Trainer’s Corner: Learned Irrelevance

Why Your Dog May Be Ignoring You

I hear the complaint a lot. “My dog won’t listen to me. I know he hears me and I know he knows the behavior but he ignores me.” 

Understandably, it can be frustrating but know that, if it is happening to you, your dog is not trying to get under your skin. He is not being stubborn, dumb or obstinate. 

There are many reasons for your dog to appear to be blowing you off. One explanation is learned irrelevance. This occurs when your dog no longer responds to your cue because he has learned through experience that your words are of no significance. 

Here is how you could be causing it:

Over-use of words

When you repeat your cue over and over again, even use your cue as part of your behavior marker (such as good sit! Or good drop!), you are greatly weakening that association between the cue and the behavior. This is why, when training, less speaking is much better in providing your dog with greater clarity for learning. 

Teaching the cue too early

It could be that your dog never truly learned the intended behavior as you want it to look BEFORE you began adding your verbal cue to it, and therefore, your dog either has a very different interpretation of its meaning (to you dog, ‘sit’, may mean stand and look around for example, because you have inadvertently taught it that way) or your dog just doesn’t get it. This is why it is important to teach the behavior FIRST, build a strong history of reinforcement for that behavior, get it looking like you want it to look, and THEN adding the cue to it. 

Competing reinforcers

There is a strong established history of competing reinforcers, which are more valuable to your dog than the cued behavior. If you have not invested the time into building huge value for your dog to want to do the desired behavior, teaching that behavior on cue, and then incrementally working up to being able to successfully respond to that cue amidst different stimulus in different environments, just expecting your dog to be able to ‘sit’ or ‘come’ (for example) any time anywhere is not realistic.  This is why it is important to have an understanding of what those competing reinforcers are to your dog to avoid them until your dog has learned great value in doing the desired behavior. (Then you can use those competing reinforcers in your training!) Always begin teaching your dog new behaviors in an environment with minimal distractions where you both can succeed, and build fluency for that behavior in a systematic way with criteria. 

Lack of consistency

It could be that you have taught the behavior to a point, and then stopped working on it, or got a little impatient and tried to jump four steps in difficulty. It could be that you have started to reinforce different criteria for the behavior. 

And lastly, if your dog has really learned that your cue has a totally different meaning now than it was originally intended, you may need to go back to the beginning to re-teach the behavior.

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