So here’s an embarrassing story for you.

I went downhill skiing for the first time last month.

I was so terrified to try this – scared even to walk in my ski boots before snapping on the skis. Afraid to “shuffle around” on flat land, let alone an incline.

The chaotic environment – people everywhere, little kids wizzing by, the crackle of distant avalanche, winter gear restricting me – only made things worse.

Josh and I signed up for lessons, which was helpful, but it didn’t take away my fear.

I managed to follow the simple instructions (while trembling) and even successfully “skied” down the bunny hill about 6 times. If you can call the “pizza wedge” skiing.

After 2 hours, I needed a break. My mind was fried and my legs were tired. But we only had 45 minutes of lessons remaining, so we continued on.

The instructor kept repeating over and over, “Lindsay, bend your knees! Lean forward!”

And I’d try, but my strong runner’s legs were not so strong after skiing for 2 hours.

“Lindsay, bend your legs! Lean! Lean forward! Forward!

She said this many times, like I couldn’t hear her. Or that I was ignoring her.

But I heard her just fine! I just physically could not do what she was asking of me in that moment.

“Lean Forward!” she kept repeating.

And then I cried.

35 years old, crying at the bottom of the bunny hill in Big Sky, Mont.

I saw a few little kids on skis crying that day, also. Like, actual 3- and 4-year-olds.

Because they had apparently also had enough.

Remy the weimaraner hiking in the cold

Why this relates to dog training – never repeat a command

This has to do with dog training because the chaos and fear going on in my mind is something our dogs experience too.

Imagine you’re a dog and loud noises and new people make you nervous, or even afraid.

And your owner takes you on a walk downtown, to try to “socialize” you and help you get over your fears.

This might be OK for short periods, but the loud traffic, the squealing kids, the other dogs – it’s all a bit much the longer you’re there.

“Heel, Bailey!” your mom says. “Bailey, heel! HEEL!

She’s getting frustrated with you, and embarrassed, and tugs on your collar harder.

HEEL!” she yells, as though you can’t hear her.

But you hear her just fine.

It’s just that you simply cannot walk on a loose leash in that moment.

It’s too much to ask.

Why you shouldn’t repeat commands to your dog (usually)

Now, let’s be honest. Some dogs truly are stubborn and many of them will purposely ignore us. They all do this at least sometimes.

This post is not about that.

This post is about when it’s useless to repeat commands louder and louder when your dog is wildly excited, stressed, nervous or scared.

It’s hard for a chaotic mind to focus. We’ve all been there, both dogs and people.

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So why is it bad to repeat commands to a dog?

It’s not necessarily “bad” but it’s probably not going to help with improving your dog’s training or your relationship. Here’s why:

1. Repeating commands to a dog is useless.

Your dog hears you but either she:

  • can’t focus or
  • she doesn’t understand what to do.

Or, worst case, she truly is ignoring you, which leads me to …

2. You don’t wan’t to train your dog to tune you out!

People tend to talk way too much!

My dog Remy working on the place command

There was this one lady in my dog Remy’s beginning obedience class who would stand there and have full conversations with her young springer spaniel.

This made the dog very confused.

We’d be working on “stay” and instead of just saying the one word – stay – this woman would be like:

“Now, stay there, Sammy. You stay right there. Ok?! Ok?! Good girl, Sammy! No, don’t look at the dog. No, just stay there. Watch me. Watch me. Good girl. Good girl, Sammy! No, no, stay right there.”

Sammy was a good dog, but she didn’t know what the hell she was supposed to do!

3. The command is “down.” Not “down, down DOWN!”

You don’t want to unintentionally create the habit of repeating commands. Dogs can easily learn to wait for our third or fourth command if that’s what we do every time.

Ideally, your dog should listen on the first command. We need to plan accordingly so our dogs are successful.

So I’m going to go over some reasons why your dog is not “listening” to you and what you can do to help.

