We all dream of a dog who cooperates with our every whim. We want a dog who’ll sit here, lie down there, follow me here, stay back now.
But let’s face it: Most dogs aren’t naturally obedient.
Of course, it’s always possible to improve your dog’s obedience and listening skills, but first, it’s helpful to understand why your dog isn’t listening and following your directions in the first place.
We’ll try to help below by explaining some of the reasons your dog isn’t listening and what you can do about each situation.
13 Reasons Your Dog Isn’t Listening to You
There are scads of reasons your dog isn’t listening to you, but we’ve compiled some of the most common to give you a good place to start.
1. You Just Haven’t Trained Enough
Sometimes your dog just doesn’t know what you want because you haven’t practiced enough.
Far too often, we make the mistake of rewarding our dog for “sitting” 10 times, then assume he “knows” it. It’s not so much about the number of times that you drill something but whether or not you’re appropriately layering in challenges and helping your dog generalize.
This is particularly common with “stay,” where a dog might perform well if you’re in sight and in a familiar situation but then struggle later when you’re out of sight or you’re trying it in a new environment.
So, always be sure that you’ve drilled your dog on any new skill until you’re sure he’s got it down pat. Always start working on a cue indoors, then outdoors in a familiar area, before graduating to outdoors in an unfamiliar area around distractions (which is the most challenging situation for a dog).
Practice makes perfect!
2. You’re Missing Proofing: Distraction, Duration, or Distance
Part of good practice is also teaching your dog to follow a cue in different areas, with various distractions and at varying distances from you.
This process is called proofing.
Imagine: You spent 20 minutes practicing a new cue in your group class or after watching an Instagram Reel, and now you’re trying to take it on the road at the pet store.
But your dog doesn’t perform the cue; instead, he’s wandering around trying to sniff everything, snag a toy, and jump on the receptionist.
That’s because he barely knows the trick in the first place and is totally overwhelmed by the temptations of a canine Disneyland.
Just like you can’t expect most four-year-olds to recite their ABCs while on a trampoline, you’ve got to help your dog learn that a word cues a behavior no matter what’s going on around him!
3. You Accidentally Rewarded Unwanted Behaviors
Many “naughty” behaviors come about because we accidentally rewarded them.
A few classic examples include letting a whining dog out of the crate to sleep in bed with you, letting your dog drag you over to “say hi” to another dog, or accidentally dropping a treat just as your dog decided to bark at the mailperson.
As you can see, accidental rewards can come from attention, movement, food, and toys.
Sometimes we just get fed up with fussing or barking and give in, teaching the dog that whining gets him what he wants.
For my dog Barley, even poking my head outside when he’s barking and telling him to shut his trap is a reward because he wanted to know I was there.
The key takeaway here is that you want to avoid providing your dog with anything he could view as a reward when he exhibits an undesirable behavior.
Instead, try to catch your dog before he does something “naughty,” and redirect him and steer him to a better choice.
For example, I gave my puppy Niffler a tasty stuffed KONG whenever a friend came to visit before he started jumping on them and chewing on their shoes.
Once the slip-up has already occurred, your best bet is to redirect your pooch to a known behavior, like sit or remove the dog from the situation.
4. You’re Rewarding Him Too Late
Failing to deliver treats (or other rewards) quickly enough after your dog performs a desired action can also cause dogs to suffer from listening problems.
This is actually a pretty common problem, and it’s easy to see why: It’s hard to manage treats, a leash, and potentially a clicker at the same time. This often leads to fumbling and late treat delivery.
Imagine your dog is learning to sit; ideally, you’ll reward him the second his bum hits the floor.
But if you’re a bit late, he might have already stood up (or worse, jumped on you in excitement for the treat). Now you’re not rewarding the sit, but the other behaviors instead!
Teenage pups often suffer from this issue because they move so quickly that it’s easy to reward them for jumping rather than sitting or laying down.
5. You’re Not Rewarding Your Dog Often Enough
Far too often, people think that their dogs “know” something and, therefore, should “just listen.”
But in truth, dogs need to be rewarded consistently for doing the things we ask them to do.
This doesn’t mean they must be rewarded each and every time, but they do need ongoing positive reinforcement – even after they’ve learned to respond to a cue dependably.
Both of my dogs certainly can listen to cues given without a treat in my hand, but I never expect animals to “respect me” because “I’m the boss.”
