Gift certificates for training services are available for family members and friends.

Serving the entire Washington Metropolitan Area, Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia

Do you ever feel like you’re working with a recalcitrant teenager when you’re training your dog? Sometimes they’ll do as they’re asked and other times it’s like they (or you) are from another planet? They look up at you with those liquid brown eyes, as if to say “Sorry Mom, did you say something?”

You may even have a teenage dog, whose brain and body hormones are not yet mature, making his concentration even more difficult. Just like children, all dogs are different and maturation rates vary. While sexual maturity can occur as early as six months of age, behavioral maturity sometimes doesn’t occur until a dog is a year or two old. Even if your dog has been spayed or neutered, his growth continues and you will notice changes in his physical coordination, attention span and social development. If your dog is fully adult, over two years of age, the reason for his selective hearing gets a bit less complex to explain.

Dogs Don’t Speak Our Language

This may sound simple, but we often forget! Because our own species is so language-based, we have a hard time believing that dogs are not verbal learners. Dogs are environmental learners. They learn and interpret much more from the environment, from their heightened senses of smell and hearing, than from any information we give them through the spoken word. While we are assailing them with a barrage of language, they’re receiving a wide range of sensory cues that may distract them, or actually even conflict with our words.

Often we give dogs mixed messages about our expectations; physically projecting one sensory impression while verbally requesting another. It’s no wonder we get that perplexed look from Rover! For example, one behavior dog owners often complain about is that their dog jumps up on people to greet them. Jumping up is a natural greeting behavior that all canine species are hard-wired to do. They do it for attention when greeting each other, to initiate play, or to get fed by their mom. Since humans are about five times the height of dogs, they naturally have to leap even higher to greet us. So what happens when Rover jumps up? We bend over him, using our hands to push them down or away, saying “Down boy!”, “No!”, “Stop that!”, “_____ (fill in the blank)!”

On one hand, we’re giving Rover exactly what he’s requested, our full attention with hands and eye contact. On the other, we’re verbally telling him to stop doing what is obviously rewarding to him. Our words are saying one thing while our actions are giving him a completely opposite message. Guess which one is more rewarding to your dog; the verbal reprimand or the physical reward? Whether a puppy, teenager, or adult, your dog entered the household with a clean slate; he doesn’t know what you consider good manners. He only knows whether his behaviors are rewarding to HIM. If the behavior brings an immediate reward from you or the environment, he will likely repeat it. If it has no reward or brings about an unpleasant consequence, he will likely NOT repeat it. A behavior that is not reinforced will eventually extinguish itself.

In her landmark book, The Culture Clash*, Jean Donaldson calls training “a dialogue you’re having with a species that doesn’t speak your language”. Dogs are amazingly quick learners and can discriminate very fine differences in their environment. While they vocalize, the spoken word is something they only learn from their association with people. Since the language or individual cues used are different in each family’s home, your dog has a big job in understanding and following your instructions.

Scientists believe a dog acquires a meaning vocabulary of about 180-200 words during an average 10-15 year life span. This is slightly less vocabulary than an average two-year-old child might understand, but a dog’s ability to understand sensory input is far superior to what any child, or adult, might understand. Dogs have 220 million olfactory receptors in their brains, compared to only 20 million in our own. Their hearing sensitivity is over 400% of ours. Is it any wonder that they sniff everything they find, and can hear a crumb drop in the kitchen while they’re sound asleep upstairs?

We can use their superior sensory abilities to train them, since they are so aware of movement, sound and smell. They read much more from the environment, from smells and sounds and from our body language, than they actually interpret from our words. We have to give our language meaning to them and teach them what word matches what action, in order to get the right response. We can’t expect our dog to do something on a verbal cue unless we have taught him the proper response to that specific word.

If you approach training based on your personal strengths and temperament, and with patience for your own dog’s learning curve, you will be successful. Verbal and physical cues work best when used together, for the dog to understand which action matches which signal and group of sounds.

A positive attitude and positive reinforcement training go hand in hand, and produce the best, long-lasting results. They strengthen the bond between you and your dog, and produce a dog that is happy to be with you and to work for you. Harsh words and forceful handling produce a dog that is afraid of you and is unwilling to perform what you ask. Keep small treats available, in your pocket on walks, so you can begin rewarding and praising your dog for every good behavior or correct response he performs.

If you take the time to teach your dog what word matches what action, reward each correct response and generally remember to show your dog what to do and not just tell him, you will find your communication skills greatly enhanced, and your dog a much better listener.

Dianna Stearns, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant

Waggin’s West Dog Training, LLC


* The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson, 1996, James and Kenneth Publishers, Berkeley, CA

Related Articles

Gift certificates for training services are available for family members and friends.

Holiday Special: 10% off new clients thru 1/31


Germantown, MD 20876


(240) 780-8408

Monday to Friday

9:30am - 5:30pm
Saturday: 9:30am - 3:30pm