Nothing gets me jumping up on my soap box faster than one of my students claiming that their dog won’t pay attention, learn something that they are trying to teach or respond to their “command” because their dog is stubborn. Those of you who have taken one of my classes and tried to deem your dogs stubborn know what I am talking about. It is an excuse that I just will not tolerate because it simply isn’t true. Students who take the stubborn route surrender to a victim position. They also surrender their dog to being unable to learn, as well as grow in ability and in relationship with their owner. Stating a dog is stubborn puts the trainer in a defeatist position and condemns the dog to a diminished education.
What students really mean when they say that their dog is stubborn is that their dog is not doing what they want them to do, in the way they want them to do it, when they want them to do it.
Stubborn really breaks down into three very fixable causes:
First is understanding. Does your dog fully understand what you want? Have you actually taken the time to teach your dog what it is you want him/her to do? Have you broken down the lesson into small enough increments that your dog can actually succeed at? Have you taught your dog to perform this task on your first instruction, or do you continue to repeat yourself? Do you always use the same cues for the same response, or do you use different cues at different times? Do you except different responses from your dog when you give a cue? Have you taught your dog to perform this task quickly and with out hesitation? Have you taught your dog to perform this task with increasing and differing distractions? Have you taught your dog to perform this task given greater distance from you? Have you taught your dog to perform this task until you release him or her? If not why would you expect them to do it? Your dog likely has been given so much mixed information that he/she really does not know what you want.
Second is reinforcement. Remember, reinforcement always strengthens the behavior it is associated with. Reinforcement is something that your dog will work to gain. If your dog is not working to gain what you are offering, it’s not reinforcement. Reinforcements can include food, territory gains, attention, petting and physical connection, play, activities and toys. What your dog may work to gain in one situation may not matter in another.
Third is trust. If your dog does not feel safe he/she will have a very difficult time following your guidance. Is it safe for your dog to respond to you and be close to you? Trust occurs on four levels.
1) Physically. Dogs like humans, move away from pain. If you are using aversive training methods such as pinch, choke collars or e-collars, hitting, grabbing…your dog will not feel safe with you. If you cue your dog to do something such as “come” and then cut their nails or give them a bath, or other procedure they might find unpleasant, they will lose trust in you, your guidance and in your intent towards them. Your dog must feel physically safe for he/she to commit to being and working with you.
2) Mentally. Can your dog trust that what you say is what you want? Can your dog trust in your cues and guidance? Do you say one thing one time and another the next? When you do give a cue do you except differing responses from your dog? As an example when you call your dog to “come” do you use different terms such as their name, “come”, “let’s go”, “come on”…? Do you say “come” when you want your dog to come in the house and run past you, when you want your dog to follow you, and sometimes when you want your dog to actually come to you and sit in front of your body? If you are not perfectly clear and predictable in your communication don’t expect your dog to know what you want.
3) Emotionally. Our words and our actions must always support a calm and relaxed, excepting and interactive emotional state. Does your communication induce fear, anxiety, frustration or despair? These emotional states only serve to create distance, mistrust and defiance. These are counterproductive to a healthy and trusting relationship.
4) Spiritual level. I know that this may seem out of the box for many but I believe it to be a true and real level of trust our dogs confront on a regular basis. By spiritual trust I mean that our communication and actions should retain and support, if not build upon the joy and individuality of our dogs. My dog, Elsa loves to run and play in the woods as I hike. Keeping her at a strict heel in this situation would not do justice to her spiritual need. But by taking the time to teach her a very trusting and eager attention to me and my cues I can give her great freedoms and know that she is safe.
When we look at it this way the whole concept of stubborn falls apart. Looking at stubborn from an analytic point of view empowers us with the ability to pin point the cause of our dog’s lack of attention, ability or compliance with our wishes. It empowers us with the ability to break down the lesson and rebuild the weak areas. It empowers us with the ability to build upon our relationship, communication and trust with our dogs.