"Disobedience": Why Your Dog Might Not Do What You Ask, and What You Can Do to Change That

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Pretty much every morning, the same routine goes down at my house. I open my eyes. My dog, Pigeon, jumps off the bed and sits. I ask her if she wants to go outside. If she does, she thumps her tail on the floor and springs up. At the top of the stairs, she pauses; I say "downstairs" and gesture for her to go ahead of me.

In the kitchen, I open the back door and let her into our fenced yard, leaving the exterior door open but closing the interior glass one to keep out the bugs or the chill. While she’s doing her business, I grind coffee, scoop grounds into a filter, dump water in the reservoir, and push the start button. When Pigeon’s ready to come inside, she sprints up the back stairs and stands at the glass door. When I see her, I open the door and let her in.

Or rather, I usually do.

Before I could start my coffee the other day, I had to empty some old grounds and rinse the filter. In the process, I got cold, wet coffee grounds all over my fingers.

When Pigeon showed up at the door, I was still rinsing my hands at the sink. I saw her standing there—but instead of going to the door, I finished rinsing, and then turned off the faucet. Then I debated whether to try operating the doorknob with with wet hands, and decided instead to dry them off with a towel. Then—finally!—I let her in.

In other words, I blew off Pigeon's cue for me to come to the door and open it. If I were the dog in this scenario, how might you describe me?

Was I being disobedient? Stubborn? Willful? Vengeful? Dominant?

Or was I just distracted by something that felt slightly more pressing to me than opening the door at that moment? Did getting the grounds off my hands under those circumstances simply promise a more valued outcome than opening the door?

When your dog responds to a cue, he does so because past experience has taught him what behavior is likely to be reinforced when that cue is present.

But the value of a given reinforcer is always relative. If you love broccoli, you’ll be very likely to perform behaviors that have historically earned you broccoli. That is, unless maybe you just ate as much broccoli as you wanted, or filled up on rice. Or unless there’s another behavior you can perform to get carrots, which you love even more than broccoli.

And this isn’t only true with positive reinforcement (following behaviors you want to increase with consequences the dog wants). Relief from an aversive, such as a release of pressure on a choke chain when a dog sits, is still reinforcement. Specifically, it’s negative reinforcement (following a behavior you want to increase with the removal of something the dog wanted to escape or avoid). And as people whose dogs have run through an electronic fence to attack dog can tell you, the value of this type of reinforcement is also relative.

As we move through life, there are almost always multiple reinforcers available at any time. Have you ever been called to dinner and replied, “Hang on, there's just two minutes left in this show?” Disobedience—a term I honestly pulled out of the mothballs of my mind for this article—is the the dog telling you (a) he’s confused about what you want or (b) something else is just more important right now. Sometimes it’s getting something he wants; sometimes it’s escaping something he doesn’t.

My behavior of opening the door when Pigeon appears has become pretty reliable. It’s been reinforced many, many times by getting to greet my cute, wiggly dog and get on with my coffee routine. But on that particular day, my desire to remove wet grounds from my hands was stronger.

I also almost always step on the brake when I see a stop sign, to the point where it seems automatic. But if there are no other cars visible, or if I'm running late for an appointment—if the usual reinforcer of avoidance isn't as valuable, and/or getting on with my trip quickly is more valuable—I might not perform this behavior as reliably.

Our dogs’ lives, like our own, are a constant stream of competing reinforcers—and on top of that, the things they’re most interested in are often telegraphed to them by smells we can’t smell and sounds we can’t hear. So how do we ensure 100 percent reliable responses to our cues?

The short answer is: We don’t. Is it reasonable to hold dogs to a standard even we can’t meet? The behavior of a living being is 100 percent reliable right up until it isn’t.

But we can get pretty darn close, and here, broadly, is how:

FIRST: Make sure you are not the thing your dog is trying to avoid by doing whatever else he’s doing. Punishment is often associated with the punisher—and we are sometimes punishing our dogs even when we don’t think we are.

Does your dog’s recall cue usually mean the end of fun in the yard or park? Does your dog’s name mean it’s time for nail trims? Does your dog actually duck or back away when you pet him to "reward" good behavior?

