It is so, so common. I see it every day. In one of my classes or with a private client—a human gives a cue to which a dog responds either incorrectly or not at all, and the human turns to me to exclaim, “They are so stubborn!”
Let’s say that human is you, that you are a person that has uttered the words, “my dog is stubborn,” at some point in your dog’s life. And let’s even say you’re right—your dog is stubborn. Super stubborn. A stubborn SOB.
I hear you. I hear you saying, “My dog is determined to not do what I want them to do and it frustrates me to no end.” Okay great, so your dog is labeled. You have a stubborn dog. Now what?
What are you going to do with that stubborn dog? Are you going break their will and crumble their resolve? Bribe them because at least they’ll listen when you’re holding a cookie? Intimidate them so they’re more afraid of not doing what you want? Or maybe you can just out-stubborn them with your increasingly stern insistence. (Side note: the psychological theory of projection suggests you to be the likely champion of that match, but at what cost?)
If you responded yes to any of the four tactics above, let me save you some time—I’m not the dog trainer for you, but thanks for stopping by!
If you responded to each of the four tactics with varying degrees of discomfort, dismay or disappointment, then let’s do a little work to reframe your response to your dog’s “disobedience” in a functional way.
When your dog fails to respond to a cue as you expected, or as you would like them to, here are 3 questions that will actually help you learn what to do next:
Really? You can’t/won’t do that in this context?
Do you lack the appropriate motivation to do that in this context?
Do you lack the needed focus to do that in this context?
Let’s take each in turn.
1. Really? You can’t/won’t do that in this context?
One option is verify whether or not the dog really is fluent (basically, do they really know it) with this particular cue in this particular context. But there are much more functional approaches to this than just repeating the cue, or worse, continually repeating the cue in increasingly angry tones.
Let’s say that I have asked my confident dog for a behavior they’ve successfully performed thousands of times, in an environment to which they are accustomed. They do not respond as I expected. In this situation, the first thing I would do is exactly nothing, meaning remain completely neutral, for about 2 seconds.
This is a procedure called the Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS). It was developed in the zoological training community as a way to operationalize, for new trainers, how to avoid reinforcing unwanted behaviors without creating frustration.
The key is to change nothing. Whatever you were doing when you gave the cue, keep doing it. If you were scratching your head, keep scratching your head. If you were staring at your dog, keep staring. If you were looking at your phone, keep looking (but don’t get sucked in). The point is, there should be no change in your behavior.
The other key is to keep the duration of your pause short, 2-3 seconds is plenty. Go longer and your dog will start to experience your pause as a time out, which most animals find aversive. The intention of the LRS is not to punish the failure, or the dog. The intention is to avoid reinforcing the unwanted behavior of not responding to the cue.
After your 2-3 second pause, ask your dog for something else, something easier, something at which you’re sure they’ll succeed. My fallbacks for my dog Ginny are usually a hand target, a spin/twirl, or a sit, down or stand—all of which she has a long and deep history of being reinforced for in many, many different contexts.
Then after your dog has succeeded at 2-3 different behaviors, try your original cue again. If they succeed, YAY—reward! If they fail again, then you need a different strategy.
2. Do you lack the appropriate motivation to do that in this context?
Another option is to assess the dog’s desire to perform the cue requested. This could be a factor of the dog’s general state of arousal (or lack of arousal), or it could be a matter of the perceived payoff (from the dog’s perspective) for doing or not doing the behavior.
For example—I ask my sleepy dog who just crawled off the couch for a behavior they’ve successfully performed thousands of times in that exact same room, and they just stare at me. Honestly, unless I really need that behavior, I’ll probably ruffle their ears, tell them I love them, and leave them alone. There’s tons of stuff I love doing that I would snarl at you for suggesting first thing in the morning.
So say we’re in a training session, my dog’s energy is waning and I, being the ever-ambitious human that I am, just want to get that one last good rep. Well then I’m gonna bring the juice! I have lots of little signals to my dog to let them know something awesome is about to happen. For example, I could go grab a toy, hold it close to my chest and crouch down like I’m about to run. I’ll take a few loud breaths in and out, and then I’ll whip that toy out and say GET-IT!!! in a tone of voice that says YOU JUST WON THE LOTTERY!!! After 5-10 seconds of enthusiastic play, I’ll give the cue again and see what happens. If my dog succeeds, we have a party and I’ll probably end the training session there.
