choice training

My dog won’t take no for an answer

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“My dog has many good points but does not take no for an answer and is very disobedient when he appears to be totally deaf.”

So wrote a reader of her “challenging” dog.

Well, I’m glad the poor dog’s owner recognises he has good points! But the rest of her statement means that she doesn’t understand her dog or his motivation one bit.

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Disobedient. The dictionary tells us this means “refusing to obey rules or someone in authority”. Now if you’re to obey rules, you have to know what those rules are. And I’m willing to bet this dog has NO idea what the rules are that he’s meant to “obey”!

A common misconception

There seems to be an extraordinary misunderstanding rife amongst dog-owners. They think their dog arrives pre-programmed with English (or Spanish, or Turkish, or whatever they speak themselves). They think that the dog will have a perfect understanding of the meaning of words enunciated loudly and with clarity. So “SIT!” should immediately have the dog sitting.

Furthermore, they think that all their physical expressions and vocal tones will be instantly understood. So “NOOOOOO!” said in a menacing way with finger wagging will clearly mean “Take your paws off the table and go to your basket.”

How is your non-verbal, non-human, dog meant to know this?

Teach first

In the first place, your dog needs to be taught what it is that’s wanted - not left to guess, take pot-luck and hope he gets it right.

You have to give the dog information about what it is you want, not just what you don’t want.

Think of a toddler in your home. You’d be showing her what you wanted, kindly and patiently, naming objects and actions in that motherly chatty way that comes naturally to loving parents. Requests would come as suggestions, (Do you think your teddy bear would like to have tea now?) You wouldn’t bark orders at her! You wouldn’t expect her to understand language before she is verbal herself!

You may treat your dog the exact same way. And it’ll help if you think of how you get your wishes known and followed with your human family.

Cues not commands

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Do you order, or “command” your partner or family?

Or do you perhaps ask them?

Perhaps you drop hints, without even saying anything at all! For instance, you may come home exhausted and throw yourself into an armchair. A sensitive family member may say “I’ll put the shopping away for you - would you like a cup of tea?” Or even, “You make us a cup of tea and I’ll deal with all these groceries.”

We give and take. We assess a person’s mood and act accordingly. We adapt our requirements to the situation. We are kind and patient (if we want to keep the peace!).

In enlightened dog training, we call these communications - not “commands” but “cues”. They can be vocal cues (“Would you like to sit?”), or they could be environmental cues (I’m holding your lead - if you want me to put it on you for a walk you need to sit). And no, they don’t understand every word - neither does your toddler. But they can get the drift.

So if you take the word “command” right out of your vocabulary you may find that straight away you get on better with your dog. Really!

You have asked your dog to Sit and she doesn’t. Instead of shouting SIT ever louder and more urgently, you may ask yourself why she doesn’t sit:

• Is it because she’s in pain?

• Is it because the floor is slippery so she’s unable to prop herself up?

• Is it because it’s wet and muddy and she’s a comfort-lover? (My whippet wouldn’t dream of sitting on wet grass - and I’d never ask her to!)

• Is it because she’s distracted by the dog over the road/the postman/children screaming/the shopping bags on the floor/[insert your dog’s fear or fancy here]?

• … or is it perhaps because you never taught her?

“Disobedient” and other such words

The dictionary gives us related words for disobedient:

unruly, wayward, errant, disorderly, delinquent, disruptive, troublesome, rebellious, defiant, mutinous, recalcitrant, uncooperative, non-compliant, wilful, unbiddable, intractable, obstreperous, awkward, difficult, perverse, contrary, naughty, mischievous …

I’ve heard almost all of those words applied to a dog’s behaviour by a frustrated and thwarted owner! Often it’s new dog-owners talking about their first puppy. They clearly are labouring under the misapprehension I outlined above, and are expecting miraculous perception from this baby of another species.

Usually I suggest they substitute the word they’ve used (often stubborn, difficult, disobedient) with a word which better fits the situation: try fearful, shy, overexcited, hungry, overtired … perhaps the sort of words you may use to describe that little toddler who is not doing what you’d like.

We all have reasons for doing things

Of one thing you may be sure - dogs don’t do things for no reason.

You may not be able to see or understand the reason - but there is a reason! And as we’re meant to be the ones with the bigger brains, and we chose to have this dog live with us, it’s up to us to work out what that reason is.

You’ll find some study of Dog Body Language will repay you well (see Resources below). Your dog will heave a huge sigh of relief when at last you seem to understand his clear messages! And no, they’re not obvious to most of us dumb humans till they’re explained to us.

