WHY WON'T MY DOG LISTEN?
We quite often come across situations where a client may feel that their dog has started to ignore them because they're being stubborn or 'willful'. I might get told "he won't do it," or "she's not listening to me," and I find myself saying the same thing over and over: it isn't that she won't do it. It's that she can't.
Before I go on, I should say that the sweet boy in the photo above isn't an example of a dog whose mum doesn't understand him. She really does. He's heading up this post because he and his housemate gave us some lovely footage that got me thinking about how much tiredness affects a dog's ability to work with us.
CAN'T OR WON'T?
"Can't" and "won't" are two very different things. The first one suggests a degree of not cooperating and being stubborn about something. It implies a bit of a battle of wills, with the person feeling increasingly frustrated (and often irritated) with their dog. They tend to feel the dog can do what's being asked because the dog knows how to do it. After all, she's done it many times before. Therefore, if she's not doing what's been asked, she's being difficult and choosing not to cooperate.
The difficulty for the dog in this scenario is that canine signals that say, "you're making me feel pressured and uncomfortable" are often interpreted as being bolshy. A dog who feels overwhelmed by what her person is asking will avoid eye contact, turn her head away and often move away altogether. They will often sniff the ground to calm themselves down, or they may scratch themselves, yawn or inspect their nether regions! All these signals show that the dog is feeling pressured and is either trying to take her mind off things (licking, scratching and sniffing) or is politely trying to calm us down (avoiding eye contact, turning the head away and moving away). But, for many dogs, these messages are interpreted as being resistant or difficult.
WHY CAN'T MY DOG DO WHAT HE'S TOLD?
There are many reasons why a dog may not be able to do things he's asked, even things that he's often able to do at other times.
Tiredness is a big factor. I'll cover some of the other reasons another day, but tiredness is one of the main reasons why dogs can suddenly stop doing what they've been asked to do.
The two videos from a very enjoyable session show how tiredness can affect the canine brain. Buddy and Loba have a very close connection with their mum, but there are times on walks when they can go into meltdown. They've both been very well raised and their mum and dad have spent a lot of time diligently socialising and training them. And yet, for various reasons, they can both struggle with other dogs. Buddy can also find some people difficult to be around.
TIREDNESS AND THE BRAIN
Tiredness affects their ability to control themselves. The canine brain isn't that unlike the human brain - we often say that dogs have about the same cognitive and emotional level as toddlers - and toddlers can get grouchy and not have much rational self-control when they're over-tired! Our tolerance level reduces when we're tired and we lose the capacity to concentrate. How often do we feel "I'm too tired for this"? We generally have the choice to stop what we're doing, and yet how often do we let our dogs choose to take a break and stop? Especially after we've told them to do something?
EVEN LOW KEY CAN BE TIRING
Much of the "work" we did with Buddy and Loba was just sniffing their way around a Sniff Trail; we gave them a lot of breaks because it was warm and muggy on the day of our session. Which is another thing that can make a dog more tired.
You can see in the videos that they have very different rates of tiredness. They had both been asked to do the same, slow and gentle tasks. And yet Loba became tired much more quickly than Buddy.
She would be seen by most people as a much more energetic dog than Buddy. She is always interested in things going on outside, gets excited about walks, pulls on the lead and wants to play a lot throughout the day. Buddy, on the other paw, sleeps a lot more, quickly lies down for a rest when he's hot and is much more chilled.
If you look at the videos, you can see that he's better at regulating his energy levels than Loba and is then much more "ready to go" when I call him over to me.
The reason for this is because a lot of Loba's "energy" is actually agitation. She tries to keep her brain and body busy, busy, busy because her brain has become hooked on activity and input. Consequently, she tires easily. And, like a toddler, she often fights that tiredness by finding things to do. She tries to get input by whining, nudging or trying to get someone to play with her. She's using play and activity to take her mind off the uncomfortable feeling of being tired.
You can see her exhaustion after only half an hour of working with her. This was because we'd been working her brain rather than her body. And she was shattered. She also found it very difficult to rest, even though we have her a lot of breaks.
Buddy, meanwhile, came and lay next to me for a proper cuddle and was fresh and ready to go when we asked him to try something new.
CONNECTION THROUGH UNDERSTANDING
I loved my session with them. Their mum has an amazing relationship with them. She understands them well and also has a high level of skill. You may have seen footage of Loba in class on our Facebook page. She can be highly reactive around other dogs and her mum's skill and connection meant that she was able to be comfortable and settled at about 10 metres distance away from other dogs.
UNDERSTANDING OUR DOGS
Loba and Buddy's mum recognised their tiredness and was able to see that their brains couldn't manage to do what we were asking them to do - in the second video you can see that both dogs look as if they've lost interest and wander off. What's really going on is that they're too tired to keep working and, as you can hear, we stopped the session shortly after.
To help our dogs we need to understand why they can't do what we want them to. For the older dog who won't walk onto the weighing scales at the vet - maybe she's carrying significant pain and is exhausted from it. The dog that won't give back a retrieved ball - maybe he's been chasing it for too long and is shattered. The dog that snarls and lunges at the next door neighbour at the end of a walk - maybe she's been walked too far and is really tired.
If you're sharp-eyed, you might have also looked at all those scenarios and thought that the dogs could also be in pain, which is a whole other post! Pain and tiredness are the two main reasons for our dog not being able to do what we want them to.
Tiredness is a big one, though, and is under-rated and under-recognised. It can be an overwhelming feeling that stops the brain's ability to function effectively. Learning to recognise how our dogs look when they're tired can go a long way to increase the level of trust between us. Recognising tiredness makes us more able to recognise that "won't" is much more likely to be a case of "can't".
Thank you to Loba and Buddy's mum for allowing me to share this footage - this was a lovely session and Buddy may have touched my heart. Just a little bit... 🥰