Tag Archives: dog behavior

Picture of a small white dog with large ears to illustrate get your dog to listen

Get your dog to listen

If you’ve ever said “my dog doesn’t listen” you’re not alone. We saw it over and over again in the comments sections of our videos. This one is for everyone who has a failure to communicate with your dog.

It’s a common experience for both dog owners and parents. Sometimes you feel like you’re repeating yourself endlessly and the object of your attention isn’t paying any. While we can’t offer much help with your offspring, we can suggest ways to get your dog to listen up.

Universal truth

Picture of a small white dog with large ears to illustrate get your dog to listen

The absolute truth about dogs is that they always, every single time, do what’s most rewarding for them. This makes them selfish, but not necessarily in a bad way. It makes dogs absolutely predictable. If your dog isn’t listening to you it’s because you haven’t made it sufficiently rewarding. “Because I said so” doesn’t work with dogs any better than it works with most people.

Nobody just blindly does what they’re told. People need a reason to do something, either to prevent something bad or realize something beneficial. It doesn’t have to be a huge difference-maker, but it does have to further the objective. Dogs need a reason, too. 

Why should they?

If you want your dog to look at you when you say their name, give them some motivation. We’re setting a challenge for everyone who says “My dog doesn’t pay attention.” For the next three days, randomly and often, say your dog’s name and immediately give them a treat. That’s all. Do it at least 10 times a day. For three days. 

At the end of those three days, we can practically guarantee that when you say your dog’s name, their head will whip around to look at you. They may even come running from the other room. They’ll have a reason to pay attention.

Enjoy it while it lasts

As long as you maintain the habit of rewarding your dog for attention, you’ll get the attention. You can even start randomizing the treats – give one every second or third time instead of every time. It’s still motivating to the dog.

But if you slack off and just go back to calling your dog’s name with no reason for them to listen, your dog will quickly revert to ignoring you. Think of it as a scale with two sides. If your dog has been generously rewarded for attention, that side of the scale is much heavier than the “ignore” side. When you really need your dog to pay attention, even if you don’t have a treat on you, the chances are that they’ll do it. We learned that back in the day when our Brussels Griffon Razzmatazz was heading toward the skunk that got into our yard one night. We shrieked his name “Razzy, Come!” and he did. Even though we didn’t have a treat. It worked, because of that heavy side of the scale.

When you do something like we did, and ask for your dog’s attention without reinforcement, realize that you’re lightening that side of the scale. Compensate for that by going back to heavy reinforcement. That way the scales will always be balanced in your favor.

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Close-up of a black Brussels Griffon dog's face to illustrate don't stare at dogs

Don’t stare at dogs

Gazing into each other’s eyes is a great way to connect with your dog. But it has to be your dog. Meeting a strange dog’s eyes can be seen as threatening, intimidating, or even cause for aggression. Unless it’s your dog, just don’t stare at dogs.

Sometimes, it’s not even a good idea to stare at your own dog. One of the exercises we practice in competition Obedience requires the dog to stay for a minute, with you six feet away at the other end of the leash. Some dogs need constant eye contact to maintain the position and reassure them that they’re doing fine. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve trained dogs that would move immediately if you made eye contact. For those dogs, we spend a lot of time looking at the space between their ears. We could see what they were doing, but weren’t looking directly at them.

Stranger danger

That’s one of the ways we developed the technique of looking indirectly at dogs we’re just meeting. It seems contradictory that an animal who considers butt-sniffing the height of polite greetings will take offense if you meet their eyes. But there you have it. 

When meeting a dog for the first time, it’s a good idea to look slightly to the side until they have a chance to get used to you and relax. When we meet dogs who are considered reactive or even aggressive, we try not to look at them at all. Instead, while we chat with their people, we randomly throw treats in front of the dog, never looking directly at them. It’s a good way to defuse the problem before it even happens. 

They started it

Close-up of a black Brussels Griffon dog's face to illustrate don't stare at dogs

It’s kind of funny to us that people can get defensive about iffy encounters they’ve had with dogs. Maybe the dog was staring at you. That doesn’t mean you have to stare back! Ages ago one of our dogs (Whimsy, pictured, a black, smooth Brussels Griffon) was absolutely fascinated by a friend of ours. He would stare at her for as long as she was with us. We would joke about her being “Whimsy TV.”  She’d never done anything negative to him, other than pet him on top of his head, which he loathed. Apparently he decided he had to keep a wary eye on her for the rest of his life. 

