When a Well-Trained Dog Ignores a Command

As Seen In the Patch March 20, 2011

Exercise control or offer compassion?

Yesterday I saw Red the cardinal, our unimaginatively named but nevertheless reliable harbinger of spring, sitting expectantly in our leafless dogwood tree. Red’s feathers looked a little tattered, but he bounced excitedly on his perch. No snow! Longer days! Yippee!

Following Red’s lead, I bounced excitedly, too. Today, I, Sarah Hodgson, well-known dog trainer, would bring her perfectly-trained dogs to the park for the first mad romp of the season. No worries about ice cuts or hidden dangers, just good old terra firma. I left my two-legged family at home, loaded Balderdash and Whoopsie into the van and headed off, filled with optimism.

And shortly thereafter, I was filled with the opposite of optimism.

Both dogs leapt out of the car, sniffing the soft, damp ground. Whoopsie, a devoted retriever, instantly discovered dozens of storm-damaged tree branches that needed fetching. Balderdash, still new to the joys of freedom, was nearly undone by his options. He raced. He leaped. He tumbled and wrestled with Maggie, an enthusiastic neighborhood puppy. It was exhilarating to watch — I wanted to share his delight!


“Balderdash!” I called. “Come!”

And that’s when the unthinkable happened: He ignored me. Totally. Me. His mamma. The dog trainer!

“Down!” I shouted in my emergency tone.

Nothing. I cast not a blip on his radar screen. I stared in utter dismay. This was my Balderdash – top of his advanced dog training class. Star of countless how-to videos. A dog with a talent agent for heaven’s sake.

"And what about me?" I thought plaintively. How does this make me, a dog trainer, look? But then I paused for a minute and watched him. He wasn’t a robot. He was prioritizing joy over my intrusive and somewhat idiotic commands. He didn’t really have to come, I just wanted him to.

And so I stood there with my empty leash, thankful that I had come to my senses. Yes, Balder and I needed a little polishing. He’s a young dog, not even 2 years old. There was no audience today. It was an unstructured, unseasonably warm day after a long, snowy winter. Come? Come on is more like it. 

A well-trained dog is a thinking dog, much like a developing 2-year old child. Sensible training helps a dog understand dangers (traffic, crowds) and the reasons for commands. “Stay” grounds them when they are unsettled, “down” cues them to relax and “come” brings them back to your side.

That morning, we were enjoying our lives unleashed, running safe and free in an open field. None of the commands I issued pertained to the situation. I counsel my clients to avoid overusing commands just to show off control of their dogs, but here I was, trying to do just that. And there was Balder, clinging to freedom and fun. 

So what did the dog trainer do with this epiphany? I stood for a moment, listening to the birds and watching the dogs. I let them have a few more minutes of play then I knelt down and threw open my arms. Balder, always up for a hug, ran over. Not a prize-winning recall by any stretch of the imagination, but it was good enough.

It’s been a long winter. In hindsight, I wish I had let Balder have a little fun before my pesky inner dog trainer started issuing commands that were unnecessary and of little consequence.

That being said, I dug out my 50-foot long line and attached it to his tag collar to remind him of our priorities. In our quiet backyard and under the watchful eye of Red, we’re practicing the distance “stay,” honing up on our “down” command and rediscovering the prize-winning “come.” And just like that, Balderdash, star pupil and budding YouTube sensation, is ready for his closeup.