Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dissecting Disobedience

When I bring up dog ownership, do you think of Lassie trotting obediently next to his boy Timmy? Many envision dogs as heroic, selfless and loyal canine companions who stick by your side, hanging on your every word for the opportunity to serve. In reality, dogs can be all of those things, but they also can be fearful, aggressive, and taxing. Dogs aren't robots. They have thoughts and feelings that may not be congruent with our own, and are often seen as unimportant because we’re “in charge”. If a dog doesn't plop himself on the floor within seconds of being asked to “down”, it’s commonly misconstrued as insubordination at the very least.

This brings me to a question posed by a student yesterday: “So, if you only train with positive reinforcement, what do you do when your dog won’t do what you ask?” It’s an honest question, and one often posed by those who use punishment in order to ensure their dog knows blowing them off has consequences. Before you reach for your choke chain, consider an even better question: “Why wouldn't your dog do what you ask?” The reasons can be many:
  •  Medical: He has arthritis in his hips and sitting is uncomfortable or even painful
  • Distraction: he just learned how to sit while in the house, but now you expect him to do it outside with tons of distractions…and he’s not up to it yet.
  • Confusion: He doesn't understand what you’re asking for since normally you use a hand signal for sit, and today you’re using a verbal command, which he never connected to the action.
  • Fear: Another dog’s walking down the street and he’s too anxious to be able to follow instructions.
  • Arousal: Just like with fear, if your dog sees their FAVORITE person coming down the street, he may be too excited to follow directions.
  • He’s just not feeling it: Yes, this does happen – but isn't as typical as you think.
So, to answer the question: If my dog doesn't obey, I may:  ignore him –so as to not reward blowing me off, realize he’s over his threshold and get him out of the situation, offer a better resource for following the command, try again in a less distracting circumstance, determine if he seems painful, or work on training drills so that I know he understands what I’m asking of him. Don’t just assume he’s being a twit.

Seeing disobedience as an opportunity rather than an insult will only enhance your relationship and offer better results in the future. Using positive methods prevents you from making knee-jerk reactions which can harm your relationship, create more problems in the future. 


  1. This article is spot on. There are two kinds of commands - visual and vocal. Pair them until the dog responds to either. There are two phases of teaching - definition and definition with distraction. Teach the dog the same meaning applies even if he is distracted. As for medical issues, we had a nice Rottweiler at our training facility who refused to sit. You could tell he wanted to but just couldn't make himself do it. He was too nice of a dog for his refusal to be impudence. We had him checked by a vet. Turned out he had an infection in his spine and was in terrible pain. (PetPerfect Academy, Dallas, TX 12/13/14)

    1. Cheers Diane! Glad you're so observant - so many lose sight of the dog's intentions and assume they're just not wanting to play along. Many times the will is there, but the pain associated with the action is too great.

  2. Not bad advice for parents and teachers, either.

  3. We do get frequent inquiries whether these techniques work on humans. Everyone can benefit from understanding. Well said EJ!