The 3 Reasons Dogs Ignore Our Cues

Sometimes our dogs don’t do what we ask them to do. Annoyed, we might repeat a cue several times – louder and a little more sternly each time. Often, our dogs are then labeled as “stubborn,” or he “just won’t listen.”

Well, there are better explanations as to why this happens, and your dog being stubborn or willful isn’t one of them. This article from the Whole Dog Journal explains the three most common reasons your dog may fail to listen.

1. The dog isn’t aware he’s being asked to do something.

We often assume that when we utter a cue, our dogs know it’s meant for their ears. You can let your dog know you’re addressing him by offering direct eye contact before speaking and saying his name before the cue. Say his name, wait for confirmation he’s heard you, then give your command.

This is an especially handy habit to get into if there are multiple dogs in your household. Saying the dog’s name first lets that dog know that what follows is intended for him.

If your dog appears to be particularly distracted by something and you want to call him over to you, say his name first. Wait for confirmation that he heard you, and then give him your recall cue.

2. The dog doesn’t understand what you want from him.

This means exactly what it sounds like. Your dog simply doesn’t know the cue as well as you think he does.

If you ask your dog to do something and he gets it right some of the time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s deliberately choosing not to do it the rest of the time. It’s entirely possible that when he got it right, he was just guessing.

This is easy enough to fix with some fun training sessions. Even though you may think your dog “knows” a certain behavior, start as though you are teaching your dog the behavior for the very first time.

Here’s an example of a training plan for teaching “down” to your dog:

a) With your dog sitting facing you, take one treat and hold it to your dogs nose with your palm facing down.

b) Without saying anything, slowly lower your hand toward the floor in a straight vertical line, luring your dogs snout to follow it. Your dog’s butt should remain on the floor. If he stands up, you may be moving your hand too quickly. Have him sit and begin again, more slowly.

c) When your hand reaches the floor, slowly move it along the floor horizontally and toward you. You will have shaped the letter “L” from snout to floor, and your dog’s body toward you. The idea is to get your dog to keep following the treat with his nose, bend down toward the floor, and then, while following your hand on the floor, stretch his front legs out to lie down.

d) The second his elbows touch the floor and he’s in a down position, “mark” the correct behavior with the click of a clicker or a verbal marker (such as the word “yes!”) and deliver a treat to him on the floor between his front legs. Giving the treat on the floor rather than directly into the dog’s mouth encourages him to hold the down position.

e) Repeat this sequence 2-3 more times, and then quickly follow up with the exact same exercise, but without a treat. When he reaches the down position, say “Yes!” before you reach for a treat and deliver it to him between his front paws.

f) Repeat this sequence with an empty hand several more times. You’re teaching him the body language/hand signal for the down behavior.

Note that you have not yet given a verbal cue of “Down,” you’re just using a hand gesture at this point. Even if it seems like too simple of an exercise for your dog, remember that you are starting fresh with this exercise. Only when your dog is consistently following your hand gesture is it time to add a verbal cue.

g) Say our dog’s name, followed by the word “Down” (or whatever word you’d like to use as a cue). After you’ve said his name and given your verbal cue – and not until you’ve finished saying it – do your hand gesture, from snout level to floor. At this point, you might not need to slowly move your hand horizontally to illustrate the bottom part of the letter “L.” Once you’ve moved your had to the floor, pause and wait to see if your dog will lie down. Give him a moment to think about it, if necessary. Keep your eyes on the floor in front of him (don’t stare him in the eye).

It’s important not to say the cue and do the gesture simultaneously. You want your dog to build an association between the verbal cue and the hand gesture that he already knows.

When he lies down, say “Yes!” and deliver the treat on the floor between his front legs. Repeat this sequence several more times.

h) Now, say his name followed by your cue – “Charlie, down” = but don’t use your hand gesture. Keep your eyes on the floor in front of him, and give him a few moments to think about it. If he hasn’t made a move after 10-15 seconds, silently offer the hand gesture. Reward him if he lies down. Don’t repeat the verbal cue. Keep trying this sequence until he lies down with just the verbal cue, and reward him each time he succeeds.

i) Once he’s got the verbal cue down, it’s time to start changing the context. Change rooms, try outside, try asking him to lie down when you’re sitting on a chair or couch instead of in front of him. Try asking while you’re standing, holding grocery bags, or a laundry basket. Continue to reward him with a treat each time he gets it right, because you’re still in the training phase.

Soon, when you’re sure he understands the cue in different contexts, you can start offering him “real life rewards” instead of treats. Ask him to lie down for a belly rub or before serving his food bowl.

The message remains the same for any behavior you think your dog “knows” but doesn’t do consistently.

3. The cue has been “poisoned.”

A poisoned cue is one that has come to mean something unpleasant to your dog. Your dog used to respond happily to a cue, but now he pins his ears back and slinks away. What happened?

Sometimes we inadvertently cause a dog to form a negative association between a cue and an event he finds aversive or scary. It may be because we’ve rewarded him with something he doesn’t like (such as a pet in the wrong spot), or because cues in a particular environment predict an unpleasant event.

The easiest way to fix this behavior involves simply using a new cue. You can teach the new cue by following the above instructions with the new word. Since you’re starting from scratch, make sure you consistently use the new cue and don’t revert back to the old one.