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Naughty dog or unfair expectations?

Many of the people I talk with are sure that their dog is stubborn, naughty, knows he’s doing something wrong and is purposefully disobeying, being dominant, a jerk, * insert negative words here *…but I have only met confused dogs.

For a dog to be stubborn he must first know exactly what he should be doing in a given situation and then wilfully do something else. However, most people don’t realise just how “situational” dogs are. There are many things in the environment that could be cueing your dog and it might not be your command at all. In my experience, dogs that know better, do better.

What does it means to “know” a behaviour?

  • It must have been taught effectively,

  • It must have been put on a cue (either verbal or situational),

  • It must have been generalised (to a variety of circumstances, locations and distractions) AND

  • It must have a history of being rewarded.

The guilty look that people think their dog give is actually cued by angry human behaviour/body language, you can take any innocent dog and yell at it and it will give you that look despite not having done anything “wrong”. It is an appeasement signal to try and get you to calm down.

Sometimes dogs act “guilty-looking” before you even know what’s wrong because of a circumstance that has caused you to be angry in the past e.g. rubbish on the floor. I could put rubbish on the floor near the bin (which the dog didn’t rummage through) and the dog would give you that look when you come home. It’s not because “he knows he has done something wrong” it’s because ‘’rubbish on the floor’’ is now a situation for their human being angry and therefore a cue for the dog to give appeasement signals, or look guilty.

I’ll give you a two examples of situational training:

Example 1:

My dog Popely loves the “BED” command, I say it to her and she will run with a spring in her step, jump-land on her bed and lie down, tail wagging with excitement. I could even say that it’s her absolute favourite trick, she can run from one side of the house to the other to go to bed. She can do it when I’m in the room with the bed or outside the room with the bed. She will even run to her bed if I put it outside in the garden, or at the park. And she will stay there until I give her a release cue.

So, this is an example of a dog that clearly “knows” the command? Isn’t it?

But let’s change the situation ever so slightly – all of the times I say the word “BED” to Popely, I am standing up and looking at her face.

So to test out this theory, I put her bed in my room, a mere 1.5meters away from me. She can go to the bed from a distance of over 20 meters so this should be easy for her, right?

So I lie down on my bed and look at her and I say it. I say “BED”…

And she looks at me like I’m an alien. What am I asking? I can see the confusion in her body language, she runs up to me to figure it out – I’m no longer speaking her language, she even gives me her paw, sits and offers other more basic behaviours. She can see the piece of cheese I have in my hand and she WANTS to work for it but still she does not understand the "BED" command in this situation.

I’ve still given the command facing her, all I’ve changed is the fact that I’m lying down.

Now should I punish or get angry at her for her “bad” behaviour? She definitely knows that word and she can go to that bed from every single room in the house! She can go there from the garden and in the park! She MUST be wilfully disobeying me! Right?

Why would she want to do that?

I have a treat in my hand, she wants the treat in my hand, she loves the behaviour, she loves working for me and there are no significant distractions.

She is not disobeying; she just doesn’t understand the cue when I’m lying down. Her current set of circumstances for the running and lying on the bed behaviour are: being somewhere similar to where we have practised the behaviour, presence of her usual bed, me facing her, my standing up and saying the word BED. I could change any of these and the behaviour probably would not happen.

In our next training session, I train her while I’m sitting on my bed and then while I’m lying down on my bed and now she knows the cue in those situations with less than four minutes of training.

How small can these situational differences be?

Absolutely TINY!

Your dog may know a command when you give them your full attention and face them and not understand the same command when your hand is touching your toe in a yoga stretch, or when you have a phone in one hand or you’re leaning against a door frame or your body language is different.

Try it out yourself – stand facing a wall and ask your dog to lie down, most won’t do it!


Example 2


I trained with a competition winning dog who the owner says can do everything with him but blatantly ignores his wife. I watched his training and his body language – turns out every time he said sit he would move his head upwards at the dog and when he said down, he would put one hand on his hip. So, I asked him to try just saying the words without moving his head or hand and the dog did not know the verbal cues for Sit or Down. This is a competition winning obedience dog.


These are examples of accidental cues. In this case, the dog is not listening to the words at all; he thinks the heat tilt or hand position is the cue. Again, this is not a naughty or stubborn dog.

Other situational cues could be: dog only knows tricks when he can see the food or when you are wearing a treat bag, dog only knows tricks in sunny weather, dog only knows tricks inside the house but not at the park etc.

These situations apply to toilet training as well: some dogs may only know that they need to go outside under certain circumstances, such as when in particular rooms of the house, when there are people home or when it’s nice weather outside.

In order to combat this, we have to train in all the circumstances where we want our dog to listen to us. If that sounds like something a dog trainer would say - then it is and it works! :P

Just like everything in life, you will hear of people who never had to do much work to get where they are and their dog just “got it”. And that’s fine, some dogs are just better generalisers than others.

I will work with you to train the dog you have and help them reach their best behaviour! ☺

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