When communicating with our dogs-or, for that matter, our human children-most of us tend to repeat ourselves. But one thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that if you say something over and over again, the one you're speaking to begins to tune you out. This phenomenon is known as selective hearing, and your dog can become even more proficient at it than your kids. Unfortunately, once your dog gets used to the idea that you don't really mean what you say the first time you say it, even the most important messages end up falling on deaf ears.
If you suspect your own dog is a selective listener, try giving a command such as sit, down, or come, and count how many times you have to repeat it before you get a response. Then rattle the treat jar and see how long it takes for your dog to come running. If your first command yields little or no response at all, but a clink from the cookie jar brings your dog a running, you are, without a doubt, living with a selective listener.
Once the problem is identified, it's important that you understand how your dog became a selective listener. It's not that our dogs don't want to pay attention to us, it's that by constantly repeating ourselves we've inadvertently taught them that what we say the first time is actually supposed to be ignored.
Furthermore, we reinforce this idea by repeating the command over and over again. For example, say you call your kids to dinner several times before either raising your voice to signify that this time you really mean it or physically escorting them to the table. The next time you call them, they will all but ignore your first call. This is learned behavior, and you are doing the teaching.
Over thousands of years of evolution, dogs-even more than our human kids-have become highly signal-oriented creatures. They rely on consistent sounds and body language to signal things to come. For instance if one particular dog snarls a specific snarl just before he's about to bite, other dogs learn to heed that particular sound signal, thereby avoiding unnecessary conflict. By the same token, if a particular dog consistently makes a specific sound just before playtime, the dogs who live with him learn that sound means it's time for fun.
These are fairly simple examples of the dog's highly complex social language. Once we understand that our dogs are actually looking for signals from us to tell them what we really mean-thereby telling them what is about to happen-we can begin to send only the signals we want them to pay attention to.
In order to efficiently communicate, no matter how big your family or pack, you must all speak the same language. The most common mistake is not sharing these signals and words. For instance, if one family member tells the dog down while another says lie down and still another says down, down, down, you are speaking three different languages. But if your family agrees on the language you'll speak to your dog, many frustrating situations can be headed off at the pass. To help avoid the problem of selective listening altogether, keep the following "three D" ground rules in mind:
- Decide, as a human pack, what your basic obedience words will be-e.g., sit, come, down, stay, off, leave it.
- Define what each of these words will mean to you and your dog-e.g., down means "lie down" and off means "Get down off me and stop jumping up!" Don't confuse your dog by saying "Down!" in both situations; help your dog by saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
- Don't repeat a command. Promise you'll say a command once and only once. Meaning what you say is one thing; meaning it the first time you say it is the best thing. If your dog doesn't comply the first time you ask him to do something, use gentle physical assistance to help him understand what you want.
Because some dogs are genetically predisposed to being more aloof than others, it is particularly important that the families these dogs live with set ground rules as soon as they discover they have a selective listener in the house.
At the risk of repeating myself: Say what you mean, and say it only once-it's the best way to let your dog know you really do mean what you say.