My Dog Will Not Listen To You…Yet

There was a conversation at work one day over training dogs in languages other than English. The main argument as to why veterinary professionals seem to think this is a bad idea is simply because no one else will be able to control the dog, especially the vets and techs who need to be able to tell the dog to sit or lay down.

All in all, plausible reasoning, but also highly unrealistic.

People tend to forget that dog training is based off a relationship first, and then rules and boundaries through commands and learned self-discipline, which fosters a mutual respect and trust for each other.

The truth is, no matter how well-trained a dog is with its handler, owner or family, that dog cannot be simply handed over to another party with the expectations that that dog will respond the same way. It’s common knowledge that a dog is not a robot—I’ve even written about it here that, although training can feel robotic, a dog is still a living, thinking being that still has the capability to make its own decisions. And when confronted with someone it doesn’t know, someone who does not act the same as its owner, smell the same as its owner, or even give commands in the same manner, it will most likely not respond the way it usually would with its owner.

The issue is that there is no relationship. There might be a leash and a collar, or an enclosed exam room, or a treatment cage/kennel space. There are vocal signals and the ability of the stranger to communicate displeasure, praise or comfort through tone of voice. In the veterinary environment, there is physical restraint, but there is also the virtue of the environment itself: smells, noises, equipment, people, poking and prodding, drugs and anesthetics…things that can cause most dogs to not act as they usually would, even those well-socialized. And since, in the treatment setting, the owner is rarely present, you’ve got a perfect situation for a dog that really doesn’t want to listen to obedience commands so much as it does simply not be there and respond accordingly through resistance, freezing/shutting down, or trying to ooze its way toward the last known exit.

I can hand my dog’s leash off to anyone, but I don’t make it a common practice. My dog doesn’t know that person. The praise from that person means nothing, as do the commands. The only reason my dog would obey that person is because they know the same things I do, which is the basis of the relationship between my dog and that stranger. I want it to be a responsible relationship, in which the person is leading and the dog assumes the position of follower (one might say the person is dominant and the dog is submissive—remember, they are simply states of mind, not a checklist of actions). The family dog, while not being a take-control type, is definitely one who can tell if you mean what you say and will pretty much blow you off if she feels that you really mean that little to her. I’ve worked some dogs who need given pretty dang good reasons why they should listen to you, and “food treat” doesn’t cut the mustard with them. To be quite honest, the food treat will make things worse with them, since they assume that the food is theirs and they’ll just take it, thank you very much.

It doesn’t matter in which language the dog is trained. If there is no relationship, if that person does not know the same things I do, if that person does not respond the same way to my dog as I do and know how to read her as to when to properly use praise (and of which type, too) and correction, she will not respond. That doesn’t mean she’ll never respond, it just means that she won’t respond reliably, if at all, until she’s given reason to do so. At the vet’s office, these reasons usually constitute physical and chemical restraint, which are the farthest things from a true relationship that one can get.

I like to tell the story of a dog I once walked around someone’s back yard. It was a rather large backyard, and I was given permission to walk this dog while everyone else was otherwise occupied, so it was an acceptable pastime. Honestly, the story of my walking a dog would be relatively mundane if it did not fit into the story, so here goes: this dog was a highly-trained sportdog who had learned multiple titles in Schutzhund, although he was not participating in the trial that weekend. Mace was a good fellow, a beautiful black German Shepherd who was as mellow as the sky is blue, and he walked very well on-leash. I knew the commands used to work this dog and decided that it would be nice to give him a bit of a mental workout while we were ambling around the yard.

Confidently, I said “Fuß!” and stepped off.

Mace stepped off with me, head right by my leg and heeled beautifully…for about 3 steps. I could see his expression change, as if he became bored with me, and then he promptly wandered off in another direction.

Admittedly, I should have brought him back and made him do it again. This was a dog who achieved high scores in trials, one of which was an obedience test in which the dog had to heel flawlessly next to its handler through a group, through pace changes, obey each command as though telepathically connected to his owner. He refused to heel next to me. So we walked around and I made him do a few sits and downs, at the likes of which he was a bit slow, but much more willing to respond than the heel.

Looking back on it, I was young, and the dog was probably smarter than I was at the time—I wasn’t even of legal age to consume adult beverages in the US yet, although that would be coming a week later. In reality, Mace taught me a lesson that I took to heart: I did not deserve to command that dog. I did not have, at the time, what it took to really forge a relationship with that dog in such a way that made him want to obey me, want to listen to my commands and respond to my praise. In that same vein, I do not hand my leash off to just anyone, no matter the dog on the end, but especially if it is mine. Not just anyone deserves to work my dog unless I feel they are capable of doing so. If I feel they are not, it is far kinder for me to refuse to hand them the leash than it is to confuse the dog and potentially backtrack on any training results we might have already made.

