Every dog trainer in the world has been asked what to do when a dog doesn’t respond properly, though the wording of the query takes many forms: What should I do when my dog refuses to do what I tell her to do? My dog is so stubborn—how do I get her to do what I ask? What’s the best way to deal with my puppy’s rebellious phase, which includes ignoring all my cues? What should I do if my dog runs away when called? How do I get my stubborn dog to listen?
When living or working with a dog who’s not doing what we want her to do, it’s natural to feel as though she’s causing the trouble, and easy to assume that the fault lies with the dog. However, viewing the situation this way generally impedes progress toward the goal of the dog behaving and responding to us as we would like.
In my experience, dogs who aren’t doing what we ask of them need help (in the form of practice, information or compassion), not correction (in the form of anger, disgust or disappointment). The dog may not understand the cue we’ve given; she may not have had enough practice to do it reliably; she may be too distracted; she may be stressed or afraid.
To figure out what the issue is, consider this: The dog is not giving us a hard time, but rather, she’s having a hard time. For whatever reason, she’s not doing as we ask because she can’t. Whether it’s her emotional state, her context or because she hasn’t had enough training to succeed, something is getting in her way. With that in mind, we need to ask ourselves how we can help her accomplish the task at hand—i.e., whatever it is we’d like her to do.
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One of the first steps—and I don’t say this in an accusatory way—is to stop putting all the blame on the dog and own our part of our best friend’s undesirable behavior. Training a dog is a cooperative enterprise; we teach dogs how to behave and they learn what to do when we make specific requests of them. By taking responsibility, we make the switch from the idea that our dog is misbehaving to the idea that we clearly need to make it easier for the dog to do what we want her to do because right now, she’s not succeeding.
Training a “Stubborn” Dog
With that in mind, here are the most common strategies professional dog trainers use to “fix” the problem of a dog who is not responding to cues. They all involve accepting that it is our responsibility to help our dogs so they can learn to do what we ask of them.
Build a stronger reinforcement history.
In basic terms, this means do more training and use positive reinforcement for all your training. If your dog resists going into a down, start making “down” her ticket to the good things in life. Ask her to lie down before you go for a walk, before you let her out, before you feed her, before you give her a new toy or a treat—you get the idea. Once she learns to associate lying down with whatever makes her happy, she will be more likely to lie down in new and different contexts.
Positive reinforcement makes the behavior you desire more likely to show up. That’s the definition of positive reinforcement: giving a dog something she likes after she performs an action increases the odds of that action occurring in the future. By helping your dog make this connection a lot of times, you build a strong reinforcement history with a behavior, making it more likely that your dog will perform it.
Dogs, contrary to old-school ideas, don’t want to please us. They want to do what is pleasing to them. For that matter, individuals of every species, including our own, act in ways that cause good things to happen for them. Using positive reinforcement (and lots of it!) is the way to align what your dog wants to do with what you want her to do.
Set the dog up for success.
A fundamental principle of dog training is to repeatedly set dogs up for success. We can only reinforce the behavior we want if that behavior occurs, so we must increase the odds of the behavior happening. Creating situations in which the behavior is highly likely to occur and then reinforcing it makes it more likely to occur in the future. With lots of repetition in increasingly challenging situations, the dog will be able to perform the desired behavior in a broader range of contexts.
For example, suppose your dog barks and lunges whenever she sees another dog while out on a walk. Usually, this leads to the question, “What should I do when this happens?” A more useful question would be, “How can I get her to act appropriately in this situation?” The answer is to set her up for success by not putting her in situations where failure is a sure thing. Instead, modify the context so she can act as you want her to act, then gradually increase the level of difficulty as she gets better at dealing with it. What she can handle is a moving target, but it must be moved gradually.
Here’s one scenario: Enlist a friend with a calm dog (or even a stuffed dog if a real dog presents too much of a challenge) to stand roughly a block away. After walking with your dog a few feet in their direction, ask her to turn and walk in another direction, or to look at you. Then, break out the treats, praise, toys or other reinforcement to reward her for doing what you ask. That’s a success, and you set her up for that success by staying at a distance from a stationery dog who would normally trigger her aggression if moving nearby. As she gets better at this, make the situation slightly more challenging, perhaps by walking a little closer to the target dog, or seeing a dog in the distance moving rather than standing still. Gradually increasing the difficulty and helping your dog to have multiple successes at each level is the best way to help your dog improve.
