I Have a “Stubborn” Dog
At my first agility trial, a very nice woman struck up a conversation with me. She asked what kind of dog I had. When I told her I have a Rhodesian Ridgeback, the woman said, “She must have been pretty hard to train. I hear that breed is really stubborn.” She was very well-intentioned and I didn’t take offense. This was certainly not the first time I’ve heard that Ridgebacks are stubborn.
What is interesting to me, however, is that all of my Ridgebacks have been attentive to me and eager to learn. They respond reliably to cues inside and outside of the house. They have not been hard-headed or willful.
I know that Ridgebacks are not the only breed that gets labeled as stubborn. I see all types of dogs called stubborn in training classes and on social media. And it’s often a trait that motivates people to seek help from a trainer that touts they can make even the most stubborn dog obey. This kind of training usually involves punishment-based methods, which is not necessary to get a dog to reliably respond to cues.
I don’t doubt that behavior perceived as stubborn can be frustrating for owners. But I do want to push back on the idea that any dog is in fact stubborn.
What Does “Stubborn” Behavior Look Like?
Stubborn is defined as, “having or showing dogged determination to do what one wants and being unwilling to change one’s mind, even in spite of good reasons to do so.” Some people might say their dog “cannot be reasoned with” or “refuses to listen.”
So what kind of behavior is perceived as stubborn by dog owners? Broadly, not behaving in a way that an owner desired. The human had an idea of what the dog should do, but the dog didn’t do it. Often times, this happens repeatedly and may become a pattern.
This could look a variety of ways. I’ll throw out some specific examples:
- An owner calls their dog to come into the house from the yard, but the dog rarely comes inside.
- A human tells the dog to get off the couch and the dog stays put.
- The owner tells their dog to sit, but the dog walks away from them.
- A dog jumps on the counters to get food even though their owner punishes them for it.
- The owner asks the dog to get in the car, but the dog stays standing in the garage.
- A dog will not swallow a pill despite their owner’s attempts to disguise it in food.
- The owner attempts to trim the dog’s nails, but the dog is thrashing around.
Reinforcement and Punishment
I propose that none of the dogs in these examples are acting stubbornly. For the dog, it’s not about resisting their owner’s will or digging their heels in. It’s about seeking reinforcement and avoiding punishment.
Let’s break that down just a little.
A reinforcer is anything that follows a behavior and increases the probability of that behavior being repeated. This happens because, whatever that “thing” is, the animal finds it rewarding and positive. Psychologist B.F. Skinner found that if rats pushed a lever, which was followed by the delivery of food, the rats would press the lever more and more to get more of the food they enjoyed.
Now let’s look at punishment. Punishment is anything that follows a behavior and decreases the probability of that behavior being repeated. If those rats pushed the lever and it was followed by an electric shock, which the rats found unpleasant or painful, the likelihood of them continuing to press the lever goes way down. That’s because the consequence of pushing the lever was aversive.
So with the concepts of reinforcement and punishment in mind, let’s consider some real explanations for “stubborn” dog behavior.
Fear and Stress
Being in a state of stress, anxiety or fear is inherently negative for all creatures. Dogs behave in ways to avoid these feelings and the things that cause them, just like humans. Rather than calling a dog stubborn, consider if it’s actually afraid or stressed.
A dog who refuses to get into the tub for a bath and tries to jump out is stressed. He finds the bath experience anywhere from unpleasant to downright terrifying. The bath is a punisher, which reduces the likelihood of the human’s desired behavior, which is to get in the tub and hold still.
Fear and stress can lead to avoidance, which means the dog acts in a way to prevent the aversive stimulus from happening in the first place. If your dog tries to hide from you when you call him because he knows you’re going to give him a bath, which he dislikes, that is avoidance, not stubbornness. The dog is simply doing what is within his power to stay safe and avoid stress.
