Why won't my dog obey me?

As a dog trainer in Denver, Colorado, one complaint I often hear from prospective clients is: “My dog will not obey me!” Typically this means the dog only obeys when it wants to. Troubleshooting the issue generally is pretty simple, as there are several common reasons a dog will not do what is asked of it:

  1. The dog does not understand what you are asking it to do. Does your dog know what come means? Are you sure? I often find that people assume their dog understands certain things when, in fact, it has never been specifically trained to understand them.

    We also can inadvertently confuse our dogs and undermine what they thought they knew. For example, if the down command always follows the sit command, the dog may make that association and just lay down when you tell it to sit.

  2. The dog is stressed or afraid. Dogs often cue off of our emotional state. If you are stressed at your dog, your dog is probably stressed too. Dogs also can become stressed by fearfulness of any number of things (i.e. people, dogs, bikes, strollers, buses, etc...). Stress practically nullifies a dog's ability to learn and perform. When interacting with your dog, try to keep your attitude positive and easy going. And if your dog is afraid of anything, effort must be put into changing the dog's perception of that thing before expecting performance in its presence.
  3. The dog does not find the behavior rewarding. If you tell your dog to come and then scold it for a puddle left on the floor hours earlier, the dog may decide coming is a bad idea. Or if you punish the dog by putting it in the kennel, the command kennel-up may cease to work. Additionally, the dog may have learned that other behaviors are more rewarding than the ones you are asking for. For example, if running from you initiates an exciting game of chase, why should the dog come when called? It is important to positively reinforce the behaviors we like, as well as avoid reinforcing the behaviors we dislike.
  4. The dog is bored. Dogs are a lot like little children in this regard. Keep training sessions fun, rewarding and short. Ten or fifteen minutes is sufficient for most dogs. But you will make better progress with three minutes of enthusiastic work than an hour of drudgery.
  5. The distraction level is too high. A dog's ability to perform at a distance, for longer durations, and in the presence of distractions is acquired with practice. Just because a dog can sit indoors does not mean it can do so on a bustling sidewalk. And just because he can come when called in the back yard does not mean he can do so at the dog park. Training in the presence of various (and ever increasing levels of) distractions is necessary to create true reliability.
  6. The dog would rather be doing something else. Dogs are not little, furry robots. While you should be able to expect a fully trained dog to do something even if it would rather be doing something else, dogs are intelligent and emotional creatures with choices to make. Try as you may, your come command will never be as fun as following a good scent trail. One major goal of training is developing leadership. If your dog perceives you as the benevolent leader, it will bond appropriately with you and want to please you. In some situations, leadership may be the only pry bar you have between a powerful distraction and obedience.

Distractions

Thank you for mentioning distractions as being a problem. Many pet owners fail to recognize that dealing with distractions is a skill your pet needs to learn before they can really focus on learning anything else. There's actually a good article here about the importance of off-leash training and how it can help with dealing with distractions: http://www.darwink9.com/dogtrainingblog/2011/11/05/why-is-off-leash-trai...