Once you know whether your dog is just distracted or - perhaps - afraid, you’ll be able to deal accordingly with the situation. Keep in mind that you cannot train an emotion-based behaviour out of a dog. They’re not operating on a rational basis at that moment, any more than your shrieking toddler who wants something she can’t get.

So, as I replied to the reader I quoted at the top of this piece, assess the situation carefully before you apportion blame. Your dog needs your help and understanding, not condemnation.

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Can I really train my dog by giving him a choice?

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We all want to do the best for our dogs. Of course we do! 

We love them dearly and want only good things for them. That’s why you’re here!

But it’s so frustrating that when it comes to training for your pet there are often so few options in your locality. Either the classes are at difficult times, too far away, or there’s just too much going on in your life. You were already using your allotted 24 hours in full before you got a dog! Now you’ve got to fit all this in - maybe three hours out of one of your valuable evenings at home with the family. 

Then there’s the trekking to the class, perhaps in the dark, having to organise babysitters - many won’t allow children. The weather may be awful, you may be held up at work, your car may break down! It’s common for even the most dedicated of dog-owners to have to miss lessons from the local class they’ve enrolled at. Life happens!

Another problem is that you can’t find any trainers you’d want to work with. There’s an awful lot of harsh training out there, often masquerading as good training - making it very hard to know what you’re letting yourself and your dog in for. Having your dog shouted at by a “trainer” is bad - being shouted at yourself, belittled, shown up - is even worse!

So all in all I do understand why lots of people decide to pass on classes and “do it themselves”. 

Trouble is, that only works if you know the answers already! Otherwise you may just be passing on the old-fashioned methods and old wives’ tales handed down to you in your childhood.

You need to have access to the latest in scientific training techniques, with convenient classes led by an experienced and understanding trainer.

Check out my new online Challenging Dog Mini-Course and Wild Puppy Mini-Course teaching new dog and puppy owners to achieve lasting results through a few crucial lessons of dog-friendly training


Times they are a-changing

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Well, I may have an answer for you! As a trainer who uses only dog-friendly methods, based in science (no pixie dust or magic mushrooms!), and who genuinely has the dog’s wellbeing at heart, I could be just who you’re looking for. I’m also people-friendly! You won’t be shouted at or belittled as sadly so often happens in dog training classes.

I get amazing results very quickly, and it’s all done by giving the dog a choice - just as you do with your family and workmates. You don’t order them around and expect them to comply! You show them what you’d like, then encourage them to choose to do that for you.

As you know by now, I don’t talk gobbledygook. Look at these emails - representative of many that I get. Life is too short to be trying to unfathom deep mysteries! We want it explained in language we can understand.

“Thank you for sharing your easy-to-follow tips, helping us to help Smidge become our Brilliant Family Dog!”
Janet and Smidge Patterdale x

“Thank you for your books and articles - they are a great help: clear, simple and easy to follow and remember. I've read similar books, but almost all are much more wordy and hard to remember.”
Carol and Charlie in Singapore

“Wow! Back to Amazon! :-) I’m only partway through the first book but it’s great. So easy to understand. So well explained.”
Shirley and Hettie, Huntaway

So that is always my aim. It’s absolutely pointless having information about how the dog’s mind works, and being unable to convey it to the person the dog has to live with - through not understanding how the owner’s mind works!

Hmm … but just look at the map

BUT - I hear you cry! - you live in the middle of England and I live in Australia / West Coast of America / Hong Kong / Scotland / [insert your location here]. 

Puppy Wilfred is proud to walk smartly along with his owner!

Puppy Wilfred is proud to walk smartly along with his owner!

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, things are changing. Anything can be taught effectively online, from baking to weight loss, from ancient philosophy to astro-physics, there are even popular courses on blacksmithing and aerial dance! I have personally taken a lot of online courses and found them hugely helpful.

And dog training is another subject that works really well! You follow the course in your own time, and in your own home! If things are explained thoroughly and understandably, and you are shown videos of the training in action, you can learn really fast. 

So here you go! I’m running a 5 Day Workshop live on Facebook, where you can learn how to teach your dog to connect with you, using games which your dog will love, in just five days. Yes, that’s my promise to you. Don’t believe me? Come along and take part - and prove me wrong!

It’s free, so you have nothing to lose! It’ll just take 15’ of your time each day to follow the Workshop, and as much time as you want to spend playing with your dog to do the homework.

The workshop starts on Monday 27th November at 0900 EST / 1300 GMT, so you’ve got a few days to get yourself organised.

You can register here, get access to the Workshop private group, and get started!

See you there!


The Workshop has ended (it was a blast!) but check out my new online Dog Training Course and Puppy Training Course teaching new dog and puppy owners to achieve lasting results through six weeks of dog-friendly coaching


Are you a Firefighter or a Planner?

