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My dog doesn't listen to me but listens to others

A dog looking to the left.

When dogs don't listen to their owners, it is often due to two main factors. The first is inappropriate socialization. This leads to excessive excitability and reinforced engagement with humans and other dogs. The second factor is reactive dog training approach, where owners respond to certain situations by cueing their dogs for specific behaviors. Lack of control in these scenarios provide for the rehearsal of unwanted behaviors in dogs.

By addressing both these factors through proper socialization and adopting a proactive approach to dog training, owners can improve their dogs' listening skills.

The dog socialization frenzy

A phenomenon in the USA

More Americans, who have traveled to European countries, have noticed a remarkable difference in the way dogs behave in public spaces. In Europe, dogs are mainly off-leash and don’t go around seeking human attention. 

In the USA, however, the idea of an excited dog equals “happy” has become the norm. Also, teaching children how to “approach a dog” gives an idea of the need North Americans have to interact with dogs. Some will consider it rude to refuse to greet their dog. This is a phenomenon particular to the USA.

This phenomenon promotes not only dogs with selective listening, but also reactivity in dogs on leash and aggression. 

Re-thinking dog socialization

Something dog owners in the USA are doing wrong is obsessing over their puppies greeting everyone everywhere they take them. The problem here is the accidental conditioning that occurs in the puppy's brain that makes them expect something meaningful from the surroundings. As they grow practicing unruly greetings, for example, the more ingrained it will stick in their adult brains. 

Humans and dogs at a park greeting each other

One thing we teach in our puppy classes is that socialization is about “exposure” to situations the puppy enjoys with their human and it doesn’t necessarily mean direct contact with the world.

Other factors

Dog’s emotions

Research indicates that dogs have a limited range of emotions, similar to what toddlers experience. Dogs also experience their own feelings in response to things that happen around them. Emotions like anxiety, fear, stress, and excitement are major contributors in your dog ignoring your voice. 

We often interpret a dog's feelings through our emotional lens. This is called anthropomorphization – assigning animals human feelings. While anthropomorphizing animals seems a better way to relate to them, it can actually hinder understanding their true emotions. By projecting your own feelings onto the dog, you could miss important signals and cues that would provide a more accurate understanding of why she isn’t listening to you. 

Fear makes a dog shut down while excitement can make your dog unresponsive to cues. In both scenarios cognitive connections can’t form and cueing your dog wouldn’t trigger a response.


The need for immediate results in today's fast-paced American society often overshadows the importance of taking the time to address underlying issues properly. In dog training, distractions can be an issue when teaching your dog “attention” cues, for example. 

Adding distractions to every training session is an important part of canine learning. You want to consider as many relevant distractions as possible, from objects, scenarios, situations, people, animals, smells, etc. Also, the gradual introduction of distractions is a must for your dog to respond to your verbal cues. 

Perhaps you introduced only a few distractions into your dog training sessions or went from 10 feet to 1 feet closer abruptly. In such a case, your dog didn’t learn how to pay attention to your verbal cue.

A solution is on its way

What about a proactive approach to your dog’s “selective listening”

Many times you might find yourself repeating your dog's name to get their attention. “Fido, Watch!”, “Fido!”, “Fido, sit!”...etc. Just by having to repeat yourself you’re being reactive to your dog not paying attention. Let’s label this as "reactive" training. You focus on your dog ignoring you and you get stuck. Reactive training – usually taught by traditional dog trainers – may provide short-term solutions and usually leave out promoting long-term prevention of unwanted behaviors.

A “proactive” approach, though, involves taking initiative to prevent and control situations by causing "listening" to happen. Although it's impossible to be able to control every distraction around your dog at any given time, there is a technique that could help you achieve your goals in a more proactive, practical, and geeky way: the 80/20 rule

The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, has had a wide-reaching impact in various aspects of modern life. The Pareto Principle suggests that a significant portion of outcomes (80%) are driven by a small fraction of causes (20%). By applying this theory, dog owners can prioritize efforts on the most influential factors to change their dog’s behaviors.

So, to start helping your dog be more responsive to your verbal cues, simply focus on "20-percent" tasks. For example, if your dog becomes a selective listener when you have people over, you can start implementing these tasks:

  • Play more with Fido: identify Fido’s favorite game and play this all the time regardless of who is around. Forget about other games that include multiple players. 

  • Put a hold on interactions with humans outside the household: this is a biggy for many, but efforts towards these simple tasks can make a big difference in helping your dog respond better to your voice.

    • Select a space for your dog to be when expecting a few guests. A gated kitchen is ideally perfect.

    • Adopt the idea of saying “No” or “avoid” greetings with humans on the street. 

  • Reinforced attention towards you: perhaps this means focusing on “recall” or “attention” cues and taking a break from teaching other verbal cues for a while.

    • Maybe a task for this area could be having your dog’s daily food allowance in containers around the house so you can feed as he hears you talk on the phone.

The bonding between you and your dog will help you commit to your 20 percent. Commitment to your 20-percent tasks will help your dog respond to your verbal commands 80 percent of the time, even if you aren't in control of some situations.


Changing the way we address dog socialization can proactively help our dogs' attention skills. Your puppy will have better listening skills when you choose the right opportunities for direct greetings. Otherwise, exposure to humans and dogs (indirect contact) should be the default in socializing a pup.

If your dog is unresponsive to your verbal cues, rule out any health issues with your veterinarian. Then, hire a certified trainer or certified behavior consultant to help you and your dog.

When adding distractions to your training sessions, do it gradually while decreasing duration or distance.

Considering the 80/20 rule to prioritize your training sessions is the first step to proactive dog training. Controlling the 20% of situations that encourage your dog's most attention will help your dog respond better in other situations.


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