydreaming, can result in some commands going unheeded.

"I can't hear you." Dogs who have suddenly quit responding to commands or only respond to them occasionally may be going a little bit deaf. To see if your dog is hard of hearing, stand a few feet behind her and clap your hands. If she doesn't react, you'll need to get her to a vet.

"I don't have to listen to you." Dogs are very status-conscious. They want to know who is the leader and who isn't. If they don't know, they'll assume that they are and will pay less and less attention to their owners.

You cannot have an effective relationship with your dog unless you are willing to take on the role of leader. That involves giving commands and following through on them. Make sure that you're consistent in the messages you give your dog. Don't let her be bratty or aggressive. And when she wants something, make sure she earns it first by doing something you've told her to do.

Dogs are a lot like children in that it doesn't take them long to discover your weaknesses. Many people, for example, tell their dogs "come," but they don't really expect them to come right away, and their dogs certainly don't feel like rushing over. So they tell them "come" again, and a third time, and their dogs still don't come -- because their owners have inadvertently taught them that it's okay to ignore them. The only way to prevent this is to only give commands that you're able and willing to enforce, Thomas says.


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