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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:

There are three D’s in dog training that are used to “proof” a behavior in different contexts: Distance, Distraction, and Duration. We use these three concepts to help make a trained behavior stronger and more reliable no matter the context you ask your dog to perform them in. Typically, when proofing a behavior, we will work on one of these concepts at a time before combining all three. Meaning, you will work on a behavior with distance first, then add distraction without distance, then add duration without distance or distraction. From there, you can start asking for your behavior at a distance, in distracting environments, at a longer duration.

  • Distance Example: Asking your dog for a sit from 3 feet away instead of right at your feet, then building up to 5 feet, 10 feet, and so on.

  • Distraction Example: Asking your dog for a sit on the front porch instead of in the living room, then in the driveway, then out at a new park, then a restaurant patio, and so on.

  • Duration Example: Asking your dog to remain in a sit until released for 3 seconds, then 5, then 10, and so on.

  • Combining All Three: Asking your dog to sit from 10 feet away at a busy park for 10 seconds before being released.

Your Dog is Over Their Threshold

All dogs have varying tipping points when it comes to what they are comfortable and uncomfortable with. When working with a dog who is reactive, fearful, or easily overexcited, they may have lower tolerances for new scenarios or being in close proximity to things that trigger them. In some cases, just being in certain environments can cause an overexcitable or fearful dog into going “over their threshold.” A dog’s threshold refers to their emotional state. When a dog crosses over their threshold, their emotions (whether this be fear, excitement, or reactivity) are in too high of a state for any learning to occur, and they’ve entered a form of “fight, flight, freeze, or fool-around” mode. Over threshold dogs can look different depending on the individual. The most common ways to know if your dog is over threshold are:

  • They are reacting (barking, lunging, growling, whining, etc)

  • They are not interested in taking food or treats they previously were wanting to eat

  • They are unable to give you attention because they are overly concerned or distracted by their surroundings

  • They are “shut down,” freezing, or acting overly subdued

  • Their behaviors are frantic with no ability to redirect them onto something else

Over threshold dogs on a psychological and physiological level are unable to control themselves, and are not “disobeying” us intentionally. They are in a reactionary state and unable to think clearly. They aren’t listening because they are not capable of doing so, not because they’re willingly choosing to ignore us. When your dog becomes over threshold, the best course of action is to take this as information that you made their circumstances too difficult for training, and need to remove them from that scenario and go back to an easier step that they can remain under threshold in. For some dogs this looks like working in easier environments for a while, working farther away from “triggers” before building back up to this distance, or lowering the intensity of a trigger by making it quieter (like playing a doorbell at a lower volume).

You’re Competing With Your Dog’s Genetics

Different breeds (and breed mixes) of dogs are bred for different purposes. Many dogs have predispositions to behave in a certain way quite literally embedded in their genetics, which can lead to advantages and disadvantages in training depending on your goals. For example, many nordic breeds like Huskies and Malamutes are bred to run and pull sleds, meaning loose leash walking will need extra work to be reliable as opposed to other breeds. Sighthounds and terriers are inclined to chase prey, and may need extra work on recalls and disengagement from wildlife like squirrels and deer. Herding breeds are inclined to nip and try to control movement of others, so they need more work on promoting calm behavior around small children or highly stimulating situations. If you are experiencing trouble in your training, do some research on your dog’s breed(s) to see if there are genetic predispositions that may be causing a challenge for you. This is why it is essential to research the types of dogs you’re interested in adding to your home before getting one to ensure that their behavior patterns match up well with your lifestyle.

Training your dog to go against their genetics will always be a challenge, and it may benefit you to make some adjustments to your expectations or to your management routines alongside your training to find a solution that works for you. If you have a dog breed that is notorious for low off-leash reliability, it may benefit you to take hikes on long lines with them to simulate the freedom of off leash while still having a tether to them in case of emergency. If you have a dog that is inclined to hunt prey, giving them outlets like playing with a flirt pole as a training reward, giving them “destuffing” toys as enrichment, or letting them engage in a sport like barn hunt will help them have appropriate outlets to their instincts that benefit both of you! It’s vitally important to your dog’s wellbeing and your overall training success to learn about their genetic predispositions to behavior, give them appropriate breed-specific outlets to express this behavior, and try to find creative workarounds to use their desires as rewards in training.

It’s Not Because of Dominance. Really!

Sometimes when people view their dog’s behavior as being “stubborn,” they then will continue to conclude that this behavior may be because their dog is trying to be “dominant” or take their place as “alpha.” Thankfully, this is not the case and this theory is based in outdated thinking from the 1930’s and 1940’s. The idea of an “Alpha” wolf came from a study of captive wolves that were placed together and observed. This study was quickly debunked, as the captive setting was completely artificial and therefore any findings could not be proved since the wolves were displaying highly unnatural behavior you wouldn’t find in a family unit in the wild. Additionally, dogs are capable of recognizing that humans are a separate species and do not treat us the same way as they do other dogs. We are simply two species co-existing with each other for our own benefit. Dog hierarchies are often very fluid, meaning there is not a fixed “alpha” dog in any given social structure, and social circumstances between dogs change depending on the context they’re in.

It is perfectly okay to give your dog affection, help them through their big emotions, and view your dog as your companion instead of needing to be “alpha” over them. Their “stubbornness” is not rooted in their desire to dominate you, as it’s not even stubbornness at all in the first place! The sooner you start viewing your dog’s difficulty to listen as needing extra help instead of them trying to be disobedient for the sake of it, the easier it will be for you to troubleshoot and find out what needs improvement to get more reliable behavior from your dog in the long run. Your dog is struggling to understand, not being stubborn!

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