Or say we’re in a training session in a familiar environment and I give my dog a cue they know well, but in the presence of a distraction—say a squirrel is waving at them from 3 feet away. (Seriously, Chicago squirrels are infuriatingly bold.) If responding to my cue means not chasing that saucy squirrel, then I either need to have a reward of equal value (an equally saucy squirrel in my pocket) or I need to have enough reinforcement history, meaning enough repetitions in similar-enough environments where my dog was rewarded to their satisfaction, to counter-balance the value of desaucifying that squirrel.
3. Do you lack the needed focus to do that in this context?
This final option relates to the one above, and I think the two are somewhat inseparable, but still worth discussing independently. It requires us to remember that dogs do not learn conceptually as humans do. They do not understand the concept of sit and thus readily transfer that concept to all situations. When we ask our dog to perform at our request, we are asking them to perform a physical skill.
Let’s consider this from a human perspective. If I were teaching you guitar, you could probably pick up a few chords pretty quick. Learn G, C and D and you are prepared to play a significant portion of the rock/pop songs on record. But say you show up for your 2nd lesson only to discover that I’ve invited a few hundred of my closest friends to watch you perform. How well do you think that’s going to go? (You can be assured this will never actually happen since I am an introvert and thus only have a handful of close friends).
I know for me it would be rough. I’ve been playing guitar on and off since I was 18 and an audience of a few people is enough to make my performance decline dramatically. Why does this happen? Why can’t I perform to my highest level of skill regardless of situation? The answer is feelings. Feelings that come with their own motivations and their own muscular habits. Feelings that also demand some portion of my attention. In order to perform in the presence of all of that feeling-based, physical momentum, my fluency with guitar—all the millions of habits that make up my ability to play—would have to outweigh, undermine, co-opt, overcome or override all the habits of my emotion.
Additionally, the more fluent we are at something, the less focus we need to perform it. This is why if I’m driving and you ask me a question about politics, I’ll probably be able to answer without killing us. But if you’d done the same when I was 15 and getting ready to test for my learner’s permit—I wouldn’t have even heard you (and not just because I thought politics was just something stupid that old people read about in the newspaper).
So when your dog fails to respond to a known cue, consider whether or not the majority of their focus, their bandwidth so to speak, is already taken up with their environments, both outer and inner. Behaviors performed in distracting situations require greater fluency for success, and fluency comes at least in part through practice with distraction.
Therefore, the solution for an error in this context is to drop your expectations and go back to your training plan. First you need to build your dog’s ability to focus on and hear you during the presence of the distractions. Then you can start to build their ability to perform the particular behavior that you want in the presence of those distractions.
One Last Comment on Technique
You may have noticed that none of the options above recommend just repeating the command without changing anything. Depending on the circumstance, that can be a surefire way to not only set your dog up for failure, but to teach them to ignore your cues.
That said, will you see me do it in my everyday life? Absolutely. I am certainly not perfect and sometimes I just need my dog to sit so we can get on with whatever we are doing. But I do not want to make that a habit, and I certainly don’t want to do it in a training session where I’m working on a new behavior. I’d rather have an actual, functional response that I can fall back on and a way to approach training that will significantly reduce, if not eliminate, these instances over time.
It’s Just What’s Practical
So I have given you 3 options to consider—each at least more functional, if not more satisfying, than labeling your dog as stubborn. I know it’s hard to joyfully opt for more work when life is already so busy, and when you think the work you’ve already put in should be paying off more. It’s so much easier to blame the dog.
But unfortunately, blame isn’t going to get you the behavior that you want. Your dog has no idea why all of these rules and requests are so important to you, and even if they did, that doesn’t necessarily mean they would be important to them. They are the ones stuck in our world of our volition, so it’s our responsibility to bridge the gap, not theirs.
I say this not as a matter of morality, but of practicality. Your dog does not have the capacity to take responsibility for their behavior—you do. And doing so is ultimately the only thing that will get the behavior you want from your furry, four-footed friend.
And ultimately I want you to know that there is no one right answer of how you should respond to your dog when they make an error, which is why I’m giving you questions and options instead of rules. This is your life with your dog, the two of you get to decide what works best for you. My goal is to make those choices be as informed as they can possibly be.
Now just for fun, let’s finish off with one last question...
At the end of the day, or at the end of your dog’s life, do you want them to have spent their time doing things they didn’t want to do (aka not being stubborn), or would you rather they had happily wanted the same things as you?