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Reasons your dog isn’t listening to you

Why you should not repeat commands to a dog

1. Your dog is scared, nervous or overwhelmed.

Fear is a strong force! When you’re scared, your brain can get stuck and your body follows accordingly. This is what happened to me on the skiing hill.

Of course, a person’s mind and a dog’s mind do not work exactly the same way. But when a person or a dog is scared, we all tend to fall back on our basic instincts.

There’s no sense in repeating a command to your dog over and over if your dog is scared.

For example, let’s say you’re taking a beginning agility class with your dog and she’s scared of stepping into the “tunnel” obstacle.

Your dog will probably have some understanding of what you want her to do. She sees you pointing at the tunnel. She sees that you’ve tossed some yummy pieces of beef jerky into the tunnel.

But, she’s scared to take a step into that dark, unfamiliar object that smells like other dogs.

It doesn’t matter how many times you repeat, “Tunnel! Tunnel, Bailey. Go! Tunnel!

If she’s scared or overwhelmed, you’re going to have to find a different approach. Maybe, shortening the tunnel or encouraging her to simply take a treat from directly in front of the tunnel.

2. Your dog is distracted.

For me, it was the goggles, the helmet, kids wizzing by and managing four “objects” at once (two poles and two skis) that made it difficult to focus while learning to ski.

Why you shouldn't repeat commands to your dog

Your dog could be distracted by anything: other dogs, the sound of birds, kids playing, traffic on a busy road, the wind – anything!

If she’s distracted, sure, it might help to repeat a command a second time.

But to stand there repeating over and over, “Bailey, heel” or “Bailey, come” is not going to help. It’s time to take a step back and work on this command or concept some more in less distracting environments.

3. Your dog needs practice in many environments.

Just because your dog understand “sit” or “down” in a familiar environment such as your own neighborhood, it doesn’t mean she’ll know what to do in a new environment. This is especially true with new commands and concepts.

Why you shouldn't repeat commands to your dog

This is hard to imagine until you think about it in a way that relates to you.

For example, I can obviously put gas in my own car without thinking about it. Muscle memory, I suppose. This is a pretty basic task that is fairly similar across all vehicles.

And yet, if I have to put gas in a random rental car or my parents’ car, I’m going to have to stop and think about it, and I might even struggle a little (I’ll totally struggle).

As another example, my dog Remy knows the command to play dead (“bang!”) when we’re at home in our living room. However, he has trouble doing this in almost any other environment (the park, a friend’s house) simply because we haven’t practiced.

He’ll get there, but we have to practice.

My dog Remy

4. You’re asking too much of your dog.

Finally, your dog might not be “listening” to you because she truly does not understand what you’re asking.

We’re not always clear with our cues.

A classic example is when someone yells, “Down! Down, Bailey!” at their dog for jumping.

But doesn’t “down” typically mean to “lie down”?

And even more common is making the assumption that our dog understands a cue or concept when really the dog is still learning.

What should you do instead of repeating commands?

My dog Remy running on the trails

1. Take a step back and re-group. Like literally move away from the distraction with your dog if you have to. Or, take a moment to plan better for next time.

2. Slowly increase and expose your dog to more distractions and new things. Don’t push too much on him at once if he’s stressed or having trouble with even the most basic commands.

3. Keep training sessions short – just 5 minutes or less. Keep the training fun! Praise your dog for doing the right thing.

4. Make sure you’re being clear and consistent with what you’re asking. Think of it from your dog’s perspective.

5. Break difficult concepts into small steps. Sometimes ridiculously small.

6. Use a clicker to mark the right behavior. I’m not much of a clicker trainer but a clicker is helpful when training a new concept so you can “mark” exactly when your dog does the specific behavior you want. Get a clicker here.

Now, how about the rest of you?

What do you think about repeating commands to a dog?

Is it confusing to them? No big deal? Have you ever confused your dog?

Let me know in the comments!

-Lindsay

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