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I get so many emails along the lines of 

      • “How can I stop my dog doing xyz?”

      • “Every time x happens, my dog does y”

      • “My dog does xyz out of the blue.”

      • “My dog always does xyz - I say NO, but he doesn’t seem to learn and does it again next time.”

Let’s take these one by one.

1. “How can I stop my dog doing xyz?”

Far, far, easier than stopping your dog, is to ensure he doesn’t start!

It may be that you’re new to living with a dog, and you can’t foresee what’s likely to happen. Once you have a few dogs “under your belt” you get much quicker at spotting hazards in advance. So, if your dog already has an established behaviour pattern that you don’t like (and if he was re-homed with you, he may have come with this habit already well-learnt), you want to look at what causes that action to happen. 

Once you know the precursor, you have a chance to change the outcome

Perhaps your dog jumps up on visitors. What happens before he jumps?

1. Visitor arrives at house and knocks at door (huge excitement!)
2. Visitor is admitted (excitement unparalleled)
3. Maybe visitor tries to greet the dog, in self-defence (dog is massively rewarded for lunatic activity)

So you have three clear points there where you could make changes. 

1. When visitor arrives, or - if expected - before visitor is due, settle your dog in his crate or another room with a chewtoy or stuffed foodtoy.
2. As the visitor is admitted to the house, your dog is either safe in his crate or other room, or is on lead beside you with your foot on the lead, and cannot jump.
3. If visitor wants to greet dog (preferably when you ask them to) dog has to stay sitting in order to earn this mighty reward.

So there you have three easy fixes to a nuisance behaviour with little effort - just a little advance planning.

2. “Every time x happens, my dog does y”

This is along similar lines as the first point, but this time my correspondent has picked up on the fact that something happens first, then the dog reacts. So we’re ahead already!

Sometimes the full question may read:

“Every time another dog walks towards us on the street, my dog lunges and barks.”

What’s happening here?
1. Strange dog (and probably strange person) are advancing towards your dog
2. Your dog is afraid of this incursion
3. Your dog is on lead and cannot exercise the “Flight” part of “Fight or Flight”, so he puts on an aggressive display to frighten away the intruder
4. Other dog and owner turn and go, or hurry past, or you turn and go (Result! The threat has gone! The barking and lunging worked!)

So we want to change this to:

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1. Strange dog/person advancing - turn and go the other way, or cross the road
2. Demonstrate to your dog that he needn’t be afraid, you will take care of him
3. Keep hands soft on the lead so he doesn’t feel trapped, and make distance
4. The other dog has gone without the need to be shouted at!

3. “My dog does xyz out of the blue.”

So you can see by now, that your dog never does stuff out of the blue. Unless your dog has dementia, there’s always a reason, just like there is for anything we do. 

The trick is in identifying the reason so we can fix it at that stage, without waiting for the full bad thing to happen.

And one of the commonest times I hear this statement is in regard to dogs reacting - perhaps leaping up and snapping. There’s always a reason!

Perhaps the dog is resource guarding - a speck of food, his owner, a shred of tissue, a toy - and someone got too near. Perhaps he felt another dog was threatening him, too close. Perhaps someone leant over and scratched his bum without permission! (How would you feel if a stranger scratched your bum without so much as a “by your leave”?)

Dogs always run through a sequence of calming signals before biting. Granted, they may run through it pretty fast, especially if they do it a lot. But they do do it. Just as you’d be unlikely to spin round on that stranger and pull a knife: rather, you’d fix him with a frosty glare and maybe say something loud enough for others to hear. 

Kendal Shepherd's Canine Ladder of Aggression

Kendal Shepherd's Canine Ladder of Aggression

So the dog who bit “out of the blue” will probably have tried to turn away, gone still and stiff, shown the whites of his eyes, given a stare, wrinkled his lip, mumbled a growl, swished his tail stiffly, maybe snapped - all steps ascending the Canine Ladder of Aggression - before he felt forced to bite. Fighting is dangerous for all parties, and is not entered upon unless it’s the only choice. 

By the way, dogs are so much faster than us, that if a dog is going to bite you, you are going to get bitten. There is no “He nearly bit me but I moved away in time.” If you are genuinely threatened by a dog, your best course of action is to avert your gaze and posture, keep your arms still, and stop being a threat. 

Teaching children to “be a tree” when confronted by a dog they don’t know is an essential skill: 

  • Plant your roots (keep your feet still)

  • Fold your branches (fold your arms across your body)

  • Watch your roots grow (look at your feet)

A child running away screaming and flapping arms and legs is a great target for a chasing dog!

4. “My dog always does xyz - I say NO, but he doesn’t seem to learn and does it again next time.”

