How to I get my dog to listen to me?

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How do I get my dog to listen to me? Julie Hill speaks to some of the top names in the dog world for their take on this frustrating problem...

“Whether you want to participate in an activity, master basic training, or simply live in harmony with your pet, you need to be able to get him to listen to you.

Sounds straightforward doesn’t it? But, in fact, it’s complex, and at its heart is the relationship between you and your dog.

Animal behaviourist and author Toni Shelbourne

I believe communication with our dogs is a two-way street,” said Toni.

“We cannot expect dogs to listen and respond to what we ask, if we do not offer them the same courtesy.”

Toni sees learning about the ways in which dogs communicate as part of responsible ownership. “It is something people often fail to do when living with a dog — similar to owning a car but not understanding how the engine works; it’s fine when all is working well, but get a problem and then the trouble begins.”

Encouraging your dog to listen to you can start with his name. “One of the first games I like to teach dogs is to have a strong response to their name. If I call my dog’s name, he stops and looks at me. I can then direct him or ask for another behaviour. To get this, I start by simply calling his name and when he turns to look at me, I throw a treat. He has to do nothing else, simply look at me to get the reward.

“It’s amazing how quickly the response becomes exceedingly strong. I can stop my dog in his tracks by simply whispering his name.”

Tellington TTouch practitioner, trainer, and behaviourist Sarah Fisher

Sarah believes the way we handle our dogs is crucial to our relationship with them, advocating less patting and ruffling, and ensuring our dogs actually consent to contact.

“If a dog comes and sits next to us, for example, that’s not necessarily an invitation for us to touch them,” explained Sarah, who runs courses where she helps owners learn to read their dogs’ body language. “So many people who come on training clinics and workshops say:

‘My dog has changed — he used to lie in his bed away from us, but now he is sitting next to us. What’s gone wrong?’ and I say: ‘No, it’s gone right; the dog now knows that you’re going to be predictable and trustworthy in your contact, because you’ve slowed down handling, you’ve started to notice the nervous system responses.

“You become predictable so the dog now feels that he can stay with you and hang out, because you’re going to touch in a more appropriate way, and reduce the length of time you’re actually making hand contact with the dog.

“Once you get that communication, your dog will start listening to what you’ve got to say because you’ve started to listen to what he has to say and it’s amazing!

“The aim is a partnership based on mutual respect and understanding.”

Trainer, behaviourist, and author of ‘Guide and control your pet dog’s behaviour’ David Ryan

'How do I get my dog to listen to me?’ is the wrong question,” said David. “It should be: ‘Why isn’t my dog listening to me?’ and the answer is: ‘Because you are boring.’”

So, how do we make ourselves more interesting to our dogs?

“I could give you tips on communicating with your dog,” said David, “such as that repeated high-pitched sounds are more attractive than deeper, longer sounds, and to practise calling and rewarding your dog when nothing else is happening — but the bottom line is that training only works when your relationship is right. And if your dog isn’t listening, your relationship is out of kilter.”

The answer is to become the most important thing in your dog’s life, and the way to do that is to take care of him like a parent.

“Show him how to get the good things in life by providing them conditional on good behaviour,” said David.

“The good things are food, toys, and games, and your praise and feedback. Use them all consistently, appropriately, and frequently. When your dog behaves well, reward him. Before he behaves badly, guide him into an alternative behaviour, and then reward him. Get that right and he will hang on your every word.”

Trainer and competitor Heather Smith

Heather, who holds training workshops and competes with her dogs in the UK and internationally, also promotes getting your relationship right. She recommends finding a positive, force-free training class.

“Teaching tricks is a fabulous way to get focus,” she explained. “I think people don’t take tricks as seriously as obedience. I’m always throwing tricks into my puppy and obedience classes — in fact I’ve even changed the name of the obedience class, because I think people get so serious and even start speaking to their dogs seriously!

“Find an activity that you can both enjoy together, perhaps tricks, agility, treibball, or doggy dancing; go along and you can almost start afresh.

“If you have fun with your dog, his recall will be better, because one of the reasons dogs don’t come back — not always, but usually — is because they think: ‘Ooh, there’s an exciting dog over there I’m going to go and play!’ If you can provide an outlet for play, your dog’s going to be more interested in coming back to you.”

Trainer and Competitor Lucy Heath

Lucy made it to the finals of ‘Britain’s got talent’ 2016, with her dog Trip Hazard. She suggests going back to basics and building up gradually. “Begin by training your dog at home where he isn’t distracted,” said Lucy. “Once he is good at listening to you in the house, then you can move on to practising in the back garden, then outside your front door, and gradually spread out to more and more distracting places.”

Learning what motivates your dog is crucial to getting his attention, and it may vary depending on the situation. Lucy advised: “Just because your dog likes a dry dog biscuit in the house, it doesn’t mean he will be desperate to earn that biscuit when you are at the park with lots of distractions.  Take a variety of different treats with you on a walk and see which ones your dog is really interested in!

“Some dogs are even more motivated by toys and play than they are by food, so this is also worth considering. If you have just successfully called your dog away from chasing a rabbit, would just a treat really be enough, or would he prefer a fun game of tug with you?”

Intriguingly, Lucy said that varying the way you give your dog treats may also yield dividends. “Try rolling them along the ground for your dog to chase, or throwing them in the air for him to catch! You may find your dog is far more interested and willing to listen than if you just gave him a treat from your hand straight to his mouth.”

Trainer and author Sally Gutteridge

Communication, not chatter, is the way to get your dog’s attention when you need it,” said Sally. “We have all been caught in a one-sided conversation, where the talker really doesn’t pause, or think about their words. They just chatter on while our eyes glaze over, and we think about our next meal or what we can see happening in the environment. When they have finally stopped talking, we can’t remember a word they said.”

Too much talk turns a dog off, explained Sally. “Yet when you live quietly and talk to your dog only if you need to communicate with him, you will naturally get his attention when you speak. Don’t waste that moment of attention, reinforce it with something your dog loves. The more we reinforce something, the stronger it gets so, from this moment on, dial down the chatter, dial up the reinforcement, and start to really communicate with your dog in a way that he appreciates and understands.”

How to make your dog a good listener

All dogs are individuals, so find out what works for your dog best, but in general:

  • Teach your dog to respond to his name.
  • Play games to make things fun.
  • Listen to what your dog is ‘saying’.
  • Make yourself interesting to your dog.
  • Parent your dog effectively.
  • Try trick training.
  • Go back to basics.
  • Build up gradually.
  • Know what motivates your dog.
  • Vary your food treats, and the way you present them.
  • Keep chatter to a minimum.
  • Reinforce your dog’s behaviour when he listens to you.
  • Above all else, get your relationship right; love your dog!