Dear Inquisitive Canine:

My 5-year-old yellow lab, Chief, is great when my husband is walking him or just hanging out in the front yard with him while he works. However, when I am walking him or have him outside off-leash, he barks and runs after other dogs, despite my using the same commands as my husband. Why is it that he listens to my husband and not me? I am his caretaker, not my husband.

Joan Mayer and her sidekick, Poncho

Joan Mayer and her sidekick, Poncho

— Chief’s mom

Dear mom of Chief:

I totally understand how frustrating it can be when you don’t feel like you’re being heard. It’s hard not to take it personally — that’s normal human behavior. But when it comes right down to it, I’ll bet Chief’s listening skills have more to do with previous learning experiences, motivation, consistency and his keen doggy sense of being able to discriminate.

Being able to recognize and understand how these factors may affect a dog’s behavior can help us better coach him or her to develop the manners we want. To illustrate this, I’ve posted a short video to my dog training blog showing Poncho learning to “listen” and distinguish which actions will get him a nice reward.

Allow me to elaborate on these elements, and how they relate to your situation.

» Previous learning: Think rewards and punishments. If Chief was ever rewarded for making the right choice, or punished for making the “wrong” choice, then he’ll continue to perform behaviors that either “pay off” or that keep him safe from getting in trouble. Which brings me to …

» Motivation: What are the consequences of Chief’s actions from you vs. your husband? Does one of you throw a steak party every time Chief makes the better choice? Or is it more likely that Chief is saying to himself, “Uh, oh. When he (or she) is around, I better watch myself; otherwise, I’m gonna get in trouble.”

» Consistency: Consistency helps shape and train behaviors to make them more reliable. Are both you and your husband being consistent in what you’re trying to teach Chief?

» Discrimination: Just like kids learning which adult to go to when they want something specific, Chief has learned to discriminate who rewards and who punishes, or who ignores and who doesn’t. He has learned to associate when it is “safe” to act a certain way, and when it is more “dangerous.” He’s also learned which decision “pays off” and which one either gets him punished or nothing at all.

As a professional dog trainer, I would ask you the following:

» Is your husband stronger than you, so Chief isn’t able to pull at all? Do you allow Chief to pull sometimes, but not others?

» Is your husband rewarding him generously with praise, petting and treats when Chief does “listen,” or is he more intimidating? Does your husband give Chief that “look” to let him know he had better mind his manners? (You know, the one that our parents gave us to warn us we better behave.)

» When using the same commands, is your husband’s voice deeper and more threatening than yours?

» Are you rewarding Chief when he is making the better choice?

» Are you consistent with rewards and punishments?

No matter the answers, I think your goal is to get Chief to pay attention, mind his manners and “listen” to you, yes? Following a few simple steps could certainly help reach that goal:

» Consistency: Do all you can to be consistent. Reward heavily with petting, praise and yummy treats every time Chief makes the right choice. If performing a behavior is “safe” and it “pays off,” he’s more likely to perform that behavior.

» Motivation: Make sure what you’re offering as a reward is more motivating than what is in his environment. Going off to play with other dogs can be a lot more fun than being ignored or being scolded, so try to figure out how to make yourself more fun from Chief’s point of view.

» Timing: Catch Chief in the act of doing what you want and reward him. Whenever he is walking nicely on leash, acknowledge that. Whenever Chief walks by another dog and doesn’t react, acknowledge that. We often forget to say “thank you” for the little things.

To sum it all up: Consequences, timing, motivation and consistency with help shape Chief’s behavior and his ability to “listen” to you. Hopefully, once you practice some of the exercises, Chief will begin to listen to you, you’ll feel “rewarded” by his behavior instead of frustrated, and that is something you can take personally.

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail advice@theinquisitivecanine.com.

Joan Hunter Mayer

Joan Hunter Mayer

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and founder of The Inquisitive Canine. She and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Joan offers training and behavior consulting services both in person and online, dedicated to strengthening the human-canine bond. If you are feeling inquisitive and have dog training questions, email advice@theinquisitivecanine.com and click here for more training tips. The opinions expressed are her own.