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Did Your Dog Really Blow You Off?

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel running away from owner

I’ve seen it way too many times. An owner has asked a dog to do something, and the dog doesn’t do it…so the owner repeats the request more loudly. (Have I mentioned that dogs can hear a potato chip hit the carpet in the next room? The dog heard the cue the first time!) If the dog still doesn’t comply, the owner gets frustrated, or perhaps even angry. Depending on what the person feels is acceptable human behavior, the dog may then get jerked, shaken, or worse.

Why do we become so upset when dogs don’t comply with our requests? Well, for one thing, we anthropomorphize. We think, He blew me off! Or She’s just being stubborn! The truth is, dogs don’t do what we want when we want for a variety of reasons. Here are just a few possible scenarios:

1. The dog simply doesn’t know the behavior well enough, or it hasn’t been generalized. Teaching a dog how to do something, and seeing that the dog responds correctly, doesn’t mean that the dog is proficient in the behavior. If I was learning French (which I am actually trying to do!) and you taught me to say Bonjour as a “Good morning” greeting, I would then say, “Bonjour” when I saw you in the morning. But the French also use Bonjour for “Good afternoon,” and unless you taught me specifically that meaning, I would not be able to generalize the morning greeting; I would not know that was expected of me in any situation other than in the morning.

If you teach your dog “Sit” means to sit facing you, what happens when you teach loose leash walking, and want your dog to sit by your side when you stop? Often he’ll swing out and sit facing you, because that’s what he’s been taught! It’s our responsibility to teach dogs to generalize behaviors, especially when we expect the dog to do them in different contexts.

2. The dog is distracted. With all the distractions in our everyday lives—wait, was that a Facebook message coming through?—surely if anyone should understand being distracted, it’s us. A dog who normally complies with your requests may suddenly seem as though he’s developed selective hearing. But the truth is, he can’t listen because his attention is being consumed by something else entirely. So get your dog’s attention first, and then give the cue. It sounds simple, but I so often see owners giving the dog a cue over and over while the dog’s attention is focused elsewhere. Instead of asking me over and over again, “Do you need anything at the market?” while I’m trying to work at the computer, you’d do better to call my name first, wait until I answer, and then ask. (I’m thinking this may be why men and women spend so much time saying, “I did tell you that!”—the person was distracted when it was said the first time.)

3. You must build a bridge between point A to point B, and the steps on that bridge should be small ones. You can’t expect that just because you taught your dog to come when you call him from the next room, that he’ll come when he’s running around outdoors. You’ve got to build in small steps between point A and point B so he can be successful. So maybe you practice first in the house, and then practice calling your dog to come inside when he’s out in the yard. Next, you go to a local park and practice with your dog on a long line, and build up to where he’ll come from a distance off-leash. It takes time, but it’s the only way to get a solid response.

4. The dog is shut down. If a dog is so afraid that he shuts down, he is unable to respond to your request. I have unfortunately seen this happen in training classes I have observed, where the methods were harsh and the dogs were overwhelmed. Unfortunately, this lack of response was taken as insubordination rather than the sign of severe stress that it was, which in the trainer’s mind necessitated further corrections.

These are only a few of the reasons a dog may not comply. There are countless others, including that the dog may be feeling ill, or that, believe it or not, the dog simply made a mistake. It happens, just as it does with us. So next time you think, He blew me off! stop and assess the situation to see if there are mitigating circumstances. _________________________________________________________________________________

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