Because dogs are all unique, there’s no single good way to train. One of the first exercises in most basic obedience classes is to get the dog to “Watch!” As soon as the dog meets the owner’s eyes, the dog gets a reward. For most dogs, this is a fun game and they learn quickly to stare into their people’s eyes non-stop. They wind up walking almost sideways, trying to maintain eye contact.

But it’s not always the case. Apparently herding dogs, like Shelties, use their stares to get the job done. They intimidate the heck out of whatever they’re herding by staring at them. When we had a Sheltie in class, he was the least confident dog in the house and the other dogs kept him cowed by staring. When the owner tried to teach the dog “Watch!” the poor little guy was terrified. It wasn’t the right match for this team. 

Know your dog

There’s a saying in dog training that you have to “train the dog in front of you.” That translates into accepting your dog for who they are and adapting to your dog’s preferences. If your dog likes meeting your eyes and finds the direct contact reassuring, go right ahead. If, like the little Sheltie, they think it means they’re in trouble, then avoid doing it. 

Funnily enough, the same dogs who avoid eye contact also seem to hate posing for pictures. We’re not sure that dogs recognize a camera lens (or back of a phone) as another eye looking back at them. But we think it’s interesting that they seem to know. 

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Picture of a tan Pit Bull to illustrate

“Why Does My Dog?” has no answer

You’re never going to know why your dog does what they do. That’s really hard for lots of new dog owners to understand. Probably because dogs are so in tune with us in so many ways, the parts that aren’t aligned seem incomprehensible.

It’s especially hard to know what’s going on with your dog when they do weird things. We’ve had Boston Terrier Simon for almost five years now – Fran got him when he was a little puppy. And since Day 1, he licks vertical surfaces. Cabinets, walls, furniture. Until we tell him to “knock it off,” he licks. 

We know some “whys”

We know that licking and chewing are forms of self-soothing. As dog trainers, we recognize behaviors when we see them. If your dog barks at you, they want attention. If they yawn or scratch at someplace like the vet’s office, we recognize it as a stress behavior. So we know Simon finds some kind of comfort in licking things. But it’s still weird. And we’re not crazy about washing walls.

Dogs can’t ever tell us “why.” Why is a dog afraid of people wearing hats? Were they terrorized by someone wearing a hat? Probably not. The odd shape of the person’s head wearing a hat may signal something’s wrong to your dog.

You can never be absolutely sure of how your dog will react with something different. Twice in the last couple of weeks dog owners predicted one reaction and got something entirely different.

Picture of a tan Pit Bull to illustrate Why Does My Dog

In Hope’s “Manners” class, the facility had left a little ramp that the day-care dogs play on. It’s large, plastic, brightly-colored, has three steps that go up about 15 inches on one side, a flat center, and a “slide” on the other side. The whole thing is about ten feet long. One of the dogs in class is Happy the pit bull. Her people looked at it and thought she’d charge right over it and have a blast. 

They were wrong. Happy was nervous and didn’t want anything to do with it. Despite the fact that she loves class, is normally a happy and inquisitive dog, and the ramp had to have delightful doggy odors all over it. As it turned out, instead of a rambunctious play session, we had the opportunity to teach the people how to introduce new, scary things to their dogs.

Same thing, different day

In our Club’s class this week, the puppy/beginner class had a few extra minutes at the end for playtime. The facility had a large, blue, outside ball with a handle in the room. Hope asked the people how they thought their dogs would react. The people with Alfie, a five-month-old giant-breed mix, said he’d love it and want to play. So we dropped it on the floor and found out they were wrong. Alfie was terrified of it – barking and backing up. By the end of class, he still wasn’t crazy about it, but no longer frightened.

What should you do if you get an unexpected or strange reaction from your dog? The absolute worst thing you can do is drag your dog over, as if to say “See? You’re being stupid.” For whatever reason, and you’ll never know what it is, your dog is cautious about something. How do you train your dog to check out new stuff?

