Ask A Dog Trainer: Why Doesn’t My Dog Respond The First Time?

Are you the owner at the dog park that’s calling your dog’s name ten times before she comes to you? Or maybe you have to say “sit” three times before she responds and finally sits. It feels like everyone else’s dog responds immediately, except yours.

At this point, most frustrated dog owners give up and assume their dog is stubborn, only listens when he wants to or, my personal favorite, is “dumb.”

Why is he ignoring me? Image source: @TaroTheShibaInu via Flickr
Why is he ignoring me? Image source: @Taro The Shiba Inu via Flickr

The truth, however, is that something most likely went wrong in your training. Luckily, you can fix it, but it will take some work.

The Problem is Command Nagging

This term is what we trainers call it when someone repeats a cue more than once. It’s a big pet peeve for most of us. Why? Because you are undermining your own training!

When you first teach your dog a cue, you say the word once. But then that big nasty thing called “impatience” rears its ugly head. Your dog just learned a cue and may be taking a second or two to think about what the word you just said means. Or maybe he is in a new environment and there are distractions he hasn’t had to deal with before. Whatever the reason, your dog takes a little bit too long (in your opinion) and you say the cue again. And then again. Before you know it, you have said the word five or six times, and your dog finally sits.

Then it becomes habit! Soon, you are “command nagging” almost immediately and for every cue.

Poisoned Cues

So what is this doing from your dog’s perspective?

Your dog was just learning what that verbal cue means, when you started repeating the word. Now he has learned that “sit, sit, sit” means sit.  The repetitive string of words has become the cue. Your dog no longer responds to just “sit” because in his mind, you taught him that “sit, sit, sit” was the cue. So, he is going to wait for that third, or fourth, or fifth sit.

 What do you mean by “sit”? I thought it was “sit, sit, sit”?
What do you mean by “sit”? I thought it was “sit, sit, sit”?

This works for any cue: their name, come, down, stay, etc.

Sometimes, if the dog didn’t know the cue well enough when you added the verbal, or you didn’t proof it enough, hearing the word over and over does not help your dog figure out what it means. Remember, they don’t speak our language!

So instead, your “nagging” just becomes background noise to your dog, just like the other 99% of the time you are talking. Your dog may not even realize you are talking to her.

Or, you have used it when you shouldn’t have. For example, if you call your dog to you and then stick him the bath, or give him a nail trim, maybe brush him – whatever is he doesn’t like. You have now taught your dog that “come” means “things I hate.” This is a sure-fire way to teach your dog to not respond to your cues.

THIS is what happens you say come?! NEVER AGAIN!

At this point, the cue is poisoned.

How To Fix It

To fix these training errors, you are going to have to go back several steps to before you added the cue and see if your dog will offer the behavior (or lure it if you were using lures).

Don’t say the cue. When your dog is doing the desired behavior again (whether it was sit, come, eye contact, etc). You can try re-adding your cue, which you will say ONE TIME.

Image source: @QuinnDombrowski via Flickr
Image source: @Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

If the cue is poisoned, you will find it quicker and easier to retrain your dog if you chose a different word. For example, instead of “sit” use “chill” or “settle,” “seat,” etc. For come, use “here,” “with me,” “touch,” etc. Then, remember patience as your dog figures out what the new cue means!

Also, have patience in new places or when distractions are around that might make your dog’s response time a bit slower than you think it should be. If he doesn’t respond at all, then something about the environment is making your dog nervous or stressed– repeating the cue won’t make him listen! Instead, adjust the environment until your dog is in a position where he will respond, and work from there.

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