5 reasons why
Are you struggling to understand why your retriever won’t listen to you? Or maybe he or she listens to you great but will not listen to anyone else including your spouse and your kids.
You are not alone. This is a quite common problem.
As a professional retriever trainer, I often get calls from retriever owners who are having this exact issue. Unfortunately, by the time they call me they are completely fed up. They have tried everything they know to solve the problem. They have taken advice from neighbors, friends, and co-workers. But the behavior is only getting worse and they cannot figure out how to get their dog to listen.
The frustration is understandable. An unruly dog can make life, at the very least, less enjoyable.
Let’s explore the top five reasons your retriever is not listening to you or someone in your family and steps you can take to fix this problem.
#1 You don’t understand your dog’s nature
When a dog is not listening, most people think there is a failure in training. They rarely stop to think about why their dog is acting like he/she is.
It is common for people to humanize their dogs, after all you love your dog and consider him or her a part of your family. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you expect your dog to understand and respond with humanlike behaviors or humanlike thinking, it just won’t work.
Dog family vs human family
In nature, dogs live in packs, an extended family group. This is one reason why they fit into our families so well. They become a part of “your pack”. But here is where the differences begin. In dog packs, there is one alpha dog. One “top” dog. Every other dog in the pack knows where they fall in the order from top to bottom. Occasionally, one of the lower dogs will decide they want to advance, or move up, in the pack. To do this, they will challenge the dog above them and fight it out until one submits to the other.
Now, let’s apply this logic to your family. Your dog is a part of your family. But most of us want our dog to listen to us, listen to our spouse, even listen to our kids. So that means the dog must be low in rank. Lower than our spouse and kids. But our dog may feel differently. He or she may want to move up in rank. And often this is where the behavior issues begin.
Where does your dog rank?
It is common for dogs to treat different people in the family differently based on where the dog feels they rank in the pack.
For instance, many clients tell us that their dog will listen perfectly to dad, listen sometimes to mom, but will not listen or obey one or all the children. This makes perfect sense. Especially if the children are smaller or maybe a little intimidated by the dog. In this case, the dog considers himself higher in rank than that child or children.
But the question is, how did the dog come to this conclusion? Well it wasn’t by accident. Whether you noticed or not, your dog exhibited some dominant behaviors toward the child(ren). The child(ren) was either unable or unwilling to counter those behaviors and so the dog made the conclusion the child(ren) was lower in the pack.
#2 You are allowing or dismissing dominant behaviors
If you observe dogs in a pack, there are many behaviors that they exhibit to show how dominant they are. Some of these behaviors you will also see in a human pack. Here are some dominant behaviors to be on the lookout for:
Jumping on you or others
This is probably the most common problem. Jumping on people is a dominant behavior. Height is a big definer of rank in dog packs. A big, tall dog usually is more alpha than a smaller one. So, if your dog wants to rank higher in the pack, he has to jump up on you and get ‘taller’ than you.
Fortunately, it is a rather easy behavior to stop. But the owner must be willing to get tough with the dog. It is rare for a dog in my training program to jump on me more than once. I address the problem immediately and the dog accepts his position in the new pack.
Unfortunately, we also see the behavior reoccur when the client comes to pick up the dog. Retrievers are not small dogs, so it can take significant force to stop this behavior, especially if it has been going on for some time. A knee to the chest of the dog as he jumps on you is the best deterrent. We often go as far as to encourage the dog to jump on us and then correct him or her. The message should be, no matter what, your feet are not allowed on me.
Lifting feet off the ground when petting
This is closely tied to jumping. If, when you pet and praise your dog, they think it is an excuse to lift their feet off the ground, try to wrap their paws around your arm or just become unruly, that is a dominant behavior. They are still trying to engage you in a challenge for position in the pack.
Correcting this behavior is not difficult. Every time you pet or praise your retriever, watch his feet. If he or she lifts them off the ground at all, immediately stop petting. When he or she puts their feet back on the ground, resume petting. Your dog will quickly learn that he or she gets affection from you only when feet are on the ground.
Placing paw on your foot
Most of our clients are shocked when we tell them that their dog is dominating them by putting their paw on their foot. They either never noticed the dog does this or think it is an accident. But once we point it out, it quickly becomes obvious. Dog’s don’t ‘accidently’ put their paw on top of your foot.
To stop this behavior, every time you notice it, pull your foot out from under their paw and lightly rest your foot on top of theirs. I guarantee, they will not like it. They will immediately move their paw to get out from under your “paw”.
Peeing on things or areas
If your dog is house broke but continues to pee on certain items or certain areas, it is likely that he is showing some dominance. This is one of the hardest behaviors to break because you must catch the dog in the act and then you must display your dominance to him.
To show dominance over your dog, roll him or her over on their back and hold them there.
