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Is Your Dog Choosing When to Listen? Tips for Addressing Selective Obedience

on May 28, 2023

Does it seem like your dog only listens when they feel like it? Are you exhausted from repeating commands only to be greeted with a blank stare? If that sounds familiar, take solace knowing you’re not alone: this is a very common behavioral issue in canines. 

Selective obedience, or the act of choosing which commands and requests to follow, can be an extremely frustrating issue for dog owners. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be permanent. With patience, consistency, and creativity, you can help address selective obedience and create a healthier relationship between you and your pup. 

What is Selective Obedience in Dogs and Why Does it Happen

We know it can be frustrating when your pup barely gives you a passing glance after you’ve repeatedly called their name, or they ignore the commands you have worked so hard to teach them. While it may feel like your pet deliberately chooses not to listen, selective obedience often has deeper roots than we realize. 

Selective obedience is generally rooted in a behavior called operant conditioning which is, in short, a method of teaching that encourages a desired behavior by rewarding the positive and inhibiting the negative. This can make our furry friends choosy with commands: they remember which behaviors were previously rewarded. As a result, they may resist if they aren't getting something they deem worthy of following through with the command. 


Taking Action to Address Selective Obedience

Now that you know why your pup might be selectively listening, it's time to take action! Before working on your dog’s selective obedience, we recommend ensuring that the issue is not health-related, as many dogs may be using selective obedience to communicate an issue passively. 

Once cleared by your vet, start by practicing commands or playing games and activities that encourage positive and rewardable behavior. For example, you might want to practice your dog’s library of tricks or even teach them a new one! Just don’t try and do them all at once; taking small and steady steps on this journey will ensure you and your dog succeed. So master one command at a time until your pup is an obedience extraordinaire!


Figure Out What Motivates Your Dog 

To help remediate selective obedience, make sure you have a clear determination of what motivates your dog. Every dog is unique, so the same things that motivate one dog may not motivate another! If you’re unsure what motivates your dog, observe their body language and responses to various types of positive reinforcement. The happier they are for a reward, the better suited it could be for training. Tail wagging, facial expressions, and energy level can indicate what your dog enjoys. If it remains unclear which rewards motivate your dog, consider consulting a professional behaviorist or veterinarian for tips.



Tips for Training Your Dog to Listen Every Time 

Be prepared to be patient! Training your dog to listen every time can be difficult and frustrating, but it is well worth the effort. To maximize success, try establishing a consistent structure and plan for each session - set expectations for when to focus on training and then implement rewards accordingly when your pup listens. Remember that consistency is key. If you give a command expecting their attention, but they don’t listen until the sixth time you say it, don't immediately reward them. Instead, make sure they provide the same obedience on subsequent attempts. 


Avoid Negative Reinforcement

Training your pup requires patience, consistency, and a good attitude. Although it may be tempting to discipline your dog when they are being selective with their obedience, it is best to avoid negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement may seem like it works in the short term, but it can negatively affect the long-term outlook of your pup's training. Instead, focus on encouraging the desired behavior more often so that it becomes normal for them. 



Establishing a Positive Reinforcement System 

Establishing a positive reinforcement system can be one of the best ways to help address selective obedience in your pet. Positive reinforcement helps create an association between certain behaviors, actions, and rewards. This can help shape the desired behavior that you're trying to achieve from your canine companion. It's important to be consistent when providing these incentives and rewards so they can develop a strong understanding between the behavior they are exhibiting and the reward earned afterward. 



Final Thoughts

Addressing your pet's selective obedience may feel daunting, but you can set your pup up for success with patience and consistency. Establishing yourself in a leadership role and taking the time to learn what motivates your dog will help give them clarity on when to listen. Focus on training commands (check out our blog on ways to practice commands here) with positive reinforcement so that listening does not become associated with negative consequences. Be consistent and take your time - soon enough, you'll have a well-behaved pooch! Remember that training should be fun for you and your pup and is best done together as a team. Taking these steps can lead you toward an obedient, loyal companion who will be by your side for many years to come!


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