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Sunday, December 21, 2014

If Your Dog Isn't Learning

"My dog is stubborn"
"My dog won't listen"
"My dog won’t pay attention"
"My dog can’t learn"
"Positive training isn't working"
If any of these sound like your pet, try the below

1. Thorough vet assessment – check for hearing issues, neurological issues, gastric issues. Do a pain assessment. Check liver, kidney, thyroid function, etc.. etc..
It’s hard to listen when your tummy is upset. Your dog might not be hearing the clicker because she has hearing issues. It’s hard to sit or stay in a sit when your hips hurt. Your dog might be ignoring your hand signals because her vision is impaired.
Your dog might be eliminating indoors because of a bladder infection.

1a. While you are at the vet, discuss a plan to use lots and lots of treats. Get input from the vet on a way to do this without your dog gaining weight and without messing up your dog’s nutrition requirements.

2. Give up on training. Yep. I said give up. Not forever, but just for now. Don’t ask the dog to do anything at all. Just take a break so the both of you can relax. No expectations.

3. Set the dog up for success. Keep shoes off the floor. Put trash outside. Keep counters clean. Block furniture (if dog is not allowed on furniture.) Dog must always be on a leash when not in a secure location. Reduce the size of yard (if you have one) so it’s easier to bring her indoors when you need her to come inside (don’t call if she will not come). Keep a good distance from things that bother your dog (other dogs, kids, etc..)

3a. If you make a mistake and your dog gets into something that is not dangerous, just leave him be. i.e. If he grabs a sock but doesn’t try to eat the sock, just ignore. And remind yourself to put the socks away next time. If he grabs a piece of unseasoned meat off the counter (that doesn’t contain cooked bones), just let him have it and remind yourself to either clean the counter or block access to the counter. If he grabs something that might be a tiny bit dangerous but it’s not an emergency, offer a trade (food, toy, etc..) before taking it away. If it’s very dangerous then do you what you need to do of course.
If she gets on the bed, leave her there. She will get off eventually. When she does, close the bedroom door.

4. Start rewarding *everything* that is not undesirable. i.e. catch the dog sitting, reward. Catch the dog laying down, reward. Catch the dog taking a deep breath with her mouth closed, reward. Dog just happens to look at you, reward. Dog’s ear flicks in your direction, reward. Do this calmly. Don’t follow you dog around looking for stuff. Just calmly catch the dog doing something good. You can use a clicker or verbal marker if you want. But it's not necessary. The reward can be food or a toy or whatever the dog likes.

4a. Keep treats and/or toys stashed everywhere. In dressers (that your dog can’t reach), in the fridge, in a dog training or safari vest.
Before walkies, head out on the trail alone and hide some food in trees. Surprise your dog with something tasty when the leash is loose.

5. After a few weeks, your dog should be offering you behaviors, trying to figure out ways to make treats appear, trying to figure out ways to operate you. If she isn’t doing that, it might be time to go back to the vet or call in a skilled force free trainer or maybe even a board certified vet behaviorist.
Also analyze any stress or frustration that might be in the dog’s life and take steps to eliminate/reduce/mitigate

6. If your dog is paying more attention to you, then start training. But keep sessions super super short. No more than one minute at first. End while the dog is still engaged. And only ask for what your dog can do. Absolutely no physical manipulation/molding to get a behavior. (i.e. don't push on the butt to teach "sit"). Use shaping, luring, or capturing. Be aware that luring can be too much pressure for some dogs. And shaping can be frustrating for some dogs. Especially dogs who have had harsh training in the past. They will be scared to try new things.


1. No punishment. No scolding for anything. Just set your dog up for success so scolding will not be necessary. Of course if there is an emergency (like your dog is about to pounce on a 2 pound chunk of dark chocolate), it’s okay to do whatever it takes to make things safe.

2. Even try to cut out negative punishment (withholding good things). Negative punishment is normally humane, but for some dogs, it can be frustrating. So try to set things up so you won’t need to take food away, practice timeouts, etc.. Just ask for what your dog can give.

2a. Even popular force free programs like NLIF or Learn to Earn, or Sit to Say Please might be too frustrating for your dog.

3. Once the dog learns a few things, proof heavily in teeny tiny increments.

Turid Rugaas’s Calming Signals - to learn how to look for stress signals

Kathy Sdao’s “Plenty in Life is Free” - short book, easy read. Gives great instructions on how to use rewards to get desired behaviors

Suzanne Clothier’s “Bones Would Rain From the Sky” – if you can get past the wordiness, it’s a great read for those wanting to improve their relationships with their dogs.

Pat Miller’s “The Power of Positive Dog Training” – a great getting started book on positive reinforcement.

Jane Killion’s “When Pigs Fly” – a step by step program to motivate a dog to want to work

Part II:

Also see

Stress Reduction:


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