It was, perhaps, the longest 10 minutes I can remember. Certainly my older dog Tiramisu didn’t seem to mind. But I had to seriously consider what was going on in the head of my 14 month old Belgian Shepherd Rizzo. After asking him to “Sit!”, there I stood, a full 10 minutes later, still waiting for his butt to hit the ground.
It’s never good practice to “nag” the dog by repeating the cue for a behaviour. Doing that can give them the idea that they are not required to respond to your first or even second or third request. Was my dog being stubborn? Did he not hear me? Perhaps this was some peculiar form of canine practical joke. It isn’t like there wasn’t something in it for Rizzo. We were all waiting to go into the back yard for a play. All he had to do was sit.
Am I the only one?
A couple of years ago I wrote a 3 part series for Life As A Human called “3 Reasons Why Your Dog Isn’t Responding.” In that series I identified the 3 most common reasons a dog might not respond when you give him a cue: 1) He didn’t see or hear your cue 2) He got the message but doesn’t clearly understand what it means yet (needs more training) or 3) He’s not motivated to respond to you (either for the reward he might get or the punishment he might avoid). But there seems to be a fourth mysterious reason why a dog might not respond. Apparently only the dogs understand that reason and they are not sharing!
It’s not just me, right? Every dog will, on occasion, appear completely unresponsive even if you give them a cue for a well known and heavily rewarded behaviour. A friend and professional dog trainer related a typical story to me this week. She and her three dogs were out for a walk. Off leash and 10 feet ahead of her on the trail, the three dogs stopped and looked at my friend. It was time to go and she called out “Come!”.
Her youngest dog immediately began air scenting and wandered off in one direction into the woods while her oldest dog simply turned around and walked down the path in a different direction. Her middle dog just stood there on the trail staring at her as if she had just uttered Mandarin Chinese instead of a well known cue. You can imagine her frustration as a dog training professional. What was going on here? She teaches dog training for a living, could these really be her dogs? How embarassing!
It’s all about me and my needs
In this world of the Internet and Smartphones, we have come to expect the things we want to be there when we want them. And more and more, we want them FAST! I guess that it isn’t surprising that we expect our dogs to be as responsive as our TV when we press the remote control. People even use shock collars that come with remote controls to get their dogs to do what they want them to do. Unfortunately for us, our dogs still retain some sense of their own ideas about what they do and do not want to do at any given moment.
And I think that’s where the frustration lies – when what we want doesn’t match what our dog wants. Regardless of the training methods you choose to use, it’s still up to your dog to decide that they want to cooperate. Many of us spend a great deal of time training our dogs and it can feel like something of a betrayal when we ask our dog for something and we “get the paw” from them. “Not right now,Dad. Your needs are just not that important.” Ouch.
For all we do for our dogs, this is the thanks we get. We give them food, shelter, companionship, a loving home; do they not appreciate all of that? Well, yes and no. Our dogs appreciate all of what we do for them in the same way that a 2 year old child might. They will do what they please, thank you very much, and some of the time that will be what you ask them to do. Other times? Not so much.
The strange thing I have noticed is that many times my dogs will wait until we are out and about in front of other people, especially other dog people, to pull out their selective deafness routine. It seems that they save that creative disobedience for the exact moment when it will be the most embarrassing for me. To say it can be infuriating is an understatement.
Who does the universe revolve around anyway?
While we may think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect our dogs to always respond to us when we give them a cue, I think we might have a very different perspective if our roles were reversed. Ask any husband who is summoned by his wife while watching sports on TV. “I’ll be there in a minute” is a perfectly reasonable response! Isn’t that what our dogs could be thinking as they seem to wander aimlessly after we have asked them to “Come!” for the fourth time?
We know we have a perfectly good reason why we need our dog to sit or come or lie down right NOW but isn’t it possible that our dogs don’t share our insight? From their perspective, we might be the one that is missing out on this really great smell! It might even be an interesting sound or strange sight. You see, our dogs have different senses than we do. The thing that is distracting them might not even be something we can see or hear or smell.
Are we unreasonable in expecting our dogs to respond to us immediately? Probably. Are there things we can do to get them to be more cooperative more often? Of course there are: training and our choice of training methods can do a lot to shape things up. But I don’t think it can ever be perfect. Our dogs are not machines that can be remote controlled. Perhaps we need to adjust our expectations as their owners.
Maybe all we need to make these frustrating situations more tolerable is just to let go of some of our expectations. We have expectations of our dogs and we have expectations of our role in our relationships with our dogs. Perhaps a slight change of perspective might improve things. Let me give you an example.
If I’m out on a walk with my dog and I call her to “Come!”, she might not even lift her nose from whatever it is that she is sniffing. I could get angry and shout at her but would you want to go to someone who is obviously getting angry with you? There are many different ways to respond in that situation. But it would make sense to be fun and encouraging instead of cross and threatening. I just need to get her attention and a calm and happy demeanour would be much more attractive than acting all angry about it.
Sometimes our dogs don’t respond to us the way we want. But that’s nothing personal. It’s not a betrayal and it’s not their way of saying they don’t love us any more. It’s just them being, well, them. If we don’t take things so seriously and forgive the occasional lapse, I think that would improve things with our dog. Instead, many people go in the other direction. They begin to sound more like a drill sergeant to be feared and obeyed. While that might get you what you want in the short term, I don’t think that it’s the best way to interact with a dog.
We are much more intelligent than our dogs. We have control of all of the things our dogs need to be happy like food and water. So what if we don’t get what we want sometimes? If I ask my dog to sit and he doesn’t, nobody dies. And if I take my dog somewhere where his health might be in danger if he doesn’t respond to me, shame on me for not having him on a leash.
So the next time you find yourself embarrassed by your dog’s lack of response, just lighten up, Sunshine. At the end of the day, it’s you they are going to come over to for a snuggle and a scratch. If they don’t come when you call occasionally, it doesn’t mean they forgot what that cue means. Maybe it just means they will get to it in a minute. Maybe we should just relax and enjoy our dogs, quirky behaviours and all.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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