Although the majority of dogs are eager to learn many owners struggle with obedience issues. Training dogs to be obedient not only benefits dog owners but provides mental stimulation and a home life structure for dogs. There are a number of different reasons why dogs may not always be obedient. Often it is thought that the dog is being deliberately disobedient as ‘they know what to do’. However scientific research doesn’t support the theory than animals refuse to perform out of a deliberate attempt to undermine their owner. Instead our natural instinct to attribute human thoughts and reasoning to animals can be misleading. In most cases it is that the dog doesn’t really understand what is being asked or is not sufficiently motivated to respond. This often comes down to inconsistency in training, ineffective use of rewards or an over reliance on punishment to control behaviour.
Effective methods of training behaviours
It’s important to understand that dogs do not automatically know which behaviours are appropriate in every situation and therefore need to be trained in how we want them to behave. This is a process that takes time. Using quick fixes such as punishment based training programs can be effective but often lead to behaviour problems in the future. This is because of the negative effect such regimes have on the dogs overall emotional state, primarily increasing their overall level of anxiety. Also these regimes often don’t teach the dog the behaviours you actually want instead they simply focus on behaviours you don’t want. This method therefore is not very effective at producing desired behaviours.
Using more positive training regimes creates dogs that are much more motivated to perform the behaviours you want. Think about when you were at school; did you feel more motivated when you were told off for not doing well enough or when you were praised for having a go? Many owners worry about the use of rewards in training (in particular feeding too many food treats), however most dogs will work for very small food rewards or alternatively toys and attention. There are a number of ways to avoid over feeding with food treats for example feeding the dog’s usual daily food intake during training and reducing food at dinner time. It also helps to keep training sessions short and to give your dog plenty of time off in between sessions.
1. Inconsistency in Rules and Guidance
One of the most common reasons for lack of obedience is a lack of consistency from owners in terms of rules. A lack of consistency and guidance means the dog is not sure of the rules and therefore may not always respond correctly when given a command. If a rule is set it must be enforced (without the use of punishment) without exception. Sometimes letting your dog ‘get away with it’ only creates confusion for the dog. Rules with caveats also come under this category for example if a dog is allowed on the sofa when they are clean but not when they are dirty this only leads to confusion. The dog does not understand this distinction and will keep trying to jump on the sofa whether clean or dirty.
2. Motivation Problems
Sometimes dogs will not respond to a command because there appears to be no benefit in them doing so i.e. there is nothing in it for them. Motivation can be created through fear of a reprimand (being told off), and is often utilised by owners when their dog doesn’t do something they want, but this has many pitfalls. One cause for apparent disobedience in dogs trained this way is that the punishment becomes associated with whatever the dog happens to be doing at the time, and so provides no specific guide towards the desired behaviour. For example a dog that is punished for barging in front of their owner at a doorway may associate the punishment with the doorway rather than the action, leading the dog to rush through doorways in a panic. The more the dog is told off, the worse this behaviour becomes. The owner that rewards their dog for performing a ‘stay’ or a ‘sit’ whilst they walk through the doorway first may have greater success during training.
Another issue with the use of punishment to control dog behaviour is that punishment reduces the performance of the undesired behaviour through fear of future punishment rather than addressing the initial motivation that caused the behaviour to occur in the first place. Because the underlying desire to perform the behaviour is never addressed it is likely the behaviour will still be performed on some occasions. In particular the use of punishment to stop aggressive behaviour can become dangerous. For example a dog that is punished for growling may cease to use this behaviour to give a warning that they may bite. In extreme cases this can create dogs that are explosively aggressive because all warning signals that precede a bite have been suppressed by inappropriate punishment.
Choosing effective rewards whilst training is important for success. If the reward is not sufficiently rewarding to the dog, the dog is less likely to try to perform the behaviour that is being asked. Finding out what your dog truly values allows you to really motivate your dog when you need to and builds upon the dog’s natural willingness to learn.
Tamsin Peachey is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist living in Hurley, Atherstone. Tamsin is passionate about dog safety and debunking the current myths surrounding animal behaviour training.