“He blew me off!”

I’ve seen it way too many times. An owner has asked a dog to do something, and the dog doesn’t do it…so the owner repeats the request more loudly. (Have I mentioned that dogs can hear a potato chip hit the carpet in the next room? The dog heard the cue the first time!) If the dog still doesn’t comply, the owner gets frustrated, or perhaps even angry. Depending on what the person feels is acceptable human behavior, the dog may then get jerked, shaken, or worse.

Why do we become so upset when dogs don’t comply with our requests? Well, for one thing, we anthropomorphize. We think, He blew me off! Or She’s just being stubborn! The truth is, dogs don’t do what we want when we want for a variety of reasons. Here are just a few possible scenarios:

1. The dog simply doesn’t know the behavior well enough, or it hasn’t been generalized. Teaching a dog how to do something, and seeing that the dog responds correctly, doesn’t mean that the dog is proficient in the behavior. If I was learning French (which I am actually trying to do!) and you taught me to say Bonjour as a “Good morning” greeting, I would then say, “Bonjour” when I saw you in the morning. But the French also use Bonjour for “Good afternoon,” and unless you taught me specifically that meaning, I would not be able to generalize the morning greeting; I would not know that was expected of me in any situation other than in the morning.

If you teach your dog “Sit” means to sit facing you, what happens when you teach loose leash walking, and want your dog to sit by your side when you stop? Often he’ll swing out and sit facing you, because that’s what he’s been taught! It’s our responsibility to teach dogs to generalize behaviors, especially when we expect the dog to do them in different contexts.

2. The dog is distracted. With all the distractions in our everyday lives—wait, was that a Facebook message coming through?—surely if anyone should understand being distracted, it’s us. A dog who normally complies with your requests may suddenly seem as though he’s developed selective hearing. But the truth is, he can’t listen because his attention is being consumed by something else entirely. So get your dog’s attention first, and then give the cue. It sounds simple, but I so often see owners giving the dog a cue over and over while the dog’s attention is focused elsewhere. Instead of asking me over and over again, “Do you need anything at the market?” while I’m trying to work at the computer, you’d do better to call my name first, wait until I answer, and then ask. (I’m thinking this may be why men and women spend so much time saying, “I did tell you that!”—the person was distracted when it was said the first time.)

3. You must build a bridge between point A to point B, and the steps on that bridge should be small ones. You can’t expect that just because you taught your dog to come when you call him from the next room, that he’ll come when he’s running around outdoors. You’ve got to build in small steps between point A and point B so he can be successful. So maybe you practice first in the house, and then practice calling your dog to come inside when he’s out in the yard. Next, you go to a local park and practice with your dog on a long line, and build up to where he’ll come from a distance off-leash. It takes time, but it’s the only way to get a solid response.

4. The dog is shut down. If a dog is so afraid that he shuts down, he is unable to respond to your request. I have unfortunately seen this happen in training classes I have observed, where the methods were harsh and the dogs were overwhelmed. Unfortunately, this lack of response was taken as insubordination rather than the sign of severe stress that it was, which in the trainer’s mind necessitated further corrections.

These are only a few of the reasons a dog may not comply. There are countless others, including that the dog may be feeling ill, or that, believe it or not, the dog simply made a mistake. It happens, just as it does with us. So next time you think, He blew me off! stop and assess the situation to see if there are mitigating circumstances.

10 Responses to “He blew me off!”

  1. Michelle White says:

    So true! I asked a question to some trainer friends that if I lost my cool with my dog and showed displeasure that he didn’t “leave it” when running after another dog at the park—-could I still call myself a “positive trainer”? The answer I got was that we all lose patience, but I needed to train my dog to be “fluent” in the leave it command. There is a huge difference between a piece of cheese, a bouncing ball, a running bunnyl, and another dog. Thanks so much for the post!

  2. 4dogday says:

    Reblogged this on 4dogday and commented:
    Why should a dog respond to you in an instant? Could there be a few reasons why training isn’t what you expected? Great insight and making you think on your feet from Nicole

  3. Pat Engel says:

    Dogs can also be’ shut down’ in a positive only class, like my own, and not respond as well as they do at home. This blog is a great reminder that thoughtfulness and patience are two hallmarks of a good trainer!

  4. Wonderful post! This is one of my favorite topics. Both because of the amazing discriminatory abilities of dogs and the unfortunate misunderstanding of them by humans. I got so tired of trainers claiming that their dogs were “giving them the paw” that I made a series of videos of my dogs missing cues when I changed one thing in the environment. They are discussed and embedded in the following blog post if you are interested.
    In one scenario I move the dogs just a few inches farther from a mat and they can’t go to it after going to it repeatedly and eagerly at slightly shorter distances. In another a strong reinforcement history of a certain action with an object prevents my dog from being able to do another known action. A third has to do with generalization of a “go around” behavior to a differently shaped object, and the last has to do with the confusion of two seemingly conflicting cues. I have a short list of resources on this topic in my post and I linked back to your post. Thanks! eileenanddogs

  5. […] “He Blew Me Off!” by Nicole Wilde at Wilde About Dogs. […]

  6. excellent article! Again- thanks Nicole!

  7. Karen says:

    Another excellent post! Thanks, Nicole!

  8. Rebecca Rice says:

    I agree with all you wrote. But how do you get a dog’s attention when they are distracted? I have a little rat terrier, and out on walks, the nose turns on and the brain turns off! I know that she’s not blowing me off to spite me, but how do I compete with the smell of the lizard that darted under a bush when I want to continue the walk and she wants to stake out the bush in case the lizard comes out?

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Rebecca, you’re absolutely right. Once your dog is over threshold, there won’t be a way to get her attention. It’s like my dog Sierra once she’s locked on visually to another dog in the distance. What we’ve done, and what I suggest you do, is a LOT of practice with “attention” meaning I call your name and you give me eye contact, in less distracting situations first. For us, this meant we practiced it on our walks around the park when there were no other dogs around. Now I can get her attention most of the time even with high distractions–not all the time, but most of the time. It’s an ongoing process! Hot dogs help, too. 😉

  9. it i really nice, hope to see more from you

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