The Stubborn Myth – Busted!

Nothing gets me jumping up on my soap box faster than one of my students claiming that their dog won’t pay attention, can’t learn something that they are trying to teach, or that their dog respond to their “command” because their dog is stubborn. Stubborn just does not exist.

Those of you who have trained with me and tried to deem your dog stubborn know what I am talking about. It is an excuse that I just will not accept 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. Stating a dog is stubborn puts the trainer in a defeatist position and condemns the dog to a diminished education

Training is teaching. I like the word teaching much better than training. I think it helps us think of our learners (dogs) needs and experiences, as well as the details of the lessons we wish to impart.

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.

By taking the onus off the dog and placing it on us, the teacher, we can break down the “problem” and get to the root of why our dogs are not behaving in the manner we wish them to. Now the power is in our hands and we can move forward in a successful training program. Let’s take a look at what “stubborn” really means.

The concept of “Stubborn” breaks down into three 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 cue? 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 without 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? If your dog is not responding the way you wish them to, your dog likely does not have the taught skill set to successfully offer you the behavior(s) you are seeking.

I often equate this to teaching a child to read. First you must have some sense of the English language, and then the symbol system we call the alphabet. Not just the letters, but what sounds they make individually and when put together. Then comes one syllable words, then sentences, and so on. No one would call a first grade student “stubborn” for not reading Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Although there are no more A, B, C’s in this text than in Dr. Sues’ “Green Eggs and Ham”, but Leo Tolstoy is by far more complicated and difficult, for a first grade student to read and comprehend. They just don’t have the skill set yet. When teaching, lessons need to be broken into achievable segments that allow success, and the successively built upon in increments that match the learner’s ability to fully comprehend and achieve success.  This is true for dogs as well as humans when being taught.

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. Reinforcement always comes from the learners (dogs) perception, not from ours. 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. My Black and Tan Coonhound offers me beautiful attentive FCI style heeling in the house to gain food reinforcer’s, Outside Food means little to her, so I use the release to “go sniff” as a strong reinforce when training out of doors. My Welsh Springer Spaniel will do just about anything to gain petting, from me or my spouse, less so from known acquaintances, absolutely not from children or when around children. Reinforcement is not all about food. Although food can make a great reinforcer for many dos in many training situations, a smart trainer can find many other reinforcer’s to use when training. More about this in an upcoming blog post.

I encourage my students to make a list of all the many things their dog’s finds reinforceing. If you don’t know what your dog wants you cannot use it to your advantage in training. Even worse, if you don’t know what your dog wants your dog finds reinforcing you are probably giving it away haphazardly and not being consistent about what you are teaching your dog. Becoming conscious of what your dog finds reinforcing and when you are offering it puts you in the driver seat in a very positive way that can help you build the behaviors and cooperative relationship you seek with your dog.

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.

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 command 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. Just like humans dogs can learn to loose trust is general or in specific situations that have caused the pain or unpredictable aversive treatment.

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. They cannot trust in your request.

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, and the greater propensity to aggressive behavior(s). This is counterproductive to a healthy and trusting relationship.

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 Black and Tan Coonhound, Jolie, was breed to sniff and hunt. I don’t hunt. But I can still give her what she craves. We do a lot of scent related training and games, and we go on sniffaries. We do this around the neighborhood, in the park, and especially in the woods as I hike. Keeping her at a strict heel in these situations 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 to sniff to her hearts delight, but also give me full attention when I ask for it.

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.

Happy Training!