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The Non-Compliant Dog

Before determining that your dog is truly non-compliant, make sure of the following:


Is your dog in any pain or is it feeling unwell? Often the first signs of illness will be non-compliant behavior. Years ago I was called out to work with a dog who was causing some trouble in the yard. He was digging in the flower beds and then refusing to move out of them. This sounded bad, but when I went to see, the dog was obese (like, morbidly obese.) The yard was out in full sun and the dog would drag himself, panting, to the only shady cool spot (the flowerbed.) He’d scratch around to get into the damp dirt, and then flop into it. If you called him, he’d sort of pant apologetically and flop around. This dogs non-compliance was very clearly due to his health and physical condition – he was overheated and obese.


Does your dog actually know what it’s supposed to be doing? Before I announce that my dog is “refusing” to lie down, I need to make sure that he actually knows what “down” means. If I lured him into a down position a few times in the house and gave him a cookie for it, and then a couple of weeks later did it again and that was it, then he likely has no idea what I’m asking for, now that it’s next month and we’ve really only practiced the two times. If I’ve never practiced with distractions present, and now there’s distractions present, I similarly can’t say with certainty that he’s fluent enough in “down” to do it with distractions. This would be an issue where the dog has had insufficient training – not a compliancy issue.


Is your dog mentally capable of what it’s supposed to be doing? I see fear issues masked as compliancy issues all the time. The usual situation is the dog who’s tense about the environment being asked to sit or lie down, and the dog refusing. Why is the dog refusing? Usually because sitting or lying down are more vulnerable positions and the dog is remaining vigilant and wary, not willing to relax for a moment. When you get the dog into a more comfortable environment though, it suddenly becomes responsive again.


So, if you have mentally run through all these possibilities and determined that your dog is very healthy, is appropriately trained and has had sufficient practice, and is running at an even emotional keel and is still not complying with your request (often because there are more interesting things going on), then non-compliance may be at play here.


Non-compliance is usually when the dog would rather be doing something other than what you’re requesting. It would rather get up and move around than remain in settle position. It would rather continue romping in the backyard than come inside. Situations where you can easily identify what the “dog would rather do” are most likely to be non-compliance.


In general, you want to keep situations where the dog can avoid compliance to a minimum. This is why you don’t introduce true off-leash work too early, for example; all early off-leash work needs to be done either in a fenced area or on a long line.) Don’t let the young or novice dog be in a position where it can consider your request, determine “no,” and move on to self-reward for this – for example, if you call your dog back to you, he decides “no,” and then proceeds to race further off in the park.


So let’s say that your dog can’t actually get away from you and self-reinforce, but you’d still like him to lie down and settle while you finish your coffee. In this case, a firm but steady insistence is best. One of you is going to win; it should be you. At no point should this devolve into anything physical that you do to the dog – no squashing it into a sit, for example. And nothing that involves you losing your temper and yanking or yelling at your dog. Instead, you are going to “close the dog’s world” until he or she complies. This means cutting off all other possible means of reward; for example, you might shorten the dogs leash so that it is unable to sniff or move around too much. You can move yourself into your dogs line of sight; make very sure that you are not scaring your dog as you do this, but facing the dog can often refocus it as you “insist” on getting its attention (you are doing this through body language and movement; not by yelling at it or jerking it.)


The two most important things you can do to ensure long-term compliance are: 1) Make sure that you’re not just randomly giving cues or commands that you have no means of following up with. It’s a huge error to attempt to call a novice dog or puppy off a high-level distraction. The distraction will prove too tempting, and the dog will learn that it does not actually need to come back to you, and you will have no way of stopping this learning. 2) Make sure that most of the time, the dog is pleasantly rewarded for compliance. Coming when called should usually initiate walks, treats, attention/play, etc.

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