This post might be out to burst your bubble, because in it I want to talk about selective hearing. Here’s why what I’m about to say might disappoint you: dogs don’t have selective hearing in quite the way you think they do. Selective hearing is what most people blame when they say things like: “Sometimes I call my dog and he looks around and thinks about it, but decides not to come” or “I tell my dog to sit, but he’s pretty selective about whether he obeys.”
These owners always end up blaming “selective hearing.” They think their dog has a complete understanding of the command, yet chooses to only obey it at certain times. That’s not at all what is happening in these scenarios. In reality, their dogs do not have a complete understanding of the command. These owners have taught “selective obedience.”
From time to time, when people find out I’m a dog trainer, I’m asked about big mistakes that do owners make. My answer varies depending on the types of dog that I’ve been seeing lately. But overall, the biggest mistake I see over and over again is that people give their dogs commands and expectations, but never follow through. Let’s say they’re in the beginning stages of teaching their dog to come when called, but have no way to ensure that the dog does come. So the owner says “come,” but the dog thinks that it’s a lot more fun to stay where he currently is. The owner doesn’t back it up. When the dog doesn’t come, he gets exactly what he wants: he didn’t need to obey the command, but he also didn’t receive any consequences. The dog was right—it was more fun not to listen!
When you don’t back yourself up and make sure your dog actually obeys, you’re actually teaching them that they only need to obey selectively. When that dog doesn’t listen, they aren’t saying: “I totally understand this concept and am choosing to disobey.” They are saying: “You’ve only asked me to be obedient when it suits me, so that’s what I’ll do.” The phrase “selective hearing” makes it sound like the dog is making a bad choice, when he’s actually just making the choice his owners have taught him to make.
My business partner and training director always says: “No matter what you’re doing, you’re training.” Even if you’re not in a training session, you’re still working on obedience. When you don’t back up what you say and ensure that your dog follows through, you’re still training—just in a very poor way. You’re teaching your dog to be selectively obedient.
“Selective obedience” is something you’ve taught. “Selective hearing”—if it were real—would be a conscious choice on the dog’s part. But it’s not real. It’s something that you’ve taught your dog. Sorry if I’ve burst your bubble, but those are just the facts.