Why Does My Dog Ignore Me?

Why do some dogs ignore their owners daily…

but then seem to bond with a skilled dog trainer in seconds, and listen attentively to that trainer forever?

Hint: It’s a matter of repetition, but not the kind you might think.

"You called? I'm listening!" Attention and eye contact like this are a rare experience for many dog owners unless it's dinner time.

Repetition can be a bad thing.  Many dog owners accidentally teach their dogs to ignore the most important cues they want their dogs to listen to! This will happen when you repeat the same communication over and over, without any specific consequence attached.  The science of how the brain works tells us that when a signal is repeated over and over with no meaning attached – it will become background noise.  Here’s an example I always give when teaching dog training classes in NYC: If you live in a city apartment, you pay no attention to wailing sirens that pass by your window every day.  If you just moved here from a rural environment then maybe you notice them for the first few days.  But after that, you’ve heard them so much – with no consequence to you personally – that your brain literally “tunes them out”.  Don’t become a wailing siren to your dog!

A classic example of repetition without meaning…

is experienced by many dogs when they are called to Come by command, or by name.  Let’s look at some common ways that owners inadvertently teach their dogs to ignore their name:

  • Your command is repeated over and over when the dog is more motivated by something else (e.g., squirrels) and would never possibly listen
  • Your dog comes running when called but the behavior never leads to anything rewarding (no consequence)
  • Your dog runs back to you and then gets punished (you immediately put on the leash and go home – wrong consequence!)
Another common example of a word that gets ignored is “No”.  Let’s look at the ways that repeating this word turns it into background noise:
  • You say “no” over and over while you let a puppy continue to bite your hand or play tug with a pair of pants (while you’re wearing them)
  • You say “no” while you chase a dog all over the house after he’s stolen something (you’re actually turning “no” into a game)

Most dog owners mean well, but they just don’t realize that…

in order for their communication to take on meaning to the dog, they must show the dog that words and body language consistently have the same meaning.  For the coming when called example above, when you use a recall word and the dog comes, make it rewarding!  Just as important, do not use the recall word over and over – if the dog ignores you – STOP repeating the command.  Same goes for “No.”  If you say “No” you have to make sure what happens next is not a continuation of fun.  You need NOT punish your dog harshly, but consistently giving a time out or taking away the object of “puppy sin” (your hand, your pants) would go a long way towards explaining the meaning of “No”.  Timing is also very important, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

Why do dogs pay close attention to trainers right away?

As a private lessons trainer, I have gone into many homes where the dogs have completely tuned their owners out.  The owner will say, “he doesn’t listen to anyone.”  But, then the dog and I hit it off very quickly.  Dogs can quickly size up a person and when they see that trainers are clear and consistent in their communication they love it!  Imagine if you were at a huge party full of people that spoke a different language from you.  Everyone you tried to talk to looks at you funny and says some jibberish back.  Then, all of a sudden you find someone who speaks your language.  Would you want to talk to him?  That’s how dogs feel when they meet a trainer.  “Thank goodness!  Party time!”

Is this magic?  No.  It can be boiled down to good communication.  Compared to a typical dog owner, a good trainer won’t repeat cues.  We will say it once or twice and then look for understanding before “wasting” the cue again.  Trainers also attach consistent consequences to their communication, with excellent timing.  Trainers say something, then watch the dog, and then respond accordingly.  Or if they want to “explain” what a word means right away, they will act on it right after saying it.  For example, if a dog is about to pick up a saucy knife I just dropped on the floor, I might say “No!” and step quickly into his space with a body block.  This “explains” what No means.  Compare that to a sing-songy sequence of “Noo”, “Nooo”, “Nooooo”, that I hear many new puppy owners chant to their pup as she chews their hands off.  I call this the No Song.  Don’t sing the No Song!

The Wrap:  Here’s how you “talk dog” like a trainer:  Don’t repeat words over and over. Attach consequences to your communication (rewards or penalties, mostly rewards).  Use good timing.  Be consistent.


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9 Responses to Why Does My Dog Ignore Me?

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