THEN: Make the odds work in your favor by understanding and applying a behavioral principle called the Matching Law. The Matching Law says, in a nutshell, that animals exhibit behaviors in proportion to how much reinforcement has been available for those behaviors in the past. Simplified, that means that under given conditions, if your dog has been reinforced for jumping to greet you 20 percent of the time and for sitting to greet you 80 percent of the time, then under those conditions you can predict that he’ll jump to greet you about 20 percent of the time and sit to greet about 80 percent of the time.

The first step is to limit opportunites for the dog to get reinforced for behaviors you really don’t want. We don’t just wait for toddlers to learn that they enjoy playing with matches or fishing in the toilet—we proactively rearrange the house so they can’t. This works with dogs too.

Limits are not enough, though. Build strong reinforcement histories for the behaviors you do want. As with children, we need to both encourage (through environmental design) and actively teach and reinforce desirable behaviors, making sure the dog finds them well worth repeating. Use great reinforcers, and many of them—and mix it up, because novelty can also be reinforcing.

Once you’ve taught a behavior, you’ll need to practice it, and continue to reinforce it, in incrementally different and more distracting circumstances. Just because you can drive in an empty parking lot doesn’t mean you’re ready for a six-lane expressway at rush hour, and just because your dog can sit in your kitchen doesn’t mean he can do it at the edge of a crosswalk while a motorcycle whizzes by.

Finally, when possible, harness what your dog wants most at that moment. It’s not a “competing reinforcer” anymore if you can make it contingent on the behavior you want. Dog wants to leap out of the car? Ask for a sit or down before opening the door. Dog wants to keep playing in the yard? Call the dog from close by, then release back to the yard. Dog wants to stalk a squirrel? Wait for a little attention and then stalk it with her.

When I move toward the door to let Pigeon back in every morning, I deliberately do so while she’s still standing quietly. That—and not barking or scratching at the door—is the behavior I want more of in the future. Sometimes, to mix things up, I also surprise her with a treat or her breakfast in hand, but mostly what she gets for standing quietly is me opening the door.

And that long history of getting what she wants for waiting patiently is why she didn’t immediately start barking the day that I decided to wash my hands off before opening the door.

I think I owe her the same patience and courtesy.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.

Dogs in High-Rises: A Modest Proposal

Practicing preventively with puppy Siena in the elevator

There’s probably no tougher place to have a dog with fear or aggression issues than a high-rise. Except maybe a “dog-friendly” high-rise.

For dogs, as for all of us, fear is mitigated by distance. Generally, the farther away you are from something scary, the less scary it is. But distance can be hard to come by in long, narrow hallways, busy elevators, and tight foyers, especially when they’re populated by other dogs and dog lovers. And when dogs can’t get distance through avoidance, aggression becomes a more likely option.

Sound programs to reduce fear and aggression usually start with keeping the dog “under threshold,” which roughly translates to “far enough away from his triggers that he’s not freaking out as soon as he sees them.” So ideally, dogs who can’t cope in close quarters wouldn’t be brought into high-density living situations in the first place. But owners can’t always predict such issues in a new dog, prevent them from developing, or simply pack up and move if they do. Plus, small spaces not only aggravate existing problems—they can create new ones. A dog or puppy who wasn’t previously afraid of people or other dogs may develop new phobias and related behaviors after a single traumatic experience—especially one where escape was made impossible.

A lot of problems could be prevented in high-rises with some simple rules for dog-owning residents—even those whose dogs are comfortable with other dogs and humans. Here are a few suggestions to start with:

ONE DOG PER ELEVATOR CAR. Stand back from the door while waiting. If there's already a dog inside, wait for the next car. Additionally, instead of designating only one elevator that must be used by all dogs, as some buildings do, let them spread out, or maybe designate some elevators as dog-free or others for use by space-sensitive dogs.

OWNERS MUST GO THROUGH DOORS WITH OR AHEAD OF THEIR DOGS, including elevator doors. If someone or something problematic is on the other side, this prevents an immediate conflagration and allows you a chance to turn back or negotiate space before proceeding.