Here we have a combination of acting too late to affect the outcome, and using punishment to try and fix the situation. Both are doomed to failure.

We’ve seen above that you have to identify the precursors to an action if you want any chance of changing it. If your dog “always” does whatever it is, this means it’s a firm habit which you are allowing to happen every time. Change something! Find out what the sequence is and interrupt it. 

If you wait till he’s done it and punish, he’s already been rewarded and you are too late

And as for saying NO, this really is not going to help. Saying NO gives the dog no information about what you do want, and just tells him that you are angry with him and adversarial. You’re not on the same side as him any more, so he can’t expect any help from you. This is exactly what we don’t want in our relationship with our dog! 

Instead, decide on what you want him to do instead, teach him how to do that, reward his response enthusiastically, and you now have a new go-to action for that situation. 

Let’s revisit the first example above:

1. Your dog jumps up on a visitor (fun - visitor dances and flaps hands)
2. You shout NO (more fun! You’re joining in with him now!)

How about, instead:

1. You ask your dog to sit on lead as visitor arrives (you have taught and rewarded this endlessly)
2. Dog sits as you welcome your visitor
3. Dog is rewarded - either with a treat, or by being allowed to greet the visitor calmly

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No firefighting!

A lot of these “beginner” mistakes can easily be avoided or changed with a little foresight. Don’t expect your dog to be a small hairy version of a civilised human brought up with our society’s values. 

He’s a dog.

So think of how he sees the situation - get inside his head and think like a dog - then you can pick out the turning points where you can directly influence the outcome, with a happy dog!

You have to be proactive, not a firefighter. This is true of life in general, and never more true than in developing the magical bond with your dog.

Lots more help can be found in other articles here at Brilliant Family Dog, and specific “recipes” to change things you don’t like can be found in our free 8-part email course.

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Are you paying your dog MORE for what you don’t want him to do?

We all come across everyday problem behaviours with our dog that may seem difficult to resolve. Owners are often baffled as to how to approach this and have resorted to saying “NO” ever more loudly. With little result.

But quite often, the things we don’t like our dog to do have started, or escalated, because we have our focus on the wrong area.

Dogs do what works

If an action of theirs gets a consequence they like, they’ll do it again. And again. And again and again. If that action gets a poor consequence, or no consequence at all, they’ll give it up and try something else. Sometimes, what you think is going to stop him, actually makes your dog worse. “All this attention and shouting,” he thinks, “I’ll have to do this again!”

Keep in mind that they’ve always got to be doing something. They can’t NOT do anything.

So all we have to do is make sure to reward what we like, immediately and enthusiastically, to get our dog to realise that that is a profitable course of action.

It’s all about choice

We have choice points all day, every day:

  • “Will I get up now or hit the snooze button?”

  • Coffee or tea?

  • Breakfast or none?

  • Red jumper or blue jumper?

and so on throughout the day.

Your dog also has choices all day long:

  • “Shall I bark at the window or watch quietly?”

  • “Will I lie down in the kitchen during cooking, or try to steal food?”

  • Jump up at the visitor or sit?

  • Chew the chair leg or my toy?

and so on.

Your job is not to TELL your dog what he should be doing, but observe his actions and be sure to throw a party whenever he makes the right choice.

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“But he’ll never choose to sit for visitors!”

And this is where we do intervene, but only to manage the situation to prevent what we don’t want to happen. Putting him on lead and standing on the lead would be a good interim management technique for greeting visitors. Meanwhile your dog learns during training sessions that a Sit is a good choice and will always earn him a reward. This could be treats, a game, or an opportunity to greet that visitor!

If you

Reward what you like,

Ignore what you don’t like, and

Manage what you can’t ignore,

you’ll be on track for developing a responsiveness in your dog that may amaze you!

Here’s what Sophie said after giving this a try for just a couple of weeks:

“Just thought that I would let you know that your brilliant idea of rewarding for the behaviour that we want has helped Odin to become a very calm and patient puppy when it’s our dinner time. He will lie down nicely and play with his toys while we're eating. :) “

No “NOOOOOs”. No “Ah-ahs”. No frustrated nagging. No tellings-off. Just selecting the action she liked and rewarding it solved the problem for Sophie.

So how do I start with this?

I’d like you to pick just one thing that is annoying you about your dog, decide what you’d like him to do instead, then heavily reward him every time he makes the right choice. Don’t make this too hard - keep it simple!  The simpler you make the problem, the faster your dog will work out the solution.

Be sure that all family members are on the same page here! And after a week you should be seeing a vast improvement.

And for extra help, get our free e-mail course on puppy problems.


Tell me in the comments below what you picked, and how it’s going. I shall look forward to seeing just how resourceful you can be!