At work, I do my job because I’m paid. Your dog is the same. So, intermittently reward your dog with treats, praise, petting, and toys — whatever he works well for – when he does things you ask him to do.
Also, if you notice a drop in his performance, increase the incentive you reward him with. And definitely avoid decreasing his payment if the behavior is inconsistent!
6. You’re Offering a Low-Value Reward
Some dogs simply won’t “work” for you if you’re “paying” them with only praise, petting, or low-value treats. This is especially true if you’re asking them to make a hard choice, like ignoring a squirrel.
So, if you’re not seeing the kind of obedience you’d like, one of the first things you want to do is increase the value of the rewards you’re giving him.
While we don’t always want to train with leftover rotisserie chicken, salmon skin, or some other high-value training treat, sometimes that’s what we need to do to help a dog learn to love listening to us and that it’s worthwhile to do so!
7. Your Instructions Are Unclear
Dogs need consistency in their training and the “language” we use to interact with them to perform their best. This is part of the reason that multi-person households can be tricky for student dogs.
Dad lets him on the couch when Mom isn’t looking, and Mom sneaks him old French fries when Dad is out of town.
While dogs certainly can learn who is going to let them get away with what, it slows learning to have multiple people with different rules around the house.
Similarly, it can also be confusing for dogs when people use different hand signals or words.
Recently, a friend was confused when he wanted my dogs to get off his couch and told them, “Down.” They both laid down on the spot rather than getting off the couch! What he should have said was “Off,” which is my dogs’ cue to hop off of an object.
Imagine the confusion if they dealt with that daily.
This is part of the reason that I generally ask others not to try to train or direct my dogs. In those cases in which it is necessary, I have an entire “dictionary” for my dogs to give to dog-sitters (or boyfriends).
The point of all this is that it’s best to have one teacher at first, then introduce new trainers (who’ll use the same language) as you go. Also, ensure that the entire family agrees on house rules and be protective of new behaviors.
8. You Have Unrealistic Expectations of Dog Behavior
Some people want their dog to be a perfectly obedient programmed robot (many of those people end up in my inbox looking for help).
Generally, this is unrealistic and unkind for a living, autonomous being.
Expecting a dog to never sniff on a walk, to heel past squirrels at nine months old, or to never “act like a dog” is a recipe for misery.
Whether it’s age, breed tendencies, or normal dog stuff, you have to take some challenges in stride – your dog is not a robot. Sometimes your dog isn’t listening to you because your expectations are unrealistically high.
So, when confronted with an undesirable behavior or a failure to obey, ask yourself if your expectations are realistic and reasonable.
This also can happen to people who just got a new dog.
It’s hard to compare the rambunctious teenager to your companion of 12 years. Both dogs are individuals and may have entirely different genetic packages or learning histories, meaning your new pup simply won’t fill your dearly departed dog’s paw prints exactly. This can be incredibly emotionally difficult to deal with.
9. Your Dog Is in Pain or Has Other Medical Issues
If you notice a sudden drop in compliance from an older dog or your dog stops listening very well after a particularly exciting day, he may be in pain.
I’ve had dozens of clients contact me for training issues that turned out to be pain-related: a dog that wouldn’t sit because he had hip dysplasia, a puppy with dozens of accidents per day who had diabetes, a dog who growled at kids due to a torn cruciate ligament.
Accordingly, if you notice a sudden change in your dog’s behavior, you should make an immediate appointment with your vet. Training won’t fix pain-related problems.
In fact, veterinarians are increasingly suggesting a trial run of pain meds even if they can’t diagnose a pain point. If the behavior improves, you can assume that pain was part of the problem.
10. Your Dog is Experiencing Normal Developmental Changes
The willingness of dogs to listen and follow cues often changes over time.
For example, teenage dogs (just like teenage people) are notorious for struggling to listen. It’s common to have a compliant, cheerful, sweet puppy who never strays far from you turn into a rambunctious, high-speed boundary-pusher in just a few weeks.
So, just take a deep breath, practice, and be patient. Your nice dog will return someday (though it may not be quick – adolescence can last until dogs are 2 years of age or more).
At the other end of life, older dogs often are less obedient due to pain, failing hearing or sight, or simply moving more slowly. If you notice an older dog really struggling to keep up with training, it might be time to talk to a vet about increasing his comfort.
11. Your Pup Has Unmet Exercise or Enrichment Needs
Dogs who aren’t sufficiently mentally and physically stimulated often struggle to listen and follow directions.
And that’s pretty understandable.
