• JJ Barrs

My Dog Knows How, But Chooses Not To

First, we need to be fair with the dog and honest with ourselves here. If you have only practiced a behavior a handful of times, I would argue that the dog does not in fact "know it". As you probably have learned through training your own dog, they need consistent practice, plenty of repetitions that are rewarded and thoughtfully increased criteria (e.g. adding distractions gradually). But what if you have done all that - and your dog still ignores you? In order to understand what’s happening, we need to realize that rewards and motivations are not static. The dog always interprets them in relation to what else is going on.

Let’s look at a human example for this. Back when I was in college, I studied physics. When my professor gave me a physics problem, I would do my best to solve it. That made sense at the time:

  • Solving it would lead to good grades

  • Solving it would help me advance on my way to a degree

  • NOT solving it would have a lot of negative consequences: falling behind on the material, my professor being disappointed, bad grades etc.

But now I am in a completely different situation. If you respond to this with a physics question, I guarantee I won’t answer it. Because as the situation has changed, the outcomes for me have changed (even though I might still know very well how to solve the problem). Now, not answering your physics question results in:

  • No negative consequences for me

  • Being able to instead use the time for something I enjoy: answering a dog question, or training my own dogs, or having a cup of coffee, or …


You see: The ability itself to be able to do something is not a predictor whether we (or our dogs) will actually do it. The system of rewards and values will determine which behavior I (or you - or the dogs) choose to do. A dog’s breed-specific tendencies will play a huge role in that. (I will use a recall as an example behavior in the following discussion, but you can apply this to different behaviors as well of course) For example, if you have a Husky or a Greyhound or Terrier or another breed with a lot of prey drive, it will take a lot of work to teach a reliable recall in the presence of wildlife. Even if you have trained many times at home, and in your yard, with very high value food … it will still require a ton (seriously, a TON) of practice to be able to call your dog off when there is a bunny racing across your path on a walk. The dog knows how to do a recall at home, for sure - but in that moment his instincts and the insane rush of chasing that bunny completely take over. The system of rewards will make the dog act in favor of running after it. (By the way - it is totally fine to not let these dogs with high prey drive off-lead in unfenced areas. You can provide plenty of stimulation and exercise for them on lead, long lines and in safely fenced spaces. This is MUCH better than ending up with a missing dog!) So - your dog knowing how to do a behavior is only one part of the equation. Your dog being motivated to actually do it (and not the complete opposite) is a different one.


How do we resolve this? We need to be clear with ourselves how much work we want to put into perfecting different behaviors. Everyone can teach a dog to sit calmly in the middle of a quiet living room in one afternoon. But to teach your dog to sit calmly when a herd of deer race by 10 feet away? Expect this to take many months or even years of practice. And for many dogs, "calmly sitting" might never happen. When I do in-person training I would always tell my students "Sure, we can start to teach [xyz] to your dog … but do you really want to put in the time to perfect it?" Depending on your dog’s breed and natural instincts, and what the behavior is you want to master - you need to decide for yourself how far to go. How good is good enough? We know that dogs have a complicated balance of rewards and motivations … But what’s the ideal balance for you?


How big is your motivation to teach behaviors to 100% perfection? Is 80% okay as well? Is 70% okay? If so, that is totally fine! We all have a limited amount of time in our lives, and we need to fill it with so many things that are important to us: family, friends, work, other hobbies besides the dog … And we need to decide for ourselves how to fill that time. If your answer is that you do not want to spend a considerable amount of time over the next year on practicing high-distraction recalls with your Husky, that is completely okay. In that case, we also now know what the answer to the question from the top of the blog is: "Why does my dog know what to do, but chooses not to do it?" "Because we decided to not put in the time to make those choices in the very difficult situations - and will utilize management instead." Everyone will have to plan their time differently - and we strive to support all students and find individual solutions based on the time you have available. Busy life, little kids, demanding work? We'll help you get your dog a solid foundation in the spare time you have for training - and work on management options for the situations for which you cannot train. Retired, kids left the home, a lot of time to train? Alright, then we can work on true mastery, too! To sum it: Your dog might "know how to do it", just like I know how to solve the physics problem. Doesn't mean I will do it. Your dog's balance of values and motivations likely leads him to decide for what he finds more rewarding. Changing this balance of rewards can take a lot of effort (depending on the specific behavior and your dog's breed characteristics.) Whether this is something you want to solve through training or management is your choice - we happily support you in both :) I hope this gives you a bit more empathy with your dog who "knows how to do it" - but also if you are not motivated to train e.g. recalls to perfection (we can use management strategies to keep your dog safe, too).

What's a behavior your dog "knows how to do but chooses not to"? Did you decide to dedicate training time to working on that ... or will you mostly use management instead?