DOGS MUST BE LEASHED IN PUBLIC AREAS, INCLUDING HALLWAYS. Most buildings probably have this rule, but many don’t enforce it well. I’d add: on fixed leashes of a reasonable length, no retractables.

These rules alone wouldn’t prevent every incident, but they would likely reduce how often a person or dog actually gets injured or traumatized.

Buildings billing themselves as “dog-friendly” might also want to go deeper than private dog runs and free poop bags. In addition to multiple elevators, consider letting dog owners use a variety of exits to manage their space. And if you’re installing an off-leash dog run on the property, definitely don’t require all dogs to exit and enter the building through it. (This was a real situation in at least one building I’ve worked in.)

Feel free to bring these ideas up at your next condo board or pet committee meeting. But in the meantime, individual owners can make a dent by changing some of their own practices. Most of these suggestions are good etiquette whether or not your own dog is space sensitive, but a few, toward the end, are geared more toward those who need to actively manage space.

TEACH WAIT AT DOORS, including the door to your apartment. You can use the same technique for when you approach blind corners.

TEACH WAIT INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE ELEVATOR. This can be accomplished using existing behaviors, like a sit- or down-stay, but here’s my favorite method:

  • PUSH THE BUTTON, THEN STEP AWAY: Move back as far as you can while maintaining your sightline to the car’s interior—ten feet is great if you can get it. Shorten your dog’s leash, leaving slack between your hand and the harness or collar. From this position, if something pops out unexpectedly, your dog cannot get to it. The slack is to prevent your dog from instantly feeling trapped if a person or dog does appear.

  • CHANGE WHAT THE “DING” PREDICTS: Whether you're inside or outside the car, when you hear the ding that says the door will open, or the elevator coming to a stop just before the doors open, start feeding your dog little bits of something special, one after the other, or let him lick out of a food tube. Practice this frequently without actually getting on or off the elevator. The instant the doors close, stop the treats. Over time, your dog will begin to look to you when the doors open, which you can mark and reinforce (this is what you see in the video at the top of this page), at first with a treat, then with a release to go through the door. If your dog is looking toward you, he’s not running into or out of the car or focusing on what might be coming through the other direction.

  • PUT THE ENTRY/EXIT ON CUE: Teach a cue that means going through the elevator doorway will earn a treat—again, both in and out. Reinforcing the release behavior will help your dog learn to wait till you give the all-clear. Keep the leash short enough that the dog cannot run through if you haven’t given the cue.

Teaching your dog where to hang out in the elevator is a good idea too—ideally somewhere that's not right up against the elevator doors. Routinely walk him to that spot and reinforce a stationary behavior, like standing or sitting with eye contact and you should start to see a habit develop.

CONSIDER CARRYING YOUR TINY DOG. Preemptively, I mean, from the door of your apartment to the exit—not just after he barks at someone or someone lunges for him and freaks him out. Some dogs feel safer in your arms, and won’t try to fight or flee from there. However, others may struggle or bite you if they get frightened; in that case, you might consider using a carrier of some sort to get in and out of the building, at least temporarily. (That is, if your dog is comfortable in a carrier. If not, here's how to start training comfort with confinement.)

TAKE THE STAIRS. If you live on a lower floor, just consider it part of the exercise program. If you live on a higher floor, consider getting off the elevator a few flights up from the main, congested lobby and hitting the steps.

ASK FOR SPACE SO YOUR DOG DOESN’T HAVE TO. Your body language—curving out and around instead of walking straight toward another dog or a person, putting your body between a handsy stranger and your dog, avoiding eye contact, etc.—often works as well or better than verbal communication to prevent unwanted approaches. But don’t be afraid to speak up, too, and politely ask if a person with another dog can wait to get on the next car, or if they can give you a little space to get off before they jump into this one.

DON'T FORGET THE DOG WALKER. Dog-care pros sometimes walk our pets more often than we do, so it's important that the dog's experience with them is the same as it is with you. Teach partners, family members, dog walkers, and pet sitters to take the same measures you do when they take the dog out. (Or as my friend and fellow trainer Laura Monaco Torelli puts it, more catchily, "communicate for consistency."

