I observe people and the way they interact with their dogs for a living and I hear people often describe their dog as a “non responsive dog”. Meaning when they ask the dog to do something, he or she frequently is non responsive (ignores the command).
Sometimes it’s the family pet and other times it may be a performance dog, troubled dog or government dog.
So I ask them to demonstrate their non responsive dog and they are usually right, the dog does not respond to a known cue.
Now we have to go through a number of questions to understand why the dog does not respond and I quite often play Devils Advocate and as “why should he/she respond?“.
Of course you can imagine some of the great answers I get back, here are some: –
“Because I said so and I am the boss!.”
“Because he should do what he is told.”
“Because I want him to.”
“Because it is safer for him if he does.”
“Because I have some food.”
Each one of these are great reasons but unless the dog agrees with you, well you wont get a response.
But lets say none of the above are the issues and the dog in question does respond sometimes, but not others, and not only when distraction is high does he not repond, it can be any time; the client reports.
I have very often witnessed people giving what I call a non committal command, or cue if you prefer. I find this pretty common really, you might even do it yourself and it will likely produce a non responsive dog.
First, what is a non responsive dog?
Well it is a dog that hears or sees a known command or signal and chooses not to respond.
Next, what is a non committal command?
Well it is when a person gives their dog a command that is a version of the trained command.
Instead of “come” it might be something like “come on mate, let’s go“.
Or “let’s go” or some other “lesser” direct command or cue.
It might even be the same word but said in a very quiet voice or unconfident tone.
Why do people do this?
I believe that when a person is unsure of their dogs reliability they invest in these non committal commands to use in place of the real command so that it won’t look as bad if the dog does not respond.
What is the outcome?
I believe that once you start giving your dog commands or cues that you only half expect your dog to follow, your establishing a relationship with your dog that allows flexibility in response.
Why is this so common?
Well I think that many people that have been interested in training dogs and have done some research will have been told “never give a command if you think your dog won’t respond”.
So they have invented a second set of cues that they use often and then they wont be breaking the – “dont give a command you think your dog wont follow” rule, right?
Actually, no, not right at all.
What is the right way?
If your an experienced dog trainer you might be eager to read the “what is the right way” section and get ready to argue with it because … Well let’s not get off topic but here is my best piece of
dog training information you might ever read.
There are many right ways to train a dog. That’s right, your way may be different than mine and I’m saying, THATS OK!
The fact that you have a different way does not in anyway impact my way, your way doesn’t compete with mine (in my mind), it’s just different, and that’s ok with me.
Personally, I think the best way “I” have found is to teach a set of cues that allow for various levels of response. For example, with my German Shepherds, I always used German commands (no, not because the were German Shepherds and they spoke German) when I was going to use a high value reward like a game of tug or ball on a rope and English commands when I may wish the dog NOT to expect such a high energy (drive) reward.
This meant that if I gave the down command it would look like this.
- Dog anticipates being released to a tug
- Drops very fast
- Maintains high engagement with me
- Waits for release / bridge
- On release explodes out of a down looking for tug/ball etc
- Dog anticipates that he will be laying down for a while
- Relaxes and is not sitting there ticking like enexpoded bomb
- Release cue OK dog may or may not get up and perhaps expect praise
How do I want my dog to interpret cues?
I like the dogs I train to understand the “bigger picture“, for example when I give a certain recall cue to my dog, he predicts that if he races toward me at full pace he will get a game of tug. So this means that when he hears the cue, he understands the action and the reward.
For dogs that are trained with correction, they may hear the cue and anticipate if they complete the task they will avoid the consequence and or get the reward.
The cue that I use for this high end recall is “heeyah!”. It is said loud and proud and my dog is driven for this “sound”. Imagine if I just say the word “here” my dog will not anticipate the action > reward sequence. So “Heeyah!” triggers my dog belting toward me anticipating tug (he cannot see the tug when he makes teh choice to come) and “here” would be a non committal cue.
Now of course I will talk to my dog and I will speak in ways that do not make use of “robotic” commands but when I want to make sure that my dog is going to respond 100% reliably, I will use a very specific set of cues that meet the following criteria: –
My dog knows what I want, meaning he has been taught, trained and proofed on this word or phrase or signal.
My dog knows what he will get when he completes the task. What rewards are associated with this cue and the behaviour.
How long he will have to do it, meaning is it an executable exercise or a stationary one.
So for example the sit, down, stand, recall, search, find, stop, truck, wait commands for example are very clearly pronounced and clearly undertood by the dog.
Do other things create Non Responsive Dogs?
Yes, there are many things you can do when interacting with your dog that will give you a non responsive dog. I will list a few of them hgere and give you some insights that might help you understand better how to avoid this problem.
Recalling your dog to punish him or her
Most people will swear they never do this but this is because they do not understand what “punishment” actually is.
