What to do about a stubborn dog?
If you peeked into the average trainer’s inbox, or took a look at dog training forums and message boards, you’ll see the word “stubborn” a LOT.
💬“This breed is so stubborn”
💬“He’s just a stubborn guy!”
💬“My dog is being stubborn and not coming when called!”
Part of being a good trainer is reading between the lines and asking good questions to ascertain just what the owner believes about their dog.
Stubborn, like “soft”, “obedient” and “trainable” are all subjective labels, and they can mean very different things to different people. So let's clarify terms.
A quick google search gives us these definitions:
🗯“having or showing dogged determination not to change one's attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.”
🗯“difficult to handle, manage, or treat.”
🗯“tenaciously unwilling or marked by tenacious unwillingness to yield”
The first thing that jumps out at me is this: “especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so”
⁉️What is more likely; that your dog fully understands why you want him to come when he’s called, and is choosing not to come because “screw you you’re not my real mom”, or that he doesn’t have the skills and history of reinforcement to choose to leave the wonderful world of squirrel smells?
You didn’t sit down and have a reasoned discussion with your dog about why coming when you’re called is important for his safety. I mean I think my dog is pretty darn smart, but he’s not THAT smart.
The other part that jumps out is “tenacious unwillingness to yield”.
Yield to what? Their owner’s will?
What kind of relationship is that?
I don’t want my dogs to yield to me! I want them to enjoy working with me and I want to help them build strong patterns of behaviour that are safe and rewarding for them.
All behaviour is driven by reinforcement. This means that behaviours are repeated because they were reinforced. In the dog training world, this most frequently means food, but it can be a lot more nuanced than that.
Have you ever been ghosted? Pretty soon you stop texting that person, because the reinforcement of a reply has stopped. The behaviour has extinguished.
Some dogs have been bred for hundreds of years to work closely and cooperatively with their people. This is why goldens are so… well, goldeny. They find that working relationship rewarding. They find treats rewarding. They find head scritches rewarding. They like games that we like, like fetch.
Other breeds were not. Maybe they were bred to guard, or hunt independently. Maybe exploring the outside world and accessing smells and hunting opportunities are more valuable to them than a cookie.
Maybe the puppy wasn’t lucky enough to be born into the home of a responsible breeder who utilizes a science based puppy raising program like Puppy Culture, and hasn’t yet built strong positive associations with interacting with people.
Maybe the dog is scared and really needs to keep an eye on the environment right now!
Again, all behaviour is driven by reinforcement. So if I call my dog, and he just stands there sniffing the tree, what is driving THAT behaviour? Maybe someone dropped a french fry there, or maybe a pretty girl peed there recently.
Maybe I haven’t let him sniff enough lately and he really needs to get some sniffy time in.
Almost always, so-called stubborn dogs are dogs who are simply more less motivated to access treats and praise than the average pet golden. Frequently they are overwhelmed by their environment or have other mitigating factors like fear of being handled.
The good news is that while “stubborn” is a character flaw, the rest is just behaviour and learning history.
We can’t fix character flaws, but we can change behaviour.
If you have a hard to motivate dog, you don’t have to go it alone!
Contact us for a free consult, and take the first step to a cooperative, enjoyable relationship with your dog!!
Let me tell you a story.
I grew up in a bit of a dog bubble. My introduction to dogs was through my grandmother, an international judge and accomplished breeder. Her dogs were versatile sport dogs, able to hunt all day on friday and win in the show ring on saturday. They traveled all over, sleeping in hotels and performing under really difficult conditions. These incredibly fit, confident, happy dogs were the norm for me. In short, I was incredibly sheltered and privileged when it came to dogs.
Then I got a job at a doggie daycare and got plunged face first into the pet world.
One thing was an immediate shock, and I’ve never gotten over it.
There is an anxiety epidemic in pet dogs!
Those first few months at the daycare it felt like every second dog was on the brink of nervous collapse. I had never seen anything like it.
A havanese hyperventilating on a corner.
A pug hiding under a blanket.
A weimaraner pacing the gate, whining and whining.
I couldn’t figure it out. What was happening?
It turns out, it’s complicated. (Isn’t it always?)
Honestly I really demonized pet owners there for a while. I had no idea how it was possible for this to happen, and that lack of understanding left me with no explanation other than "people bad".
But I learned more about the realities of where people got their dogs, and the results of poor early puppy raising and genetics.
I learned about what I like to call The Other Epidemic; boredom.
And I learned that a distressing amount of people either are unable or unwilling to recognize their dog’s emotional distress.
This is all very concerning stuff.
We can all empathize with these dogs, especially those of use with anxiety or trauma.
But what can we do?
I know my immediate impulse of yelling “OH MY GOD” really doesn’t help.
Over the years at the daycare we tried a number of different approaches.
I’ll be honest, it was hard. We failed a lot.
It was emotionally draining, and through trial and error, with a lot of tears and sleepless nights (your pet care professionals do have anxiety dreams about your dogs, just an fyi), we came to a surprisingly simple conclusion.
Here’s what works; build relationships with people and spread the dog nerdiness.