TEACH YOUR DOG TO WEAR A BASKET MUZZLE. You might fret that it makes your dog look "mean," but if your dog has a bite history, or you think a bite is likely, it’s the responsible thing to do in close quarters. Basket muzzles, such as the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle, are ideal because they let dogs not only pant normally but also eat through them, so you can train and make positive associations using food. I like these videos from Dr. Colleen Koch, a downstate Illinois veterinary behaviorist and trainer, on how to turn the muzzle into a “treat basket.” There are more instructional resources, as well as sound arguments for muzzle training, at the Muzzle Up Project.

And should you see a neighbor with a muzzled dog, or even one who just seems to be actively working with her dog to reinforce good behavior around the building, give her space, avoid staring at or moving toward her dog—and flash her the biggest, most approving smile you can muster.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.

The Problem With "Ignoring" Unwanted Behavior

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If you’re even vaguely familiar with positive reinforcement training, at some point you have received the advice to ignore unwanted behavior.

As with the advice to redirect to a preferred behavior, this advice is rooted in good science, but has become so divorced from the understanding of the underlying principle that it sometimes does more harm than good.

The process people are trying to use when they ignore behavior is called extinction. Extinction is nonreinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior. It’s not the withdrawal of a reinforcer that’s already been offered, and it’s not something taken away contingent on the performance of the unwanted behavior. Whatever was reinforcing the behavior is simply is no longer available for doing that behavior.

Reinforcement is what makes a behavior stronger, and removing reinforcement, permanently, will eventually make it weaker. But it’s not a straightforward or tidy process—and beyond that, ignoring is only nonreinforcement if your attention was the reinforcer your dog was behaving to get. Your attention is not generally the reason your dog starts pulling on the leash, barking at strangers, or peeing in the house (though through accidental training, it can certainly come to be).

And even if your attention is the reinforcer, you need to be aware of what will happen when you stop giving it.

Extinction is best used in conjunction with reinforcement of another behavior—ideally one that serves the same function as the unwanted behavior, and definitely one that will provide at least the same quantity and quality of reinforcement.

That’s because the problems with using extinction by itself are many. The ones I’ll discuss here aren’t even all of them. Extinction is different from punishment (where something is added to or removed from the learner’s environment, contingent on the behavior, to decrease the behavior), but that doesn’t mean it’s more pleasant for either the learner or the teacher. In fact, it can have some of the same side effects as punishment, including the emergence of frustration-related behaviors and aggression.

Before a behavior starts to decline due to nonreinforcement, it will predictably flare up in what’s called an extinction burst. If you and your dog live in a condo or an apartment, or you have a headache or are tired, or you have a guest with whom you are trying to have a nice meal, an extinction burst of barking will be very hard to ignore. You’re more likely to end up reinforcing it—thus teaching your dog to bark more or more intensely.

This Family Guy clip has probably been shown at least once at every dog training conference I’ve ever attended, and it is a rather perfect example of reinforcing an extinction burst:

Extinction isn’t fast, either. A single session “is often not enough to extinguish behavior . . . even when the extinction session lasts for several hours and involves hundreds or even thousands of unreinforced acts,” writes Paul Chance in the textbook Learning and Behavior. And once it does go away, it can come back. In the phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery, Chance continues, “what usually happens is this: The rate of the previously reinforced behavior declines and finally stabilizes at or near its pretraining level. Extinction appears to be complete. If, however, the animal or person is later put back into the training situation, the extinguished behavior occurs again, almost as though it had not been on extinction.” Chance wraps up his chapter on extinction by noting that “there’s considerable doubt, in fact, about whether a well-established behavior can ever be truly extinguished.”

Another extinction-related phenomenon is called resurgence. When one behavior is no longer reinforced, other, previously reinforced behaviors tend to emerge. In other words, when the behavior doesn't work, the dog tries other behaviors that have worked before.

Many dog owners have seen this in a scenario like the following: You’ve stood up and collected your training or walking gear, but get temporarily distracted or fumble with the equipment. Or you’re in class, with your dog in front of you, but the teacher is talking. Your dog first offers an expectant sit—a behavior that probably has been reinforced a lot by you in this context. But you’re listening to the teacher, and so there’s no reinforcement. Your dog then offers a paw, goes into a down, rolls over, then barks and paws at you.

