Why won’t my dog listen ?

So you called, but she ignored you.

Let’s first make sure we’re talking about the same thing. We’re going to assume that your dog has a good idea of what you want. She has repeatedly responded in a way that makes you think that she understands what you mean when you say “sit,” “fetch” or “come here” – in various contexts, not just in your kitchen, on Sunday, just before dinner.
Since dogs aren’t born understanding English, you would have had to have taught her the meaning of these words somehow at some point. If you didn’t, she doesn’t respond because she has no idea what you want. But that is food for thought for another day…
So she usually listens, but when it’s important to you, she just won’t.

"Good boy!" Pat, pat, pat.

What do you usually do when she DOES come when you call her?

“Fido, fetch me my slippers! – Good boy!” Pat, pat, pat.
“Fido, sit! – Good boy!” Pat, pat, pat.
“Fido, come here! – Good boy!” Pat, pat, pat.

That’s the cliché – and often real – response we have when our dog does something we like.

To us, we are rewarding our pooch for his good behavior with our expression of approval and affection.
But what does Fido think?

“Good boy!” Pat, pat, pat. – as Fido’s ears flatten and he slightly pulls backward.
“Good boy!” Pat, pat, pat – as Fido turns on his heel to go pee on a tree.
“Good boy!” Pat, pat, pat – as Fido gives you a big grin and leans against your legs.

Which Fido appreciated our “reward”? Which one couldn’t care less? Which one would rather we don’t smother him, thank you very much?

We give rewards in the hope that the receiver will be more likely to do the thing we rewarded again. The thing about rewards is that they only work as intended when the other appreciates what we are offering. Give me a steak dinner for doing you a favor, and I might just have to wash my hair next time you ask. Offer my DH a steak dinner for the same thing and he might help move your big screen TV (don’t quote me on that, btw). Feeling rewarded is subjective.

But I just want my dog to “listen (damn it!)” and “pay attention” to me.

… without asking yourself why a dog might choose to listen or choose to ignore, choose to pay attention to you, or choose to focus on something else (commonly called “being distracted”)?

While some dogs are born with eyes for their favorite person only, happily fetching, sitting and recalling for nothing more than a good boy and a pat pat pat, the majority – and I mean upwards of 99% (based entirely on anecdotal evidence, of course) – needs a bit better of a reason to choose you over the fantastic smorgasbord of fun offered by the world at large.

Do I know you?

I don’t mean to be rude, but relationships matter.

I might gladly do something for my friends, expecting nothing but good company in return, that I might not be motivated to do for someone I barely know because it feels like work.

That said, some people feel rewarded by volunteering, while others live by the maxim that time is money.
Before we can expect another to do things for us, we owe it to the relationship to find out who the other is and what motivates them.

What kind of relationship do you have with your dog? Have you had many fun adventures together and known each other for years, or did you meet only recently?
What kind of dog is she? Does she seem to hang around you a lot, search out your company, always eager to do stuff together? Or is she happy to nap in the sun, do her rounds on her own and let you know she’s not in the mood for a walk right now?

So when you are trying to show someone your appreciation, it really helps to know who that someone is. That’s also why gift certificates exist. When you don’t know someone well enough, you reward them with something that has broad appeal, something that most people might appreciate.

Does Fido like a good chewy tennis ball or is he more of a chow hound? Does he enjoy sniffing to his heart’s content, or does his heart sore when his ears are flapping as he’s running full tilt?

When in doubt, food usually makes for a “gift certificate” appreciated by most dogs. Still, inquire about dietary preferences if you hope to make an impact.

What if [gasp] he had something better to do?

Please don’t ask me to help you find your keys while I’m writing a blog post. At best, my attention will be divided. Depending on how long finding your darned keys takes, I might get frustrated because you kept me from doing something that was important to me. In any case, I probably won’t enjoy the time spent with you. For me to willingly leave what I’m doing, I’ll need a good reason why finding your keys is so important right now. I’m not being stubborn. Although I might otherwise gladly help you, right now my focus is elsewhere.

Sitting in the kitchen for a friendly “good boy” and a pat might be nice, but the same response for coming back from chasing a squirrel? Are you kidding me?

Be right with you. I need to concentrate.

If you’re asking me to translate some French word for you while I’m trying to navigate through rush hour traffic in a big city I’ve never been to, chances are I’m going to tune you out. 

I’m not trying to ignore you, it’s just that my brain is asking me to pay attention to potential dangers.

Context matters.

So why won’t my dog listen to me?

So when you ask me, “Why won’t my dog listen to me?” I’ll tell you she’s not being stubborn, blowing you off or ignoring you. But I might ask you a few questions of my own: What was she doing when you called? What do you do when she listens? What do you do when she doesn’t? Is there something she will always listen to? (The call of the wild, perhaps?) And sometimes most importantly, do you listen to her?


If you have a hard time figuring out who this furry new friend is and what makes her tick, get in touch. Seeing people and pooches build relationships based in cooperation and communication happens to be one of my greatest rewards!