Do you ever take your dog on a walk or to the park and find that he seems to have suddenly gone deaf? Not only is he ignoring you, but he has forgotten that you exist? ‘
Is he lunging and barking at other dogs/people/skateboards/bunnies, desperately ether wanting to play with them or eat them?
Your ungrateful best friend won’t even eat the carefully-prepared and locally-made dehydrated treats you brought?
If this sounds like your problem, I have bad news and good news for you. Bad news is that yelling or pulling on the lead is useless. Good news is that I know what your dog is experiencing and how to change his behaviour to something a little less likely to cause arm and shoulder strain.
Too Hot to Handle or Not Hot Enough?
There’s this neat graph called the Arousal Bell Curve. You can Google it if you’d like more info on it.
Basically, there’s a level of arousal where your dog can listen and perform the tasks he knows. If he is too low or too high, his performance suffers. Our goal is to manage our environment and our rewards to keep our dog in the productive part of the graph.
Good dog training happens when your dog is neither under- or over- aroused.
If your dog is over-aroused, you are likely just doing a whole lot of management instead of actual training. Management skills are important for when you get into unexpected situations, but that isn’t how you fix the problem.
Distance is the first answer. Increase the distance between your dog and whatever it is that he finds exciting or scary. From here on, we will call that thing the ‘trigger’.
“But distance doesn’t work/I can’t take him that far away from …”
If you can’t move farther from the trigger, ask yourself how you can make it easier for your dog so he can be successful? Maybe a visual barrier such as some trees or a parked car will help? A different location? Start learning the skills on a different trigger?
If your dog reacts to other dogs for instance, but you find that no distance is far enough to keep him from being over-aroused, start with dogs on the TV, or maybe bunnies or birds are a good substitute to begin your training.
Give Him a Reason to Care
Step one to fixing a motivation problem is to use high value treats. Unless you have an exceptionally food motivated dog, don’t try training with boring old Milk Bones or kibble. Few dogs will refuse some cut up steak, cubes of cheese, or dehydrated liver! The best treat is one your dog hasn’t had in a while – mix it up and keep your dog guessing as to what he is working for.
Getting Things For Free
Many dogs are not motivated to train because they get everything they want for free. There’s that big bowl of kibble on the floor, or maybe a free bowl of yummy food twice a day. Couches and comfy beds are at their disposal, doors open when they ask, etc. They pretty much have the keys to the car, no curfew, and access to a credit card.
If your dog has a motivation problem and higher value treats don’t seem to work, put them on a work to eat program. Some trainers call it ‘Ditch the Dish’ or ‘Nothing in Life is Free’. I personally think that love and affection should be free, but those hard to motivate dogs should learn to say ‘please’ to have doors opened and should earn all of their meals either on training walks or by doing simple obedience or tricks for you.
How Much Should You Ask For?
If you have addressed the arousal and motivation pieces, but find your dog still has selective hearing, maybe you are simply asking for more than your dog can give you. If you want your dog to sit or to look at you but he can’t, consider what criteria he can meet such as just standing still or not vocalizing.
Think about it, if your dog didn’t pull or vocalize when he saw his trigger, would you have read this far into my post? These simple things are great first criteria. Rewarding your dog for being successful at these will help bring your dog’s energy down and he will start to offer to look at you or perhaps even offer to sit. For more information on this, read my posts on Offered Attention and the Look-At-That game.
Remember, training should be fun for both you and your dog. If either of you are feeling frustrated, it’s time to change something!