And when you do finally turn your attention to him, because pawing your leg hurts, what have you just reinforced?

But if we stay focused on our learner, we can actually take advantage of resurgence.

One of my favorite brief training articles to send clients is this item by Dr. Caryn Self-Sullivan, a KPA CTP in Virginia: Stop, Watch, Wait, Reward. It’s just a quick hit, so she doesn’t go into extinction or resurgence or any other technical business, but I think it’s revelatory to read it with the science in mind:

For example, if your dog jumps or barks when you enter your home:

  1. STOP: Stand perfectly still and be absolutely silent.

  2. WATCH: Observe your dog out of the corner of your eye and watch for a behavior you want to reinforce.

  3. WAIT: Wait, wait, wait for a desired behavior, such as a sit or even just eye contact with four-on-the-floor.

  4. REWARD: Mark (click) the desired behavior, and then toss a treat. Proceed into the house.

I love this. I also love thinking about what we can do, before we actually find ourselves in this pickle, to make it likely that when we do, the dog will offer a previously learned behavior we’d like to see more of, instead of another one we don't like.

One simple thing we can do is to make sure our dogs have a big, fat repertoire of other, frequently and recently reinforced behaviors to call upon. We know that animals, when they have a choice, tend to allocate their behavior in direct proportion to how much reinforcement those behaviors have received in the past. Teaching simple but acceptable behaviors and reinforcing them regularly in a variety of contexts will make it more likely that the dog will go to one of these when another behavior isn’t working. Orienting to the handler, sitting, lying down, and settling on a mat or bed are behaviors that a dog can offer in many situations to the delight of their humans.

Here's a quick video of Horton—a dog with a history of barking long and loudly at humans who are holding food without giving him any. (He's also pictured at the top of this post.) Trying to ignore him failed, and may have contributed to the development of this persistent behavior in the first place. But here he is choosing to lie down (without being explicitly "redirected") instead because he has recently had a ton of reinforcement for doing so.

You can see the moment Horton remembers what he can do instead of barking.

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To help give your dog lots of good alternatives, pay attention to all the acceptable behavior you don’t explicitly teach or ask for. Many times behaviors we like are happening right in front of our noses, while we’re absorbed in something else. Meanwhile, behaviors we don’t like rarely fail to get our attention. The dog walks on a loose lead near us for five steps—a completely unreinforcing activity by many dogs’ standards—then pulls ahead, which is when we call him back for a treat. What behavior is he probably going to do more of? If instead we notice and give a treat for those five steps, we will get more like them. When the dog pulls ahead, we don’t go along—but should the dog check in of his own accord, we have something else we can reinforce.

We can also sometimes rig the environment to make the right choice more likely and the wrong choice less so. Take the jumping dog in Caryn’s example above. We don't even have to wait for him to jump and then wait for other behaviors. Placing a gate between the dog and the door could prevent both jumping and reinforcement of jumping by family members or visitors who pet the dog when he jumps. It's also easier to watch for preferred behaviors and reinforce them when you're not getting jumped on.

After all, humans respond to the laws of behavior just like dogs. You can make the right behavior easier for yourself, too.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.

Teach Your Dog to Wait at Doors

One of the first things I learned as a new dog owner was that I should never let my dog go out the door before me, lest she think she was the “alpha” in our “pack.”

This rationale is still quite prevalent, despite thorough debunking by experts across multiple fields. And unfortunately the corollary that you must prove that, no, you are the alpha leads to some pretty unpleasant ways of teaching and enforcing doorway protocol, among other things.

Many such methods focus on stopping the unwanted behavior, rather than teaching an alternative. They set the dog up to start walking through the door and then get corrected for it—be it by walking into the dog, yelling and clapping, spraying the dog in the face with a squirt bottle, throwing an object at the dog, or choking, poking, or shocking with a collar. Almost nobody actually enjoys doing these things to a dog, and in dogs as in children, the use of physical punishment carries the risk of some well-documented side effects, ranging from apathy to fear to aggression.