Distance is your friend. Get far enough away from the thing so your dog is comfortable – no side-eye staring, no hunching, but relaxed, and happy. Gradually approach while talking to your dog and giving them treats for being calm and good. At the point your dog starts showing fear, stop and just wait. If they relax, get a little closer.

Working through it

Both Happy and Alfie were better by the end of class, but neither made “friends” with the scary object. That takes some time and familiarity. You never want to force your dog into something they find frightening. You want to take away the scare, not add to it.

Why are we talking about this now? It gives you time to think about and prepare. Because we’re getting close to the time of year when scary things crop up in yards all over the place. You may think the inflatable, 9-foot-tall, fire-breathing, purple dragon is a great Halloween decoration. Your dog may think it’s as terrifying as a real one swooping down to snatch him. 

So bring extra treats on your walks with your dog. Stay calm, talk soothingly, and give your dog time to adjust. Reward them for being calm. If you can gradually approach the scary thing, give it a try. The more chances your dog has to see, smell, and lick new things, the more confident they’ll become.  

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Torque (Hope's Frenchie) is lots of happy dog signals

One universal truth about dogs

There is one universal truth about all dogs, everywhere. It’s the foundation on which all good dog training is based. And once you understand it, really grasp its implications, you’ll be able to interpret everything your dog does. Everything. All the time.

So what is it? Just this: Dogs will always do what’s most rewarding to them. That’s it. It really is just that simple.

Knowing doesn’t always help

There’s always a catch, though, isn’t there? Trying to figure out what your dog finds satisfying about whatever annoying thing they’re doing is the tricky part. What does your dog love so much about eating grass? Contrary to urban folklore, dogs aren’t driven to eat grass when their stomachs are upset. In fact, eating grass makes most dogs throw up, which nobody enjoys. They also don’t understand the cause/effect thing, so they’re not looking for something to make them throw up. 

So why do it? Not a clue. They like the taste, they like making us yell, they’re bored and it’s something to do. No dog will ever be able to tell us what they’re thinking. We can only act on the information we have.

Most rewarding

Picture of a brindle French Bulldog sitting to illustrate One universal truth about dogs.

So in the case of eating grass, the dog finds something about it rewarding. Our job, if we want the dog to stop eating grass, is to provide something that’s more rewarding. Because dogs also have a reward pyramid. They’ll leave less rewarding behavior to engage in something better. But again, onlly they know what’s “better” to them.

You know your dog. You know what he/she values; which toys they prefer, what treats they find tastiest. A stranger may not know that your dog’s favorite treat is celery (Hope’s Torque), but a stranger has no idea what a singular weirdo your dog is. Take advantage of what you know.

Offer something better

If your dog constantly tries to eat grass and you don’t want her to, prepare in advance. Have a little plastic bag of a primo treat ready and go out with your dog. When she sticks her face in the lawn to indulge, just walk up beside her, (no yelling!) and wave that delectable morsel of Chicken Heart Treats in her face. Chances are that snout will come up off the ground and you’ll have an instant shadow.

Does it mean you have to carry around smelly dog treats all the time? It kind of does, if you want to change the behavior. If this is a battle you choose to fight, you have to be prepared for skirmishes all the time. Until your dog knows that grass-eating is off the table, so to speak.

Other stuff

Knowing that your dog finds something rewarding is the first step in figuring out how to do something about it. Why does your dog steal your shoes and run off? Is it because he/she is collecting shoes? No, of course not. It’s because you instantly engage in the game of “Chase me!” and give your dog your entire attention for the length of the “Steal the Shoe!” game. 

What does your dog find rewarding about barking? Most people will “bark” back, and again, your dog gets your entire attention. They think you’re having a conversation. They don’t really mind that you’re annoyed or angry. Dogs don’t really discriminate between positive and negative attention. As long as you’re engaged with them – it’s all good.

Giving perspective

Now that you know the great universal truth about dogs’ behavior, what can you do with it? That’s up to you. But the next time your dog is doing something you don’t understand, turn it around. Try to figure out what they’re getting out of it, and offer something better. Let us know how that works out for you. We have to go cut up some celery.

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