Q&A: How to get my dog to stop ignoring me?

My 14 month old cocker spaniel, seem to show me little respect. She does not respond to me when I call her name and the recall is very poor. Also if I leave a side gate open and she is not tethered she will run off and it is then a trial to get her back because of the recall. On the lead training in the garden she is very different, sits, stays, will recall. I would welcome your comments, thank you


Greetings, and thank you for contacting us! I will try to address each issue separately and divide into smaller segments so you’re not overwhelmed with too much information. There are several explanations for your dog’s behavior, and the good news is that you can work on the issues and transform your dog into an active listener by following some easy steps.

Welcome to the Terrible Teens! Your dog is 14 months old which means she’s at the peak of the adolescent stage. Consider that dogs are considered “teenagers” generally between the ages of 6 months up to around 18 months. This is a transitory phase, meaning your dog is in between two temporary, yet very important, developmental stages midway from the puppy stage and the adult one. While your dog may seem to be maturing physically, she may have moments of reverting to puppy behaviors and show little impulse control. At this stage, dogs are often looking for ways to drain their boundless energy and keep their brains mentally stimulated. On top of that, during this stage, dogs may turn a deaf ear and at times they may act as if they have never heard a command before. Gone are the days during which puppies were following us from room to room eager to please us! It’s not a coincidence that, sadly, the majority of dogs relinquished to shelters happen to be in the adolescent stage. It can be challenging, it can be nerve wrecking, but it’s only temporary and the best part is that your dog is getting towards the end of it, even though it’s true that dogs will need training for a lifetime. Don’t feel discouraged. As with the human teenager phase, this stage will pass. I will be happy to offer you some guidelines to help you out.

A Matter or Bonding

We often think dogs aren’t respectful to us, when in reality, they’re just not in tune with us because we haven’t given them the opportunity to bond with us and learn that we can be the source of wonderful things. You mention she is tethered outdoors. If she’s tethered for a good part of the day, this could be preventing her from bonding with you as she should. You may be therefore missing out many opportunities to interact with her, observe her and meet her social needs. If your dog is often tethered, she will also likely have pent-up energy, so as soon as she’s loose she’ll enjoy releasing that energy, and on top of that, she’ll likely enjoy the exhilarating feeling of being free. On her free romps around the neighborhood, she ‘ll also likely get to sniff around, perhaps meet other dogs and people, chase animals and even eat something yummy she’s not supposed to. All of this is highly reinforcing, meaning she feels good about it so she’ll try to escape more and more. Worst of all, all these positive experiences are happening in your absence, and when you go get her, all these wonderful things end, making you the party pooper that ends all the fun. It’s not surprising therefore why she’s trying to escape and ignores your efforts to call her back. As much as this all sounds like bad news, there’s some really good news coming up.

The Secret to Obedient Dogs

You can change things for the better! The most obedient dogs I have seen come from homes where the dogs are kept in the home with their owners. Often, dogs are relegated to the yard either because they are misbehaving or have poor potty manners. Yet, being left in the yard or tethered, doesn’t give them give them the opportunity to learn anything other than getting frustrated as they wish they could be with their family or escape the yard for an adventure where they get to meet other people or dogs. So I would suggest starting today, keeping your dog indoors with you and working on training her inside. People are often surprised how good their dogs become once they are welcomed indoors. Sure, they may struggle the first few days, but most dogs are great in the home once their needs for exercise and mental stimulation are met.

Keep that Brain Busy!

Your dog is a hunting breed; indeed, as you may already know, the cocker spaniel was used to hunt birds, to be specific, a species of woodcock (hence, their name cocker). This means these dogs need a certain amount of exercise and mental stimulation. Instead of letting your dog walk herself and enjoy the amenities of the outdoor world, take her with you on daily walks and make yourself the source of great happenings by teaching her to walk next to you and getting wonderful treats from you when she’s in heel position. At home, provide ample of mental stimulation by offering interactive toys. Get rid of the food bowl and hide her kibble around the home, make a trail out of kibble or stuff it in a Kong. Keep her happy and busy!

Make Coming to You Music for Her Ears!

The recall command (coming when called) is one of the most important commands dogs will learn. Often this command is poisoned, meaning that it loses it’s potency as it becomes associated with negative events. For instance, if you call your dog when it’s time for bath time and your dog hates baths, next time, you call him you can’t be surprised if he’s hiding under the bed because he has learned to associate his name with the negative event (the bath). If you have been calling your dog when she escapes, only to tether her again, or even worse, scold her and then tether her, the recall command weakens as the dog learns it’s highly inconvenient attending to the command as it means being involved in a negative situation. So how to remedy this? We change the recall command so to give it a fresh new meaning and we make it as highly reinforcing as possible. So if you used to say “Over here, over here!” let’s transform it to “Daisy coooome!” said in the most happy and upbeat voice you can make.

