I work with hundreds of dogs of all shapes and sizes every year, and I've never met a stubborn dog. What? How's that possible?
Many people describe their dogs to me as being "lazy" or "stubborn." Others believe that their dog's breed makes them more likely to be stubborn. (The photo I selected to go with this article was no accident! 😉 ) As tempting as it can be to label our dogs in ways like this, labels don't do anything to get to the bottom of why you're not getting the results you're looking for in training. So I ask people this question: "what is your dog doing?" Rather than thinking in terms of general labels like "my dog is stubborn," it can be helpful to think of it as "when I ask my dog to lay down, he just stares at me."
Here are 5 possible reasons why your dog isn't doing what you've asked him to:
- Your dog is confused, unsure, or has utterly no idea what it is you're asking of him.If you ask your dog to do something, and he stares at you blankly, or offers another behavior that he knows better, these are clues that your dog hasn't fully learned what you're asking for. In our "down" example, you might need to start from scratch teaching what "down" means. This is where hand signals come in handy. Try saying the word first, pausing for 1-2 seconds, and then showing your dog what you'd like using a hand signal. For down, a simple point towards the ground will do. Quickly, your dog will learn to pair the word and the hand signal, and you won't even need the hand signal anymore!Also, be careful – you might be using the same word for more than one unrelated thing. If you use the word "down" to mean lay down, get down from jumping on people, and get down from the counters, you may be muddling the meaning of the word to your dog.
- Your dog isn't motivated enough to perform the behavior.What would you do if your boss told you that you were expected to do the same tasks as usual at work, but you'd no longer be getting a paycheck? You'd quit, right? Dogs don't work for free, either. Contrary to popular belief, dogs don't do what we want "just to please us." They do what works to keep them safe and secure in our crazy domestic world.Motivators can change based on what it is your dog wants at the time. Food can be a great motivator, but if food isn't working for you, try increasing to a higher-value food (cheese and cut up hot dogs are easy and very motivating!). This is especially important when you're working in a distracting environment.Other motivators can include toys, play, attention, petting, access to go through a door – use whatever it is your dog wants in that moment.
- It may be physically uncomfortable for your dog to perform the behavior.I see this a lot in large and giant breed dogs, particularly with up-and-down movements like "sit" and "down." It can be physically uncomfortable for large dogs to practice these movements over and over.Or if you've got a dog with hip dysplasia or another medical condition that inhibits normal movement, be aware of how those medical conditions impact your dog's ability to move quickly, and don't repeat those motions over and over again in a single session.In both of these cases, you'll see the most success by keeping your sessions short, focused, and with minimal up-and-down repetition.
- Your dog may have had a previously bad experience with the particular thing you're asking him to do.Dogs that were trained using overly harsh techniques, either with you or someone before you, can shut down when asked to perform those behaviors under different circumstances. This can also occur if the dog has a traumatic incident happen while practicing a behavior (example: dog lays on a fire ant hole while practicing a down-stay.)I worked with a dog that, unbeknownst to me at the time, had previously been taught the "place" cue using very forceful techniques. When I began working on the cue with him using much gentler techniques, he began shaking and shut down completely. If you have a case like this, change the context, the environment, the word – everything you possibly can – and see if your dog is happy to continue. There are some instances where the most ethical option is to never ask your dog to perform that behavior again.
- Your dog is too nervous or too distracted to listen to you.If a dog is experiencing an overabundance of stress or fear, he will be unwilling to take food, and unresponsive to training. Imagine you were being mugged, and your friend standing next to you asked you to recite the alphabet. Would you be able to do it? Despite the alphabet being something that you knew well and could easily recite under normal circumstances, the level of stress and fear that you were experiencing while being mugged would prevent you from being able to focus on anything else. In the same way, your dog will not be able to focus on you or learn anything if he is experiencing overwhelming fear or stress.Tip: When working with a fearful or anxious dog, you must begin at a distance from the "scary thing" at which your dog can handle without going over that threshold. A great trainer can help you do this!This also applies to distracted dogs. Even if your dog isn't afraid, he might simply be too distracted to listen to you. When teaching something new, start in the least distracting environment possible, and gradually work your way up to harder environments. I can assure you, you'll see more success that way!
Do you have any thoughts or questions? Leave them in the comments below, or chat to me about it on Facebook!