Use prevention and management.
When we manage a situation to prevent trouble, we are doing our dogs a big favor. Do you have a dog who doesn’t reliably come when called? Don’t let her off-leash in an area that is not fenced. She can’t handle that amount of freedom, which has at least three possible negative consequences: She will ignore you when you call her to come. She will learn that you can’t make her come or catch her. She may put herself in danger. Long-lines and fences keep her from getting herself into trouble while she’s learning a solid recall.
Similarly, if she acts in an out-of-control way when people come to the door, you can prevent that chaos by giving her a stuffed Kong or a chew toy to keep her occupied before visitors arrive, or have her on the other side of a gate to keep her from leaping on your guests. That’s managing the situation to make it easier for her to do the right thing, and it’s a kindness worth offering.
Here’s another example: When someone asks me, “What do I do if my dog runs out the door and won’t come back to me?” one part of my answer is, “What you should have done is not let it happen in the first place.” Not everybody appreciates that answer—fair enough, it’s not helpful in the moment—but it is nonetheless true. When you prevent your dog from escaping by using gates, leashes or keeping the door closed, you avoid the troublesome issue. You can then work on training your dog to have a better recall.
Consider barriers to her performance of the behavior you desire.
There may be many reasons your dog isn’t doing what you want: the presence of distractions; a new context; a less-than-calm emotional state—scared, stressed, anxious, nervous, excited, or agitated or upset in some other way; an unclear cue; discomfort or pain.
One secret of dog training is that teaching a dog to perform a behavior on cue is only the first step in truly training that dog. A large part of our efforts must go toward teaching the dog to do a cued behavior in a variety of situations and contexts. Simply put, there’s a big difference between asking our dog to come when she’s in the back yard and to come when she’s running free through the neighborhood, or to roll over in the family room when nothing’s going on and to roll over immediately after entering the dog park, when a dozen dogs have just swarmed her.
While this makes intuitive sense to most people, we have a harder time recognizing more subtle challenges to a dog’s ability to respond as we wish, such as the scent of steaks on the neighbor’s grill, a storm in the distance or a visitor watching as we try to show off our dog’s new trick. Other challenges: giving hand signals while wearing gloves or a thick winter coat that changes our movements, or anxiety about being at the vet, which renders the dog incapable of concentrating on even simple tasks, such as sitting on request.
Once we recognize the possible reasons a dog is not doing what we want, we are far more likely to be able to solve the problem. If the dog is scared, we can help her overcome her fears, but we can also remove her from the situation that’s scaring her, or lower our expectations while she’s in that scary situation. We can move away from distractions or ask her to do something easier until we regain her full attention. Perhaps a key “fix” is to make sure our cues are as clear as possible and distinct from one another.
Blaming the dog will not change her behavior.
When we empathize with how hard it can be for our dogs to learn all the skills we want them to have and to respond to our cues no matter what’s going on around them, or going on internally, we can more easily train them.
Toward this end, it makes sense to take the words “stubborn dog” and “rebellious dog” out of our descriptions of our dogs, and not to complain that a dog has a mind of her own. Of course she does! Whose mind would we expect her to have? Dogs are independent beings and there’s no reason to expect them to want to do what we want them to do unless we give them a reason. We make that happen with prevention and management, by setting them up for success and using a lot of positive reinforcement, and looking for reasons they aren’t responding as we want them to.
Rather than describing a dog using the words “stubborn,” “rebellious,” “disobedient,” “ignoring,” “refusing” or “misbehaving,” look for ways to turn things around. To achieve the goal of a better-trained dog, we need to step back and figure out how to help our dogs do what we want them to do. The shift must start in our minds, with a change in perspective.
Yes, it’s reasonable to call a dog’s incorrect response to a cue “a training mistake.” However, training will be more successful and dogs’ behavior will improve if we recognize our role in the process. By changing, fixing or correcting our own mistakes, we can have dogs who do as we ask. That makes our relationship better, our interactions more fun, and allows our dogs to have more freedom.