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Why is My Dog Not Listening to Me?

Somethings that we often encounter early in our training experience are situations where it just seems like our dog completely doesn't hear a verbal command. If you've experienced this, don't worry, you're not alone.

The topic of today's blog post is about how dog's brains prioritize information received from different sensory receptors. For example, dogs hear a verbal cue with their ears, see a hand signal with their eyes, and feel the leash pressure on their skin. Most would agree that it should only take one cue for my dog to understand what I want them to do, so why does it seem like I have to give my dog so much extra information to communicate what I want?

The answer is all about how dogs' brains prioritize the information as it is received. To describe an example of how this prioritization can effect your training, we can look at trainers who combine the use of verbal commands and hand signals at the same time. In the vast majority of dogs trained in this style, you'll find that they actually will respond to just the handsignal alone, but will rarely respond to the verbal cue only.

But why is this?

Its all about priority. When the dog sees the hand signal and hears the verbal command at the same time, the visual cue receives a higher priority in their brain than the auditory verbal cue. You can compare this to trying to read and listen to someone talk at the same time. If you're like many of us, you would likely end up needing to re-read the passage again, or after you finish reading the section you may need to ask the person to repeat themselves. The reason is because your brain will automatically focus on one sense to receive and process information while blocking out the others during important tasks.


How can this information help improve your dog training?

During training, we always stress separating the verbal cue from any other signal that will lead to the desired behavior. I often tell our students to stand up straight in a neutral position with their hand at their sides (not in their treat bag!) and give the cue in a neutral voice. After the verbal cue is given then to provide any additional guidance or assistance to ensure the dog follows through with the behavior. This ensures the dog can register the verbal cue first!

The priority of the senses in dogs is the result of evolution and survival instinct. The threat that I can see is a higher priority than the threat that I may hear. The threat that is touching me is definitely higher than any other threat!

What does this tell us about the prioritization of senses?

Physical cues will take priority over any visual or verbal cue. Visual with trump verbal, and the verbal is at the bottom of the totum pole. This means that if I say the word sit at the same time that I am pushing my dog's butt to the ground, my dog will likely not even register the word "sit" because of the pressure I am applying with my hand.

What about smell and taste?

The senses of smell and taste also belong in the hierarchy or sensory perception in dogs as well, however unless you are training scent detection we don't often use smell or taste as cues for behaviors. Additionally, this hierarchy may differ for different breeds and temperments of dogs. For some dogs with exceptionally high prey-drive visual information can be prioritized the highest in certain situations. In dogs bred for tracking the sense of smell will be much higher in the priority ranking. These can also be situational as well. The brain of a dog who is extremely hungry will likely prioritize their sense of smell and taste.


This simple problem is the the most common reason why we see dog's who don't respond to verbal commands even in low distraction environments. As long as you remember to separate the verbal command from any other guiding information such as gestures, pressure, or luring your dog will be much more responsive to training and more reliable as the difficulty increases.

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