How to Teach Your Dog to Listen

By Lydia Janssen

All the training in the world won't help if your dog doesn't listen when it counts. Whether you want your dog to consistently follow house rules like not jumping up on guests, to respond immediately whenever you call him, or to perform tricks on command, you will need patience and planning to help your dog succeed. Consistency, understanding your dog's personal limits, and gradually building behaviors will help your dog listen and respond even in stressful situations.

Preparing for Success

If you want your dog to listen in a variety of situations, you need to set him up for success. Keep training sessions under 15 minutes to keep his interest and motivation high; a tired or bored dog is less likely to pay attention. Employ rewards that are motivating and exciting. Some dogs will do anything to win a treat; others may want you to throw a ball or play a game of tug.

When asking for a behavior, keep your voice firm but quiet, and say the command only once. If your dog doesn't listen, consider what distractions are around him, whether the reward is motivating enough and whether he fully understands the command yet. Repeating yourself louder will only teach your dog that he doesn't have to listen the first time. Once your dog is reliably doing a behavior in training, start asking for it throughout the day. For example, tell him to sit before putting down his food bowl or letting him outside. This will help your dog learn to listen in different situations.

Consistency and Timing

Consistency and timing are critical to training your dog to understand what you want. Using a keyword or a clicker to indicate when your dog gets the behavior right will help ensure you're rewarding the behavior that you desire and will make him more likely to respond to the command in the future.

Use short, clear commands. Be careful with mixing commands: If "down" sometimes means get off the couch, sometimes means stop jumping and sometimes means lay down, your dog will have a hard time getting it right.

Make sure everyone who interacts with your dog uses the same commands, and make sure they understand your rules and enforce them consistently. If he isn't allowed to beg, to jump on people or to sit on the furniture, it is important that no one is rewarding those behaviors.

Teaching Focus

Give yourself a shortcut to getting your dog's attention by teaching him to look at you on command. As with any training, start small and add distractions once he is reliably giving you the behavior you want. You can use clicker training, simply clicking when your dog looks at you naturally during training, or lure him by putting the reward item near your face. Gradually increase the amount of time he has to look at you to receive a reward. When your dog reliably responds to the command word, try it in gradually more distracting circumstances. While it won't replace consistent training, employing a command that tells your dog it's time to pay attention will help you cut down distractions and get him to listen to your voice.

Know Your Dog's Limits

Use your knowledge of your furry companion to reinforce his listening. If your dog gets extremely excited when guests come over or extremely nervous around other dogs, those circumstances may not be the best times to ask for behaviors he hasn't completely mastered yet. If he is nervous, your pal may be anxious about lying down or rolling over, since those behaviors make him more vulnerable.

If your dog is excited and motivated for the first five minutes of training and then starts to lag, consider trying shorter but more frequent sessions. If you know your dog is too distracted or uncertain to listen, don't ask for a behavior. Giving him a command when he's highly distracted without gradually building up to it will set your dog up to fail and teach him that sometimes it's okay not to listen.

Gradual Progress

Starting with the basics and building your way up to more complicated behaviors in more distracting circumstances will help you succeed in training. For example, once your dog can reliably sit during training, start asking for the behavior when you know you have his attention throughout the day, such as when you are preparing his dinner or holding his favorite toy. Gradually start asking him to sit in more distracting circumstances, such as when guests are over or when you are on a walk together. Eventually build to telling him to sit when he is distracted or excited.

If at any time he fails to listen, move back to the prior step and spend time practicing before moving on again. Developing strong basics and slowly adding distractions will help your dog learn to listen to you and only you in all kinds of situations.