Have you ever felt like you are being completely ignored by your dog when you ask your dog to do something? It happens between two humans too…and the problem has destroyed relationships. It can be so frustrating, grrr!
Why is this happening? Is it a case of a suddenly very dumb, obstinate, stubborn, bull headed or all of the above irritating animal?
Well, it may be very well be irritating (to the speaker anyway), but those labels really are just subjective constructs or concepts that can easily lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. They are not accurately describing the observable behaviors and are most certainly not putting those behaviors into context. All of us – whether we are humans, dogs, birds, elephants, or mice – are simply doing things to get or avoid things. There is always a reason for behavior. And it is NOT because we are being dumb, obstinate, stubborn, bull headed or all of the above.
Going back to your dog (since this is a pet behavior column, after all!), one reason for deaf ears is a term known as learned irrelevance.
Similar to habituation (a decrease in the intensity or probability of a reflex response from repeated exposure to a stimulus) learned irrelevance occurs when your dog no longer responds to a stimulus (your words, for example) because your dog has learned over many repetitions that those words are really of no significance.
There are many reasons for this to occur. Here are some of them.
Over-use of words. (Yep, think of nagging!) In a previous post, I wrote about how talking too much causes animals to tune out to our words. When you repeat your cue over and over again, even use your cue as part of your behavior marker (such as good sit! Or good drop!), you are greatly weakening that association between the cue and the behavior. This is why, when training, less speaking is much better in providing your dog with greater clarity for learning.
Teaching the cue too early. It could be that your dog never truly learned the intended behavior as you want it to look BEFORE you began adding your verbal cue to it, and therefore, your dog either has a very different interpretation of its meaning (to you dog, ‘sit’, may mean stand and look around for example, because you have inadvertently taught it that way) or your dog just doesn’t get it. This is why it is important to teach the behavior FIRST, build a strong history of reinforcement for that behavior, get it looking like you want it to look, and THEN adding the cue to it.
Strong established history of competing reinforcers, which are more valuable to your dog than the cued behavior. If you have not invested the time into building huge value for your dog to want to do the desired behavior, teaching that behavior on cue, and then incrementally working up to being able to successfully respond to that cue amidst different stimulus in different environments, just expecting your dog to be able to ‘sit’ or ‘come’ (for example) any time anywhere is not realistic. This is why it is important to have an understanding of what those competing reinforcers are to your dog to avoid them until your dog has learned great value in doing the desired behavior. (Then you can use those competing reinforcers in your training!) Always begin teaching your dog new behaviors in an environment with minimal distractions where you both can succeed, and building fluency for that behavior in a systematic way with criteria.
Lack of consistency. It could be that you have taught the behavior to a point, and then stopped working on it, or got a little impatient and tried to jump four steps in difficulty. It could be that you have started to reinforce different criteria for the behavior. This happens in my family all the time. When I ask our dog, Sam, to do a behavior like ‘take a bow’ and he does not go fully into it, I know someone else (whose name will go un named, dad!) may have been asking him to do that and reinforcing Sam for barely putting weight on his front paws. This is why it is important, as your dog’s teacher, to always be consistent in what you are reinforcing with your dog. After all, your dog is only doing what works!
And lastly, if your dog has really learned that your cue has a totally different meaning now than it was originally intended, often it is much easier to begin the whole process over with a whole new cue. Much cleaner that way, and we all know that clarity counts!