Mallory, the family dog (“mine” in the sense that I am more hers than she is mine), is extremely well-trained. She’s not titled in anything except therapy dog work. No fancy working titles, no protection training, no retrieving dumbbells over jumps (I tried, admittedly halfheartedly, since I had neither the time nor knowledge to make it really work—she thought retrieval work was the dumbest waste of time evar). But despite the lack of qualifying letters after her name, she will work for me off-leash around distractions that drive most dogs crazy.

Occasionally she goes to stay with our neighbors when things are such that she cannot go on trips with us. We get reports that she likes to take our neighbor on Nantucket sleigh rides unless he remembers to put on her training collar and give her a reason to listen to him—not through pain, but through the same knowledge I have—which builds on their already-established relationship. It can only get better.

I had to bring Mallory into work one day, as she had profuse diarrhea and I was unable to go home to let her out during the day to relieve her bursting bowels. Unfortunately, the moment I was to be taking her outside to christen the lawn with Clostridium difficile, I found myself helping with a few tumor removals to be done under local anesthetic, and I was in such a position that I couldn’t leave the patients. Thankfully, one of my fellow technicians was free and up to the task of helping my dog relieve herself appropriately.

I cringed and grimaced as I heard nails scrabble on the hallway floor, followed by the vigorous footsteps of my co-worker as she scrambled to keep up.

Yep, I could say my dog is trained…but at that moment, she may have been just another unmannered dog whose first instinct on the leash is to obey the unheard command reserved for the stereotypical sled dog scenario: “Mush!”

And this is a dog trained in plain old common English!

Doesn’t matter if it’s German, Czech, French or Hungarian. Heck, train your dog in Esperanto, or a various system of grunts (the latter of which actually does happen in the case of assistance dogs for people who might be verbally challenged). It doesn’t matter the language.

The relationship is the driving point. If it’s not there, you’ve got NOTHING on that dog except what us veterinary professionals have to work with: physical restraint (often showing up in the “pet dog training” world as headcollars and harnesses), and when the need arises, the use of prescription drugs to mellow out the dog. It’s not ideal, but when it’s all you have, take it and run.

But don’t for one minute call me an elitist who doesn’t want my dog controlled by anyone else simply because I might decide—or not—to train in another language. Because there’s a very high probability that she won’t respond to you anyway. Not immediately, anyway.

written by Lynn Stockwell (DPTrainer4)

2 thoughts on “My Dog Will Not Listen To You…Yet”

  1. Years ago I had to take my Pointer dog, Cotton, to the vet for x-rays after an incident involving his poor judgement and a dog-walk obstacle at an agility yard I used to conduct training classes in.

    The vets’s office was familiar to me, I had been there many times over the course of the 20+ years of our association. The staff turnover in this place was not that high, so it occurred to me when I saw the sea of new faces that there must have been an exodus.

    Cotton was still a pretty young dog, about two years old, and pretty accomplished. He is a lover of comfort and women. When I arrived at around the close of regular business, I waited patiently for the techs to retrieve him for his x-ray in the waiting room.

    They came, he went, morose and sullen, since I would not be accompanying him. He glanced back at me as they led him away down the corridor to the treatment area ( a place, in prior years, I had visited quite frequently as I assisted in the treatment of MY OWN animals, under prior administrations) and disappeared.

    He ended up being admitted and I was told I could retrieve him the following day.

    When I came to retrieve him, I waited for him in the same place he had seen me last and as he turned the corner from the treatment area, he lunged and scrabbled as any dog would, to escape his companion and reunite with me. He broke free, cast and all, and weaved his way through dogs and people to launch into my lap as if we had been parted for years instead of hours.

    His breathless caretaker screeching “HEY! WAIT!”, finally caught up to us, exclaiming in that presumptuous, smug way, “You know, it wouldn’t hurt to teach this dog to heel!”

    I smiled and waited for her to catch her breath and stop the roaring of blood in her ears and responded, “You know, it wouldn’t have hurt for you to have ASKED him to heel to begin with.”

    Cotton, sporting his lime green vet-wrapped soft cast, promptly heeled to the counter with me, sat as well as he could with his new apparatus and proceeded to ignore every gerbil, cat, dog and human while I paid my bill.

    As I was leaving, Cotton’s vet approached the counter to give me some last minute advice for his care and said loudly, loudly enough for the smug little attendant to hear, “I wish HALF the dogs than came in here were as well-mannered as yours are.”

    1. My goodness. That’s pretty forward of that chica to say what she did. Glad she was put in her place.

      Makes me wonder if that was an underhand attempt at advertising training services, but my thinking is that anyone with two gray cells would not advertise in such a disrespectful manner. At least, no one I would want handling my dog, much less TRAINING her.

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