Sometimes what is creating fear or stress may not be obvious. It could be a certain sound that worries your dog and makes it hard for him to listen to you. Or the way you lean into their space when you’re trying to take a cute photo might stress her out and cause her to look away or get up. It’s always a good idea to look for signs of stress and consider what the source is. This illustration shows some of the most common signs of stress and fear in dogs.
A variety of physical ailments may cause pain for a dog. If moving in a certain way feels painful, they will avoid performing those motions. This could lead a dog to not respond in the way their owner desired. For example, if a dog has a soft tissue injury, she may be hesitant to jump in the car when asked because she knows it’s going to hurt. Again, that is just the dog protecting itself, it is not trying to be disobedient or hard-headed.
Sometimes less serious discomfort may also influence a dog’s behavior. For example, if a dog finds laying down on hardwood floors uncomfortable, he may stay standing when you ask him to “down.” Rather than assuming he is being stubborn or ignoring you, consider if what you’re asking may actually be causing bodily discomfort. And then adjust the environment to help them be successful. Putting down a mat can help the dog feel more comfortable with the behavior you cued.
Pain caused by humans is also punishing and will create avoidance in a dog. A dog that is shocked when it jumps on the counter in hopes of finding food may be hesitant to come into the kitchen when called. Not responding to the owner is the dog’s attempt to avoid the punishment of the shock. Avoidance, not stubbornness.
Instinct refers to an inclination to do a certain behavior. These behaviors are inherent and do not need to be learned. The type and degree of instinct varies by breed and individual.
Sighthounds, as well as many other dogs, have strong instincts to spot moving objects and chase them. Herding breeds are naturally inclined to group and move objects or other animals. Terriers have instincts to go to ground to find and hunt rodents. And just about every dog has instincts to sniff. Some breeds, like scent hounds, may have an even higher inclination for sniffing.
Dogs find performing instinctual behavior naturally rewarding. No one needs to give a dog a treat after it chases and kills a rabbit for the dog to want to repeat that behavior. Following their instincts is the reinforcement.
So it’s no surprise that a dog will choose to act instinctually even when their owner has a different plan in mind. Perhaps the most common desired behavior that is at odds with instinct is the recall. Owner calls the dog with the hope that they’ll come over, but the dog spots a squirrel and takes off chasing it. Is this dog stubborn? Nope. It’s just seeking reinforcement, which happens to be the opposite of what their owner wanted. For the dog, it is much more rewarding to chase prey than it is to return to their owner and be put on leash.
Similar to instincts, a dog’s genetics are built-in. And genetics play a big part in our dog’s behavior. Some breeds were selectively bred for traits such as independence, ability to work away from their handler, and ability to make decisions on their own without input from a human. While these attributes may be desirable and useful in a true working setting, they can often be frustrating for owners in a pet context. However, the dog is not being unreasonable or willful. They are simply doing what their genes tell them to do, which is reinforcing for the dog.
Some breeds and individuals are genetically predisposed to engage with a human. They want to interact with and be close to you. And other breeds and individuals may have less of a genetic tendency for that kind of behavior.
It is humans who created dogs with these inclinations to chase, herd, sniff, guard and hunt. We selected for dogs with tendencies toward independence and distance. So it is on us to understand them and not just label them as stubborn.
Instincts and genetics are hardwired, but it doesn’t mean there is no way to get our dogs to listen to us. This is where training comes in.
Training is how we build reinforcement for the behaviors we as owners find important. And when we reinforce them, by definition, those behaviors become much more likely to be repeated. We cannot overlook training when trying to solve the “why is my dog stubborn” puzzle.
Dogs cannot read our minds. We cannot expect them to respond to our words or actions without teaching them first. It’s unfair to place our own expectations on dogs, especially when those expectations go against their natural instincts or desires, and not spend time training them.
There are several components to training that relate to why a dog may not respond in the way their owner wanted. So let’s talk about them one at a time.
Criteria refers to the exact behavior that you want your dog to perform when you say a word or make a hand signal or act in a certain way. For example, when I say “bed,” I want my dog to start moving right away to their bed and then lay down immediately and stay on the bed until I release them. Those criteria provide a clear picture of the desired behavior.
