It’s easy to get frustrated if, despite your best efforts and intentions, your dog ignores you commands on a routine basis. This is something most dog owners you’ll likely experience at one point or another, and it can inevitably lead to the question: Does my dog have selective hearing?
The dog’s attention
Humans have the ability to focus on specific sounds even in a loud and noisy complex environment. For example, you can talk to a friend at a concert. But what about our canine companions?
We have the cognitive skills to tune out some sounds, but it’s more difficult for dogs because of their neurological abilities, according to Laura Kretschmer, principal investigator at The Facility for Education and Testing of Canine Hearing and Laboratory for Animal Bioacoustics.
Focusing on what is important to their well-being, dogs tune in to sounds that relate to food, their name, and discipline.
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“Dogs can be taught to respond accurately to dozens of commands either by talking to them or by using sign language with them,” Kretschmer adds. “Certain breeds seem to be easier to train to listen, especially if they have a genetic predisposition to follow commands, such as dogs in shepherd group.”
So it may be that some dogs are more adept at following commands. But according to Evan McLean, director of the Arizona Dog Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, focusing on “selective hearing” may not be the best approach when trying to understand why dogs sometimes balk at obeying commands.
McLean instead suggests that dogs have “selective attention” instead of a selective hearing. In general, when animals direct all their cognitive resources to stimuli and ignore less important stimuli, this is the process of selective attention. It’s possible that dogs selectively focus on certain auditory stimuli and ignore other auditory stimuli they consider irrelevant, according to McLean.
“Of course, it’s also possible that dogs hear things, attend to them, and then choose not to act on the information. In the latter case, it’s not so much selective hearing — because dogs hear and pay attention to stimuli — but rather choosing not to respond,” McLean says.
According to Kretschmer, the environment can also play an important role in dictating a dog’s decision-making processes.
“[The environment] can be a complicating factor,” says Kretschmer. “Some dogs just won’t listen if they’ve been bred to chase squirrels or herd sheep and handlers don’t make their commands clear. Also, any environment with too much noise, meaning the dog can’t actually hear a command properly, will potentially result in inconsistent responses.
Also, dogs can become less obedient if they are scared or if they find themselves in a new situation that they don’t yet know how to handle. However, according to Kretschmer, the most likely reason a dog ignores commands is quite simple: inadequate training.
“Positive, consistent and clear reinforcement is critical to dog learning,” says Kretschmer. “Negative reinforcement and punishment can ensure that dogs don’t learn and can even cause them to rebel.”
Dog commands and training
IN 2020 survey, researchers from the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom compared the auditory and auditory functions of dogs and humans. The study found, among other things, that people are often guilty of assuming that a dog’s hearing abilities are “similar to their own” and as a result they try to communicate with dogs in a way that is not always effective. Researchers suggest that this approach to interacting with a dog can lead to frustration in owners when their commands are not followed.
That’s a point Peter M. Skip Scheifele, a professor specializing in clinical animal audiology at the University of Cincinnati, also wants to make. “In training, consistency, timing and observation are the three important aspects,” says Scheifele.
To help dogs pay attention to commands, even when there are distractions, owners can rely on leash training. Owners will also find best results if training is consistentaccording to Scheifele.
Other studies show that dogs and their owners usually develop similar personalities. If the owner’s training is substandard or lazy, then the dog will become less likely – and indeed less able – to accurately confirm and subsequently obey commands.
“If the dog is well-trained and secure in its relationship with its handler, then the environment shouldn’t matter,” concluded Scheifele.