The cool thing about this is it isn’t just something that dog trainers can do. Anyone who cares about dogs can do some really serious animal welfare work. If you’re here you’re already probably doing it without realizing.
That was the lesson I needed to learn. Most people are doing their best, but we, as a culture, have a long way to go before every dog has the life they deserve.
So build relationships with people and call them in. Teach by example.
We’re all dog nerds here.
Being a good trainer requires that we deal with our emotions and not let them get in the way of our decision making and planning. It requires we keep a cool head when faced with setbacks or challenges. Our emotions and expectations can be the biggest hurdles for pet owners and trainers.
But they can also be our greatest strength. The best teachers, the best therapists, are those who can build strong relationships with the people they work with.
We also need to question why we denigrate emotions as a whole.
Two of the earliest novels that espoused ethical treatment of animals, Beautiful Joe by Margaret Marshall Saunders and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, are deeply emotional works. They both effected real change, and continue to be politicising texts.
The idea of humans being rational is rooted in contrast with the irrationality of animals (and non-white people, but that’s a whole rabbit hole we don’t have time to go down). You and I know this to be untrue. Animals behave in irrational AND rational ways, just as we do. What we view as rational or irrational is coloured by our own cultural views and socio-political leanings (looking at you, Brett Kavanaugh)
And arguably, rationality and emotion are not mutually exclusive.
Seminal feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote “our feelings are our most genuine path to knowledge”. We are inherently emotional beings, as are our dogs. For many of us, myself included, we found our way to science based training because the methods we had been using, or were being asked to use, felt wrong. I vividly remember watching my dogs suffer through traumatizing nail trims, it was an experience that deeply affected how I chose to handle dogs in the years that followed.
Our ability to empathize with another species is what incited us to find new sources of information in the first place. It gave us the power to shake off the safety of tradition and find new ways of teaching and living with dogs.
Where we run into trouble is when emotion stops informing our judgement and starts to cloud it instead. Our motivations behind training are emotional. For all of us, regardless of what methods we use.
But the implementation of science based training techniques, the research behind them, the skill they require, these things are not emotional or irrational.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
There is this myth that I really really loathe. So much so, and in so many ways, that this is going to be a two parter!
It’s the idea that positive, science based training is “emotional”, that people (especially women) who use science based methods are “bleeding hearts” who need to “get back to the real world”.
Us “cookie pushers” anthropomorphize and infantilize dogs, and tug on the heartstrings of owners in order to get them to sign up for training.
Not only is this insulting and thinly veiled misogyny (or internalized misogyny), it’s just not true.
(it’s important to note that this really is misogyny, internalized or otherwise. Things Women Do, i.e science based training, a field dominated by women, are almost without fail labeled as insignificant, frivolous and over emotional. See therapy and pop music)
It’s not true because modern positive training is based on science. We have decades of research showing us that these training methods change behaviour faster and more effectively than punishment based techniques. We know that they work across species (including humans) and that they are utilized by zoos on a variety of animals that are far less domesticated and far more dangerous than dogs. We know that they present less risk than traditional methods, both for the dog’s emotional and mental health and for public safety. These things are no longer up for debate.
It’s also not true because implementing science based training takes a lot of planning and dedication. It demands that people remain in a thinking, rational state of mind at all times when with the dog. It requires technical skills and a lot of problem solving.
On the flip side, I can’t even begin to count the number of “traditional” trainers who are reactive, not self controlled. The blame for a technique failing falls on the dog instead of the trainer. They label dogs as “stubborn” or “spoiled” when their methods don’t work, often doubling down and using force to iron out their own mistakes as a trainer.
Hardly dispassionate or rational.
There’s another component of this, the idea that it is both possible and desirable to be emotionless. The myth of pure rationality runs deep in our political and social discourse, and dog training does not escape that.
We’re going to dive into that in part 2.
What if I told you (now hang tight, this is going to be pretty controversial) that your dog doesn’t need a walk every day.
I’m completely serious.
There are things that are infinitely more valuable to your dog than a daily walk.
We have this cultural story about what good dog ownership looks like, and what the dog's days should look like. It includes walks in the neighbourhood, and maybe a weekly visit to the dog park or daycare.
Those of you with high energy dogs might be rolling your eyes now. A jaunt around the neighbourhood just won’t cut it for your dog!
But what if I told you that even your high energy, high drive dog doesn’t need a walk every day!
Dogs need rest, and they need adequate exercise so that they can build muscle and stay fit. A daily walk does not allow for rest days, and frequently does not include the right kind of exercise. For reactive or fearful dogs, they can make the problem worse.
Dogs need variety. Daily walks become rote and routine. They send us a message that we’ve done “enough”. They keep the dog just tired enough that we don’t need to do more.
Or, they just increase the dog’s exercise tolerance until we are relying on friends and family members, or dog walkers and daycares to keep our dogs from bouncing off the walls.
A good exercise routine for your dog involves designated rest days. It involves mental enrichment, including but not limited to food enrichment and complex problem solving. It involves safe, high intensity exercise, and relaxed, free exercise.
It involves taking them new places (as long as they feel safe) and finding them friends they can play safely.
So yes, your dog does not need a daily walk. They need less AND more.