Does your dog know all the tricks, but just won’t do them!

It’s not uncommon for a dog to come to me that knows all their tricks but won’t, or can’t, do them in real life. They can sit, stay, recall and walk on a loose lead perfectly in class and at home, but when it comes to the real world, they just won’t do it.

So, what do you do when your dog know all the tricks, but just won’t do them? You look at emotion. Emotion is a far bigger motivator of behaviour than logic. If it wasn’t, we would all have the same stuff. If we purely brought stuff that was the logical choice there would be no Rolex watches and we’d all wear the same clothes!

young lady on bended knee with her doberman. they are holding paws and hands
A calm dog knows all the tricks and will always be ready to respond

Just like us, dogs are programmed to seek out pleasure. That could be a simple thing like choosing to play with friends rather than coming back to you, or preferring sniffy walks to chasing balls. Or it might be avoiding fear or pain by barking at a stranger or refusing to go to the vet. Either way, we do stuff that feels good.

Distractions trigger emotions

There seems to be a missing link between teaching tricks at home and training in real life. When you venture away from a quiet home or classroom, you add distractions. Distractions can cause excitement, fear, anxiety and a bunch of other emotions too. Of course, it’s important to learn new behaviours in a quiet, distraction free place, but at some point those “tricks” have to mean something and work in real life, not just at home.

If you are just starting out, this is easily fixed. At this stage the emotion will be low and you’ll just need a little patience. So, start by practising everything you’ve taught your dog in lots of different places. Head to the beach, the park, by the front door, the roadside, forest, garden, or wherever, and just practise, practise, practise what you’ve learned in class (keep it safe near roadsides though, of course). Then when they can do it anywhere, start adding distractions such as people, joggers, cyclists, wildlife, other dogs, noisy things and scooters. You get the idea! Take time over each step and your dog will be able to do it all, no matter where you are, or what’s happening in no time!

Also check out this video: Resilience Over Training: The Key to a Well-Behaved Dog

Finding the balance

If your dog is already overwhelmed by an emotion, you’ll need a more structured approach. We need to proceed as before, whilst balancing the dogs emotions. This means that you’ll be diluting experiences so your dog can stay calm and respond to your cues still. This might look like creating space between you and the distraction. Don’t underestimate how much space your dog might need. I’ve met dogs that have needed a football pitch between them and a distraction before they were calm enough to respond. Hopefully, this won’t be the case for you, but if it is, don’t worry, the space will reduce itself later.

By working at a distance you are reducing the emotion generated by the distraction. So, if that is fear, for example, your dog might be able to cope and not behave in a way to avoid potential pain. As long as he is responding to you, you can reward him for doing simple stuff instead. So the need to avoid the distraction has become weaker, and your reward has become stronger.

Give it a go

If you aren’t sure how far away you need to be, find a space with one of your dogs distractions nearby. Have a high value treat handy and ask them to sit. If they do it easily then try moving a little closer. If they struggle, move away. You all get maximum benefit if your dog finds it challenging, but doable!

Good luck!

Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

I’ll work with you in real life situations, in your home or the park, and show you how to introduce distractions in manageable stages.

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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One comment

  1. This post hits the nail on the head for many dog owners! It’s so common for dogs to know commands at home but struggle in distracting environments. I love the emphasis on understanding and managing a dog’s emotions, rather than just focusing on the commands themselves. This is a much more holistic and effective approach to training.

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