Is Your Dog Actually Stubborn? Reasons Why Your Dog “Won’t Listen”

As certified professional dog trainers, our job is to help you learn how to train and better understand your individual dog in order to reach your goals. Part of this journey is to help you see the “why” behind your dog’s behavior, as well as sort through what your dog is actually doing versus what it may seem like they’re doing to us when we look at their behavior through a human lens. Many people chalk up their training roadblocks with their dog to “stubbornness,” and even certain breeds as a whole can be mistakenly labeled as “too stubborn” to train. In reality, stubbornness is a human characteristic. What looks to us like a dog refusing to cooperate out of spite may in reality be a dog who is struggling to understand, or a dog who needs a different approach. So, what are some reasons as to why your dog won’t cooperate if it’s not because they’re being stubborn?

You Aren’t Using the Right Motivators

Especially in the earlier stages of the training process, it’s important to make sure that the rewards you use in your sessions match the difficulty of the task you are asking your dog to perform. People often run into trouble when they take a behavior they’ve taught at home out into more difficult environments, and suddenly aren’t able to get the same reliability from their dog that they did before. One reason for this may be that what you’re using as a reward isn’t valuable enough for the added difficulty. While training at home with kibble or commercially made training treats may be enough, out in “real world” contexts, you may need to amp up the value of your rewards to something that is higher value to your dog, like cheese, cooked chicken/fish, hot dog, or even soft foods in a squeeze tube like peanut butter or wet dog food. Look at their rewards like payment for doing a job: just like we expect bigger payment for more difficult jobs, our dogs need more valuable rewards when amping up the difficulty in their training. Also keep in mind that individual dogs have different preferences for what they find more valuable. Experiment with different foods and treats to find what really gets your dog motivated!

Sometimes, using food rewards may not be the most motivating factor for your dog in the environment you’re trying to work in. In these scenarios, it may make more sense depending on your dog to use environmental rewards or play/toys as a reward instead. For example, some dogs may be much more motivated to work for a game of fetch or tug as a reward over food while training at the park, or a dog may be much more interested in being released to go sniff a nearby bush or patch of grass as a reward for appropriate leash manners on a walk (To learn more about using sniffing as reinforcement, check out this video). There are almost always ways to creatively use anything your dog enjoys doing as a reward if you think outside the box!

You Made Training Too Hard, Too Soon

It’s very easy to get ahead of ourselves when teaching our dogs something new. We are having success at “early” stages of training a new behavior, and we start asking more and more of our dogs too quickly. Sometimes we mistakenly believe a dog has learned a new behavior fully without proofing it or doing enough repetitions to really make the behavior solid. Without fully generalizing and thoroughly practicing a new behavior, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your dog will only listen “when they want to” instead of in every scenario you need. In reality, your cue is just not as well known to your dog as you think it may be, and they need more practice to fully understand what you are asking in any situation.

Generalizing a Behavior:

When we teach our dogs a new behavior, it is not fully “learned” until the dog can do the behavior in many different contexts reliably. Dogs have a hard time generalizing, meaning laying on their settle mat in the living room can be a completely different behavior to them than bringing their settle mat to practice at the pet store. When we want to generalize a behavior, we have to make sure that we take it into different contexts and practice it often in structured training sessions with a high rate of reinforcement (reward) until we can reliably ask for it in “real life” situations. You should consider a behavior still in the “learning” stage with your dog until they can reliably perform it on cue in several different environments and contexts, not just at home.

Proofing a Behavior: