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All Ears! How to Train Your Puppy to Listen

Tuning you out

Do you find yourself repeating instructions to your dog or puppy? You can learn how to train a puppy or dog to listen to you the first time, and every time.

dog with head tilted

Many dog or puppy owners blame the dog for not listening. When you have invested time and effort into training, it can be disappointing when your dog suddenly decides to stop listening to you—or when he decides that something else in his world is more exciting or interesting than you. The truth is that dogs do what works for them. It is up to you, as a puppy or dog owner, to teach your pet to listen—by making listening to you work for the dog. Believe it or not, many dog owners inadvertently teach their dogs to ignore them!

So how do you teach a dog to listen?

More is not always better

Dog owners frequently repeat commands over and over. If your dog didn't respond the first time, repetition isn't going to help. Repeating commands teaches a dog that the command is meaningless, or that it's ok to respond in his own sweet time!

What are the odds?

The truth is that dogs do what works for them.

Never ask for a behavior that you aren't at least 80% sure you will get the first time. If there are too many distractions, if it is a new situation, or if the behavior just hasn't been learned well, then you probably won't get the behavior you want.

Keep it quiet—and succinct

Train quietly. Bellowing commands at a dog is left over from the old military-style dog training. Dogs have a powerful sense of hearing, and can hear our tiniest whispers. That's not to say that a command shouldn't be clear and audible, but if you only roar commands during training, don't expect your dog to pay attention to you unless you are roaring. A dog that has learned to listen carefully will tend to pay more attention.

A dog that has learned to listen carefully will tend to pay more attention.

A bit of meaningless chatter is fine every so often, but dogs don't speak our language and you don't want cues to become lost in the noise. When training, try not to talk too much. Effective communication comes through quality and clarity, not quantity.

Basics build success

If you find yourself in a situation where your dog won't respond to a cue, and you're sure he knows it in other situations, think about what is different about the situation. It could be that there are too many distractions for your dog to focus, or it could be that the situation is vastly different from training situations in the past.

Go back to basics when this happens. Remove distractions if you can, and re-introduce them slowly. Start at the beginning in a new situation, even if it means using a food lure briefly in order to get the behavior. If there's too much going on, move away from the action a bit.

Remember to set your dog up for success. If your dog can't succeed, you can't reinforce. If you can't reinforce, nothing useful has been learned.

Timing is everything

Make sure your rewards are meaningful. Reinforcement is only reinforcement if it increases or maintains behavior. A satiated dog offered lousy treats, or a dog-tired dog offered a chance to chase a ball is probably not going to be too interested in training.

Reinforcement is only reinforcement if it increases or maintains behavior.

And remember to quit while you're ahead. If you train for too long you'll get sub-standard behavior. Reinforcing sub-standard behavior will only produce more sub-standard behavior in the future.

Some final advice

  • Don't feel like you have to reinforce every behavior. Once the behavior is well learned, stop reinforcing the worst offerings. If your dog is trained to come when called, don't reinforce if he takes too long to respond. Set him up for success; reinforce the faster responses only.
  • Train often. Dogs need to "learn to learn." By training often and training consistently, your dog will learn how to play the training game with you—and it should be a game. If training isn't like playing a game, it stops being fun for both of you.
  • Be worth listening to—someone your dog trusts and respects. Be predictable, confident, calm, and decisive. When you make a decision, stick with it. If you decide that your dog can't sit on the couch, lead him onto his mat every time he sits on the couch. Don't give in just because he's giving you "those eyes." (It's another matter altogether if you decide to invite your dog onto the couch as a reward for some other behavior you asked for.)
This article originally appeared in Positive Petzine; reprinted with permission.
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