Why Dogs Confuse Commands

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Introduction

There are times in everyone’s relationship with their dog when they feel that their dog is not listening to them. You might command your dog to sit for a guest, and even if your dog is well-trained at sitting, he may continue to run around excitedly and sniff at your visitor. You might command your dog to stop barking every time the doorbell rings, yet your commands will have no effect.

Dogs do not purposefully disobey commands, despite what it may seem in the moment. More often than not, they are confused as to what you are asking them to do, or too overwhelmed or distracted to process the commands that you are giving. Dogs confuse commands for many different reasons; here are some ways to ensure that your dog is picking up on your command for him to lie down.

The Root of the Behavior

Training a dog is a lot more involved than most people initially imagine. It is not enough to force your dog to do something and then toss him a treat to enforce the behavior. Your dog needs to be communicated with and he needs to be able to understand what you are asking him to do in multiple different scenarios and variations. The reward should be varied and enticing, simply giving treats is often not enough to lock in a command. No dog, no matter how smart, is going to learn right away, and even the best of trained dogs can confuse commands every once in a while. The key is to ensure that you are providing the most consistent, constructive, and confident attitude when training and interacting with your dog.

Dogs associate the consequences of their actions with the most immediate action that they can recall. For this reason, a lot of dogs begin to confuse commands when they are punished or rewarded too late after committing the act. If you tell your dog to lie down, then praise him, then give him a treat when he stands up, your dog may not know which action resulted in the treat. Likewise, although most people punish their dogs for pooping in the house while they are away, dogs do not generally associate the punishment with the act of pooping. More often than not, they become confused about any reward or punishment that comes to them without an immediate action of theirs attached to it.

Capturing and holding a dog’s attention is an art unto itself. There are several reasons that you might lose a dog’s attention during training, and all of these reasons could contribute to the exact opposite of the behavior that you are attempting to create in your dog. Among the worst training practices are shouting and becoming frustrated at your dog, repeating commands too many times, and running training sessions too long. Your dog needs short, clear, calm sessions in which you introduce the behavior, recreate it in your dog, and reward your dog for obeying. Your dog receives information the best when you are calm and assertive, and when it is clear that you carry all the authority.

Encouraging the Behavior

Since dogs have vastly different attention spans than humans, you will need to understand the fundamentals of how your dog receives training in order to effectively teach your dog good behaviors. Consistency is key in scheduling and rehearsing commands. By having a set time each day to learn new commands or practice existing ones, you are both exercising your dog’s mind and solidifying good behavior. Being consistent in applying these behaviors throughout the day shows your dog that the command is a part of everyday life. Part of being consistent is learning to be patient and forgiving. Your dog will need to be shown the same behavior numerous times, and will not respond well to your frustrations or anxiousness.

Just like humans, dogs learn best in distraction-free environments. Make sure that it is just you and your dog, or as close to that setting as you can get, when you begin training. Once a command has been taught in an isolated setting, the next step is to slowly introduce change into the environment that a dog might need to enact the behavior. Start by having other people around, then try teaching the command outside or in public places. Your dog will learn to obey the command regardless of what is going on around him, and this will also help your dog to understand that you are the center of attention and authority at all times. This creates a deep bond between you and your dog, one that relies on trust and positive reinforcement.

Other Solutions and Considerations

Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and are able to pick up on verbal cues in the same way that you might learn to recognize words of a foreign language. For this reason, many dog trainers use hand gestures or physical commands in addition to verbal commands. In both verbal and gesture commands, you will need to be consistent in the way that you say or gesture to your dog. Being too assertive or too timid could confuse your dog, and making a lazy gesture might not send the right message either. In order to further solidify the associations that a dog will make between its correct behavior and reward, some trainers use a clicker or marker tone. A quick, consistent, and percussive sound played immediately after good behavior and before a treat helps guide dogs toward proper association, further ensuring that your sessions are productive and clear.

Conclusion

You don’t have to be a school teacher or a parent to train a dog, but there is a surprising amount of overlap across all fields of education. Teaching your dog is like teaching a kindergartener or raising a toddler; it requires patience, consistency, confidence, forgiveness, and clear, calm instruction. Stick to these fundamental practices, and you’ll teach your dog everything from “roll over” to “play dead” in no time.