Why won’t my dog listen?

Have you been trying to teach your dog not to jump. Every time he jumps you yell no, but he just isn’t getting the message. It’s frustrating, and you are now stuck.

What if I told you dog’s do not understand the word “No”?

I can feel you all questioning me now. Want me to really blow your mind?

I bet you also don’t know what no means! I can feel you preparing to contradict me, ready to type that your dog is different, your dog knows what no means. Hear me out first.

No is a concept

It requires you (or your dog) to understand that there is something wrong and then to fix that problem. There is no other information given. For humans, we use a sentence “no, don’t run” which helps us to pinpoint the problem behaviour. It still doesn’t teach us what to do, only want not to do, we now must figure out the rest by ourselves.

Dog’s can’t do this, they are not able to work out concepts, they may fluke a fix occasionally, but they won’t make long term connections to this. Considering that all dog behaviour is normal (to a dog) it would be the same as me yelling no at you for sitting with your legs crossed – without me telling you this is why. How would you figure out I have a problem with your legs, when sitting like this is normal? You might get uncomfortable with the yelling, and in the process of shifting yourself to lower conflict you uncross your legs. I think it’s worked, but you are still only focused on calming me down, you don’t know why I stopped. Try it at home. Set up a time with a family member or friend. Without telling them, pick a single thing they are doing, start yelling no, see how well they learn.

But my dog knows what no means!

I hear this often, it’s an easy mistake to make. You see dogs are used to living in family units. They don’t like conflict. It is in their best interest to keep the peace. When you yell, your dog immediately goes into conflict resolution, the only way they know how, appeasement body language.

What does appeasement look like?

They will avoid eye contact, drop their shoulders, lower their head, sniff ground, ears will drop and go back. All these are the behaviours we associate with them understanding, we also see these as guilt. The dog is just calming you down, it’s not understanding or guilt.

I said before humans are no better at this, we just have verbal communication skills that help. There is an amazing book by Bob Seldon called Don’t, I highly recommend it for people with kids and/or dogs. This is not a dog training book, it’s about people.

In the book (and I paraphrase) Bob Seldon discusses Elevator signs. You’ve all seen them, “In the case of fire, do not use lift”, studies have found that these are not successful, that our brains see in pictures, and there is no picture for “don’t or “do not”, so our brains show us a picture of Fire and Elevator, and people will bee-line for the elevator. Change the text, and even better add a picture and the problem goes away: “In the case of fire use stairs”. Now people take the stairs. See pic below.

There are many times you have probably tested this on yourself. Do you remember being told “Don’t think about pink elephants”? Your brain starts showing those damn pink elephants.

How can you use this information?

As Bob Seldon said, forget what you don’t want, focus on what you do.

Your dog is jumping – ask to sit

He is barking – ask to come, find or go inside

She is pulling – ask to watch, sit, come

The best options are alternative behaviours that your dog can’t do at the same time as the inappropriate behaviour. Always reward your dog for a good choice and for fixing the problem.

Stop worrying about correcting/punishing your dog, worry about teaching them!

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