Whilst most people think it may be hitting their dog or giving a correction from a collar or even telling their dog is he bad or saying as little as “no”, a great deal of punishment occurs in the Negative Punishment quadrant of Operant Conditioning.
No, I am not going to try and lay down a bunch of terminology to confuse you, in fact my goal is to be as clear as I can, not so complicated you strugle to grab the concept. So lets understand what punishment may be taking place in your relationship.
You take your dog to the park, every day at 4.00pm. Your dog runs around having fun and at 4.20pm, you call your dog.
Your dog trots over cheerfully and you leash him up and take him home.
If this happens every day your dog will soon understand that when you call him at 4.20pm, you are actually going to remove his access to the reward.
This means the reward (playing in the park) was removed and your dog will associate the loss to the thing he was doing just before (being removed), recalling.
It won’t take very long and when you recall your dog at 4.20pm, you will start to see a non responsive dog.
It may not be as complicated as you think to stop this happening and one of the very simple ways to overcome this problem is to use a random reinforcement schedule. In every day language this means take between 2 and 8 food rewards to the park every day.
Call your dog back between 2 and 8 times, reward each recall with a piece of food for a couple of weeks.
So generally, create the expectation of reward in your dog, your also blending in one of those recalls means you take him out of the park, but he will have been rewarded for coming and in almost every case, he is released straight away back to the park.
The following week, take 5 – 6 food rewards and decide at random how many times you will recall your dog. I would reward a high percentage of those recalls (maybe 6/10) and the other four are met with an instant release back to the fun he was having when I recalled him.
This type of random reward system often produces a very reliable, motivated and cooperative dog.
Recalling your dog only when your dog is highly distracted
Often people will have their dog off leash and they notice a new dog turn up at the park or something that will really take your dogs interest, they recall their dog so they can stop him gaining access to that distractive circumstance.
Again if your dog is responding he or she will conclude sooner or later that you only or often call him or her when there is something great about to happen.
Giving the dog too much choice before training is solid
When we train a dog we want the dog to learn what we want them to, be happy and compliant and be reliable, but we can sometimes be too quick to test the dog before we really have enough accumulated rewards attached to this exercise.
In simple terms, if we are teaching our young dog the recall, he knows when you say “come”, you have a reward for him and he has been happy to come toward you in the back yard.
You have rewarded him quite a few times, maybe as many as one hundred times so your convinced he is ready to be let loose at the park.
You let him off leash and he becomes enchanted by all the great smells and goings on, you throw out your recall cue and your dog looks at you but makes the choice to go back to this very cool smell.
Something bad just happened, your dog just looked at you and decided that you are of lower value than this smell.
Know that he is setting your value to low priority and this value will now take time to rebuild.
Why didn’t he respond?
Well mainly because I don’t believe you trained your dog to come under distraction, when I train a dog I consider that distractions have values, some more than others and I present these distractions to my dog in a hierarchy of low to high value and teach my dog to value me and my rewards over the value of the distraction.
If my dog is struggling at level 3/10 you can imagine I don’t let him loose at the park, right?
I also use managment, meaning I manage my dog and the distraction. My dog would be on a Long Line and the distraction would be controlled by me.
Perhaps my dog wants to go to my daughter who is calling my dog away from me. If he dog chooses to go to my daughter, my daughter stops calling him and does not deliver any attention/reward for coming, sort of like you might do if you were training to break your recall.
- The dog feels that a reward was on offer with my daughter.
- I recall the dog
- The dog chooses my daughters reward (calling the dog)
- My daughters stops calling and wont give the dog any attention (reward loss)
By the time I take my dog to the park, he will have a long line on but I will no longer have distraction control, but I would have some good training history in which my dog truly believes, through repetition of loss, that people may look inviting but as soon as he invests in them they go dead.
I also have the line to make sure any recall cue I give is going to end up with the dog at my feet, either by his choice or because I have the long line.
Finally I have a lot of reward history in my dog and he feels that for most of the times he comes, he will be rewarded.
This consistency in outcomes proves to produce a reliable dog and lessen the chances of a non responsive dog.
Our standard behaviour patterns can be passing subtle messages to our dogs that are giving our dogs the impression that we are trying to stop them accessing rewarding activities, but a few small changes to the way you teach, train, manage and proof your dog and also most importantly, consider how your dog thinks about these interactions can imrpove the reliability of your dog by an exciting margin.
Try some of these concepts when training your dog and I hope you see some exciting changes. There is a chance though you may not, this is likely because of the way you are interrptreting this information or the past relationship you have held with your dog, sometimes we need to pull out some some more detailed programs to rewrite the understanding your dog has of the relationship.
Always remember nearly everything can be changed with enough of the right programs in place for long enough.
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