Imagine you haven’t eaten for five days, and someone takes you to a Las Vegas dinner buffet. Your table manners probably would fly out the window – there’d be BBQ sauce on your face, with one hand grasping a dinner roll while the other jams shrimp cocktails into your mouth.
This is the situation many of our dogs find themselves in regarding exercise and enrichment: They are chronically deprived, bored, lonely, and cooped up.
No wonder when we come home from work or take them on a walk, they jump all over us and pull like a freight train.
So, be sure that you’re providing your dog with enough exercise and canine enrichment to keep him healthy, happy, and willing to listen.
Exercising your dog to the point of exhaustion isn’t the goal, but meeting his exercise and enrichment needs is imperative.
12. Your Dog Doesn’t Trust You (Yet)
If your dog is new to you, it may take a while for him to trust you enough to comply with cues.
Rather than getting frustrated, try rewarding your pup a lot for easy things. Be patient and focus on the bond rather than the training for a while.
Similarly, if your dog has a history of scary training (any type of punishment or aversive training that involves shouting, swatting, pinch collars, or e-collars would qualify), he might be scared of you or of training in general.
This might not be your fault – it could be a past owner’s doing – but your dog will still take time to warm up to you and the idea of training in general.
In some cases, I’ve found it helpful to totally change the reward system and cues given to help the dog shake off his old baggage.
In other words, consider using different words for basic commands like “sit” or “lay down.” Maybe just use the terms in a different language.
Similarly, you may want to change up the treats you offer. Instead of using plain old dog treats, consider offering something like bits of cheese or cooked chicken.
13. Something is Stressing Your Pup Out
Stress can make it very hard for dogs to listen and follow cues – even among those who are inherently eager to please.
If you don’t find anything medically wrong with your pup after a sudden change of behavior, it’s important to think about what’s changed in his life. Things like getting a new family member, moving homes, or experiencing a thunderstorm are all common phenomena that can be pretty stressful for our furry pals.
Some changes, like moves, will likely resolve over time. But new family members often require specialized training to smooth over introductions, and noise phobias shouldn’t be ignored.
Stress can lead to your dog struggling to listen, so remember not to get frustrated and look for signs of stress and anxiety.
Try to understand why your pooch isn’t doing so well and do what you can to support him. Typically, this will mean either employing desensitization and counterconditioning techniques or using management strategies to eliminate the source of the stress.
General Tips for Keeping Your Dog’s Attention
We’ve provided some tips for addressing some of the common reasons dogs struggle to listen above, but there are also some general things to keep in mind when struggling to get your dog to follow directions.
Here are some of the most important things to do when trying to get your dog to listen:
- Practice in easy locations at first. Whether it’s your kitchen or the training center, dogs learn best in environments with few distractions. If your dog can’t perform a behavior in an empty room, there’s no way he can listen at the park!
- Gradually layer in distractions, distance, and duration. While it’s important to introduce new skills in quiet, distraction-free environments, we eventually want our dogs to be able to listen to us in a variety of places. If I want my dog to eventually listen to me around squirrels, I’ll practice a behavior around a stationary toy, then a plate of food, then a moving toy, then outside away from squirrels, then outside, while gradually moving closer to squirrels. A similar pattern helps with all behaviors.
- Reward your dog generously. Reward well and reward often. Most training issues come down to criteria (you and the dog agreeing on the task), timing (rewarding at the correct time), and rate of reinforcement (rewarding enough). Fill your training treat pouch with goodies of varying deliciousness and reduce your dog’s meal size accordingly: Learning is work, and work requires pay.
- Recognize barriers to your dog’s success. Whether it’s age, pain, stress, distractions, or lack of practice, it’s important to recognize reasons your dog may not succeed. For example, I don’t ask my sensitive soul Niffler to heel when fireworks are going off. My expectations slip a bit because I understand he’s stressed, and that’s OK. Similarly, I didn’t expect his recall behavior to remain perfect while he was in the awful “peak teenage boy” months. I just did what we could and planned to re-train when his brain came back online.
- Get another opinion. If you’re really struggling with your dog’s behavior, get help! Trainers are here to help you learn to understand your dog and have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. This is especially important if you can’t quite figure out where your gap is and need another set of eyes to help problem-solve.
We hope you found a few potential answers to why your dog isn’t listening. Even more importantly, we hope the suggestions on how to help your dog listen better are helpful. Let us know if you have any further questions or have a success story to share in the comments below!