But let’s not throw the puppy out with the bathwater. There are a lot of perfectly valid reasons to teach your dog how to behave around an open door. Especially in the urban environment, there’s endless trouble a dog can run into by darting across the threshold before you’ve had a chance to scope things out. Every dog who lives in an elevator building, for instance, ought to learn how to wait before entering the car.

Fortunately, it’s easy to teach a dog what to do instead of dashing through an open door.

Start your lessons with a door that doesn’t lead anywhere dangerous or incredibly tempting. Put your dog on leash if you need to work at an exit that goes to an unsecured or particularly fun area, but keep the leash slack—think seat belt, not reins.

Open the door just a crack, or even simply touch the door handle, click or mark with a "yes," then toss a small treat your dog really loves on the floor behind the dog. Close the door and wait for the dog to eat and reorient. Repeat.

If you’re working at an elevator, push the call button, walk back 10 feet, and simply start feeding the dog just as the elevator door opens. Don’t walk toward or get on the elevator; just continue to feed until the door closes, then stop abruptly when it does. Repeat.

If your dog likes the treats you’re using, he’ll quickly start to make some associations:

  • The door opening predicts treats, and
  • Those treats will come from my human’s hands and/or appear a few feet behind me.

Anticipation will begin to change what your dog does when you open the door, or when the elevator opens. In most cases, he’ll start to shift his weight back and/or look at you as the door opens.

Observe what he does that you like—whatever’s incompatible with running through the open door—and begin to mark it with your "yes" or your click before delivering the treat. The more specific you can be about what you mark, the faster the training will likely go.

When your dog has confidently offered this lovely behavior four or five times in a row, begin opening the door a little bit further. As the response becomes reliable at each new level, open the door incrementally wider.

If at any point the dog walks through the door, don’t click, don’t treat, and don’t head out for a walk. Simply invite the dog back inside to try again. If the dog fails once more, back up your criteria a little, use better reinforcers, or both.

When you can open the door wide enough for the dog to move through, and he chooses to plant his front feet or look at you instead, you can add a verbal cue, such as “wait.”

You don’t really need a verbal cue if you only want this behavior when you open a door—the door opening will become the cue to wait. But adding a verbal cue lets you quickly teach this behavior at other doors, doorways without actual doors, car doors, curbs, and other locations. You can even use it to stop your dog in his tracks with no doorway in sight—say, if he’s heading for a dropped item on the kitchen floor.

Pretty quickly after teaching the wait, teach the dog that there’s a cue that means it’s time to go through the doorway. (I use "Okay!") Prompt and then reinforce the behavior of moving out of position. At least initially, reinforce with a treat or play as well as access to whatever’s on the other side of the door.

Here’s a video of Stella, a border collie mix, a former client of mine through Animal Behavior Training Concepts, responding to “hold up” and release cues taught earlier in the same session at an interior doorway. Because the release cue is an opportunity to earn the treat, giving the release cue reinforces the wait, and the click/treat that follows the release strengthens both the release behavior and the wait.

If your dog doesn’t pay attention to treats when there’s a chance to go through a door, that doesn’t mean this method won’t work for you. Reinforcement value is relative, and for Stella, when we took her “hold up” to an exterior door, the chance to go through the door trumped any food or toy we had to offer. So did we resort to punishment? No; we simply used what she told us she wanted, a win-win for dog and human.

Want Reliable Behaviors? Create Reliable Cues.

Ever wondered why your dog only seems to recognize his own name half the time, but will come tearing from a different floor of the house any time you rustle a resealable bag?

Both the dog’s name and the rustle of the treat bag are cues. One you may have taught on purpose—though the dog may not have learned what you thought you were teaching. The other you probably taught by accident—but you did a better job than you know.

Some definitions:

  • A cue is a signal in the environment that tells the animal reinforcement is available for a certain behavior or sequence of behaviors now. “Commands” from you can be cues, but all cues are not commands. In fact, the great majority of your dog's cues come from the environment, not you. Thirst might cue the dog to walk to the toilet. A closed lid on the toilet might cue the dog to walk to the water bowl. An empty water bowl might cue the dog to bang the bowl with a paw.
  • A reinforcer is anything that, as a consequence of behavior, increases the future probability of that behavior.