This is what an alpha dog does to any dog in the pack that is getting out of line. Dog’s hate to be held on their back and often they will fight tooth and nail, literally, to get out of that position. To show your dominance, you must hold them until they give up or submit to make the point. Then you can allow them to get up.
Sometimes, growling at them while they are being held down can help them submit. I know it sounds crazy, but it really does work.
Pushing, bumping, and nudging
If your dog often pushes into you, bumps you or nudges you, it is likely that she is showing some dominant behaviors. While many owners like to interpret these nudges as love, there is likely something else driving the behavior which often become worse as time goes on.
Closely tied to this is forced petting. If your dog is skilled at forcing you to pet her by manipulating your hand or placing herself in a position where you must pet her, this is forced petting. The dog is determining when and how she gets affection. As the alpha, you should not allow this. You should determine when and why she gets praise and affection.
Taking things off counter or grabbing food out of your hand
I am always amazed at how many of our clients have problems with this. Also, it bears noting that if this problem is addressed when the dog is young, this is rarely an issue when they get older.
A dog that takes things off the counter or grabs food out of your hand is showing dominance. Please note, I am not talking about the times when you are giving your dog a treat. In that situation you are in control and offering the treat. The situations I am referring to are unexpected and unauthorized.
There are ways to deter this behavior, but the best way is to catch the dog in the act and, as mentioned previously, exert dominance by rolling them over on their back and holding them until they submit.
To the dog, this is simply discipline. They do not think you don’t love or respect them. They understand boundaries. And if you enforce the boundaries consistently, they will respect them. Don’t worry that you are being mean to the dog. You are simply being a responsible pet owner.
Does your dog obey your commands but do it very slowly or begrudgingly? This is an act of defiance. If you call them and they walk very slowly or you. Or you say SIT and your dog very slowly places their bottom on the ground, this is your dog challenging your authority.
If you allow it to continue, it likely will become worse and worse until they are not listening to you at all.
Put a few dogs together and you will most certainly see humping. Dogs exert dominance over each other by humping, getting on top of another dog, getting higher, taller – this all goes back to hierarchy of the pack. So, if your dog is humping you, it is likely doing so to show dominance over you. Don’t let your dog do this to you or anyone.
Understanding these dominant behaviors will help you understand what your dog is doing and why he or she is doing it. But there may be other reasons why your dog is not listening to you.
#3 You are using wrong, inconsistent, or repetitive commands
When clients come to our kennel to pick up their trained dog, we work with them for a several hours teaching them what the dog has learned and how to maintain it. One thing that is often a challenge is that we find owners may be using inconsistent commands or using the wrong command for what they are asking the dog to do.
For more on the importance of consistency, read How to train a Labrador Retriever Tip #10.
Using the correct command at the correct time is extremely important. Each command has a specific action associated to it. The dog only knows each command requires a specific action from him/her. Commands must be consistent with the action or behavior you want the dog to perform. If you say HERE but are expecting the dog to come into a HEEL position, that is confusing to the dog.
In addition, we often see clients saying commands multiple times without requiring an action from the dog. Retrievers are smart. They will quickly learn that you are willing to say SIT 10 times before enforcing the SIT. And they will be happy to let you do that. If you expect your dog to react the first time you say a command, you will find your retriever much more responsive.
#4 You have inconsistent standards
This is a big issue. Your commands to your dog must be backed up with a standard. For instance, when you are walking and use the command HEEL, do you expect your dog to walk right next to you? Or, are you okay with them being slightly ahead or behind you? This is an example of a standard.
Your retriever will quickly learn what your standards are and he or she will operate within this standard if you are consistent. This is not to say they won’t test you once in a while and try to change the standard. They will. Which is why it is important for you to have a standard. Your standard will give you a benchmark that will make it obvious when your dog pushing the envelope and trying to test it.
When people say their dog does not listen to them, it is often because of inconsistent standards. Dog’s don’t understand inconsistency. They want and need boundaries. If you want your dog to listen to you and behave, be consistent with your standards.
#5 You ask, not tell
When you speak to your dog, he hears the command, but he also hears your tone of voice. We often see clients ‘asking’ their dog to SIT. They say SIT, but in a soft voice and often with a question mark at the end. They are not saying the command like they expect the dog to do it.
Whenever you command your dog, say it with authority. Say it firmly and with confidence, like you expect the dog to obey.
Want to learn more about communication with dogs? Read How to train a Labrador Retriever Tip #6
Final thoughts on why your retriever won’t listen to you
It is so important that you understand your dog and how they think and reason. While they are a part of our families, they are not human. They don’t think like humans and they do not understand the way humans think.
As owners of these incredible dogs, we must teach them and care for them in a way that keeps them mentally stable and happy. Enforcing our alpha status does that. So, does setting consistent boundaries and expecting our dogs to live within those boundaries. By doing this you will not only have a happy, healthy dog, but a happy, healthy home life, one that is not constantly struggling for control and peace because your retriever will listen to you.
If you really want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her training this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I am here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.