Start with Low Distractions

Why does your dog listen to you when in the garden on lead? First off, she knows that when she’s on lead, she’s prevented from escaping. Second, the recall on lead has a different meaning than the recall once she has taken off and escaped the gate. When you call her when she’s on lead, to her it may be interpreted as: “come to me since you have no where better to go” versus the recall when she’s going, going, gone from the gate may mean:”come here, come here, so I can tether you again!” It’s a no-brainer deciding which command to listen to.

Once your dog is inside with you, your dog will be more in tune with you and you can take advantage of many opportunities to make the recall command as wonderful as it should be. If she loves her kibble, prepare it when somebody else holds her by the lead or opens the crate door to release her. This will build some anticipation. When the meal is ready, call her (your helper will be ready to unsnap the lead the moment you call her) and put the bowl down. Do the same when you buy her a new toy, bone or it’s time to go on walks if she loves walks. The recall needs to be a predictor of wonderful things so she doesn’t have to think twice wondering if it’s worthy of responding to. These are natural ways to polish the recall. Then, you can make purposely set recall sessions to make the recall further worthy listening to. Again, have a helper hold her, and call her, and when she comes to you, give her several small pieces of high-value treats in a row to leave a big impact, everlasting memory on her mind. Only after she does very well in the home responding to your recall every time you call, move to the yard.

Yard Work (with Gates Closed)!

In the yard, repeat the work done indoors. Have a helper hold her on leash, and then unsnap it when you call her. She should come running to you at full speed. Praise lavishly and reward with several tid bits in a row. It’s good to use super high value treats outdoors, think low-sodium hot dogs, cheese, freeze-dried liver or meatballs. You can even create a fun game of hide ‘n seek by having your helper hold her while you hide somewhere and call her to find you. Always make a great deal of coming when called. Also, when you are in the yard with her and she’s off leash (and the gate is securely locked), practice rewarding voluntary check-ins. This means rewarding her with treats every time she voluntarily comes near you. This makes you interesting, sometimes even more interesting than other stimuli in the yard.

A Word of Caution

Let’s face it, not many dogs resist the temptation of escaping a yard or an open door! Even more so dogs who had the opportunity to taste the freedom associated with exploring the world. With your daily walks and all the positive interactions with you, the outdoors will hopefully look less tempting. Note: It’s imperative that during the training stages that gates stays always closed. Actually, a gate should still be closed anyhow no matter how trained a dog is. Dogs are animals, and no training is ever 100 percent effective, which is why it’s unethical for a dog trainer to give guarantees. Just as we wouldn’t keep driving when we notice a ball on a street assuming that a child would be wise enough not to cross, we shouldn’t expect our dogs to ignore an open gate, even if we are there calling them.

Setting for Success

Of course, we can train and work hard on proofing our recall training so that in the event of a door or gate being left accidentally ajar, we have a higher chance our dog will make a good choice and come to us, compared to a dog who has had no training, but we must think that there is no way to guarantee through training the ability to overcome all of the risks dogs may be exposed to. An option you have, should you want to work on training your dog to make good choices despite an open gate, is using a long line (often sold in horse and tack supply stores). A long line allows you to safely practice recalls with the gate open while having control on your dog should she decide to ignore your recall. This training should be done gradually, keeping the long line shorter at first and practicing at a distance from the gate, then making the line longer and practicing closer to the gate. Don’t forget to always reward a lot for coming to you!

The Bottom Line

Yes, many dogs will come to you despite leaving an opened door or opened gate, (I know many dogs who would, including mine) but we shouldn’t take it for granted. There are always chances dogs will follow their instincts and desires which exposes them to danger. Many dogs are killed from escaping doors and yards (being hit by a car, exposure to toxins, eaten by predators) so it’s our responsibility as dog owners to ultimately keep them safe. It’s by far a safer option to simple close a gate than to gamble and expect our dogs to come to us in spite of the gate open especially that day we are at a disadvantage such as not noticing in time or the dog being unable to hear us because of a loud truck passing by.

The bottom line is that we can prevent dogs from making wrong choices, by controlling their environment and setting them up for success. Your dog is young, she’s in the teenager phase and is in need of some training. With your help, if you can set higher and higher goals gradually, you can help her learn how wonderful it is to stick by your side and how wonderful it is to come to you. As she further matures, she’ll also gain better impulse control and with your help she can potentially become a wonderful companion. I hope this helps! Sending you my best wishes and happy training!

Stuck in a “Duh” Moment

Gone are the days when your puppy was eager to please you. You’ll now likely notice your dog act as if he has never heard a command before. These “duh!” episodes of memory loss are quite common during the adolescent stage and will require your patience and understanding. Getting mad and frustrated when your dog doesn’t come to you when called won’t do any good. Fortunately, this is a transitory phase and you’ll eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel.

More Independence

Just like human teenagers, adolescent dogs will want to have it their way and will want more independence. We can’t blame them: this is the age where in the wild, canines separated from their families to form their own. They are lured to trying new behaviors and testing their boundaries. Gone are the days when your puppy loved to stick by your side and would come running the moment you were out of sight! There are many more interesting sights, smells and sounds at this time just waiting to be discovered.

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Adrienne Farricelle

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  • How can I train my dog to not ignore my commands when other people are around?

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