However, if I don’t train my dog to those criteria, they will not match that mental picture I have in my head. And that can be frustrating for owners. However, this is just a gap in training, not stubborn behavior.
Consider if your dog truly understands what it is you are asking them to do. And if they don’t, train it.
For tips on upping the clarity of your training, check out this post.
It’s a common experience among dog owners: your dog listens perfectly well at home, but when you take him into public, he doesn’t respond. This is because the dog isn’t fluent quite yet.
Changes in the environment can challenge a dog’s understanding of a cue. Let’s say your dog comes flying to you as soon as you call her name in the house and in your yard. But when she’s playing with a dog friend, she doesn’t even look at you when you call out. She isn’t being stubborn, it’s just that she wasn’t trained to respond to her name under those conditions.
It’s on us as owners and trainers to gradually build our dog’s fluency in the behaviors that are important to us. Adding in distractions, distance and duration slowly, along with consistent reinforcement of the behaviors, will result in a dog that can listen just as well at home as in public.
Sometimes stubborn behavior is actually expecting something from our dog for which we haven’t sufficiently trained.
Dogs that are unmotivated are prime targets for getting labeled as stubborn. The owner is making an effort to train, but the dog doesn’t really care. What may be going on is that the dog is not being properly motivated. This goes right back to the definition of reinforcement. If the reward being used during training is not resulting in an increase in the behavior, then we aren’t actually rewarding the dog.
Reinforcement is so unique to each individual dog. We talk a lot about food-motivation and toy-motivation, but even within those categories there is such a wide variety of what a dog may find rewarding.
Perhaps a dog has no interest in string cheese, but some roasted chicken is a hit. Or they don’t care about the long fluffy tug toy that you see other dogs go nuts for, but she is a huge fan of a rubber stick.
If you have a food-motivated dog, check out my post about getting more creative with food rewards here.
Spending time figuring out what motivates a dog is so important in building reliable behavior.
Sometimes dogs are unmotivated by the type of training we are doing. Maybe lots of repetition or too much stillness can become demotivating. We may describe the dog as bored. “Bored” is another label that is easy to throw around to describe dog behavior. Sarah Stremming has a fantastic podcast all about what “bored” actually is. I highly recommend checking that out if you find your dog looking bored in training.
How much reinforcement has your dog received over time for the behavior you’re asking of her?
Reinforcement history includes the number of times you asked for the behavior, the dog performed it correctly, and you rewarded it. It also includes the value of the reward.
So if I’ve asked for a total of 5 recalls from my dog while they were off leash on a trail and rewarded all of them with a piece of my dog’s regular kibble, that’s a pretty small reinforcement history. I shouldn’t be too surprised then if my dog doesn’t come to me if a rabbit crosses our path. Their history of reinforcement for a recall does not outweigh the the reinforcement of a rabbit chase.
But if I’ve asked for 200+ recalls over the course of a year and rewarded them all with something my dog really loves, that’s a strong reinforcement history and it’s therefore likely my dog will respond even when there’s a competing motivator available. In my experience with my sighthound breed, a strong reinforcement history for a recall can absolutely outweigh the reinforcement of a rabbit chase.
Strong reinforcement histories increase the likelihood of our dogs doing what we ask. So what an owner perceives as stubborn may actually be a weak reinforcement history at play.
Be Curious about “Stubborn” Behavior
It can be frustrating when we feel like our dogs aren’t listening to us. But rather than becoming upset with them, let’s get curious about the real reasons behind their behavior. Always look for what reinforcement is present or lacking. And dig around for any punishers that might be lurking. Think about what gaps may exist in your training and spend time building a solid reinforcement history.
A Final Thought
It’s also important to recognize that our dog’s do have minds and desires of their own. We need to let them be dogs and give them safe, appropriate outlets to do dog things. When we make space for this, they’ll have more mental capacity to behave in ways that align with our own desires.