What most people want their dog to do when they call his name is for the dog to look at or come to them. So ideally, for the dog, the name should predict: “If you look/come here, you’ll get something or get to do something you really like.”

But how often is that true? What percentage of the time does your dog’s name predict a treat, play, access to the outdoors, petting of a sort your dog genuinely loves, or other great reinforcers?

What percentage of the time does your dog’s name predict the end of play, the end of digging, losing sight of a squirrel, being grabbed abruptly by the collar, kennel time, departure time, a nail trim, a squirt of ear cleaner, petting of a sort your dog doesn't like, or just nothing in particular?

Estimating these ratios will give you a pretty good picture of the current reliability of your dog’s response to his name. And you can apply this same math to figure out how reliable any other cue is. The "math" is a crude version of the Matching Law, which essentially says animals exhibit behaviors in proportion to how much reinforcement has been available for those behaviors in the past.

Now: About what percentage of the time would you say the aforementioned rustle of a bag predicts the dog will get food?

How often does it predict anything other than food? (If your answer is anything less than 99%, BTW, you're a sadist.)

So what can you do to increase the chances that your dog will respond to a his name the same way he does to the rustle?

Make sure your cues predict an outcome that your dog will really look forward to.

One could argue more broadly that the answer is to ensure your cues predict enough reinforcement to make the behavior "worthwhile" under a variety of conditions—be that reinforcement cheese or avoidance of punishment. But ethical trainers try very hard to teach dogs using stuff they will work to get, and using stuff that evokes joy has the additional benefit of creating joyful associations with both behaviors and the cues that signal them. Does your dog just mechanically walk over when you rustle the bag? Or does he bound over with soft eyes and a broad tail wag and his mouth lolling open, maybe a drop of drool on his tongue? When you give your recall cue, you want that look to come over his body as soon as he hears it.

In fact, this predictive relationship may be all you need to establish, with behavior evolving naturally as a by-product of the association. If you teach a dog what reliably signals that you are going to produce something he loves, and then you give that signal when you're not standing right next to him, he will figure out what behavior to do to get where the good stuff is. (See also: The Dog Already Knows How.)

Jettison cues that have poor predictive value, that have been weakened by overuse or poisoned. Replace them with new ones that are more reliable predictors of reinforcement.

You probably don’t want to change your dog’s name—I don't either, though frankly I'm human, and so it's my least effective way to get her attention. But do be aware of, and try to bolster, its relationship to reinforcement, and then maybe teach another cue, a fond nickname or a "secret password" that you’ll use when you need a more reliable response.

Even then, though, there are still obstacles to reliability. Let’s take one of our own strongest behaviors: stepping on the gas at the sight of a green light. For experienced drivers, it feels like the most "automatic" of responses. But it's still a choice, and there are still times when we will choose to do otherwise.

First, you have to be able to perceive the cue—which you might not if you’re texting (stop texting!), squinting into the sun, or trying to retrieve the Cheez-It you dropped into your crotch.

What’s more, there may be competing cues in the environment—say, an adorable dog on the corner, or a witless pedestrian in the middle of the crosswalk.

When you call your dog’s name, and he doesn’t respond, it coule be that he isn’t sure what it predicts, or there are competing cues in the environment, or both. Hey, Dad’s calling my name over there, which could mean a biscuit, a bath, or nothing at all, but the strong scent of rabbit poop right under my nose is heralding the taste of rabbit poop, so . . . no contest.

Such hurdles can be largely overcome by anticipating and building tolerance for various competing cues into your training. If your dog can respond enthusiastically to his name at home, master it in the yard. If you’ve mastered it in the back yard, work the front porch. Take it on the road, and move it on down the street. Work it far away from rabbit poop, and then work incrementally closer.

The point of training a recall cue is to be able to call your dog off a potentially life-threatening distraction. But during training, train—don't test (a mantra I came across while reading an article about gundog trainer Mike Stewart a couple years ago and immediately stole). Set the dog up to earn reinforcement over and over again, because (remember our definitions?) it's what strengthens future behavior. Don’t bother giving the cue when you won’t be able to make it pay off for the dog; don't turn your cue into another signal that means "maybe she will, maybe she won't." And reinforce most generously when looking at you costs the dog access to something else really great.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.