The Stubborn Dog

Are dogs stubborn? Here's what you need to know about training a 'stubborn dog'.

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I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to a dog as “stubborn.” It is patently unfair to label a dog as stubborn. Dogs do what works for them (as we all do), and when they aren’t doing what we ask, they have a good reason. When your dog doesn’t respond to your cue, perhaps he’s come to associate it with something aversive, perhaps he doesn’t understand what you’re asking, or perhaps he’s too distracted or stressed and your request doesn’t even register in his brain. In any case, it’s our job, as the supposedly more intelligent species, to figure out how to get our dogs to want to do what we want them to do.

Some humans believe dogs should do what they are told, simply because we tell them to. “Because I said so!” hearkens back to childhood, when parental directives were often accompanied by the implied “Do it, or else!” In these days of a more enlightened dog training philosophy, this coercive approach isn’t what many of us want with our dogs. We prefer relationships based on a cooperative partnership.

If your dog isn’t doing what you ask, consider these questions:

Are you training competently? Remember, dogs shouldn’t have to do what we say just because we tell them to – or just because they love us. We want them to want to do it. Make sure your reinforcers are valuable enough that your dog will eagerly offer the behaviors you ask for, and that you are marking and/or delivering the reinforcer with good timing so your dog associates the reinforcer with the desired behavior.

Is there something aversive about the behavior? Years ago, my first Pomeranian, Dusty, started refusing jumps when we were training for the Open Division of obedience competition. I didn’t punish him for not jumping – I took him to my veterinarian and discovered he had bad hips. It hurt him to jump. A behavior can also be emotionally aversive. If a car ride always means a trip to the vet, your dog could become very reluctant to jump into the car. Your challenge is to make car rides consistently predict “good stuff” – a hike in the woods, a trip his favorite canine pal for a play session, or? If he’s refusing to enter his crate because he has mild separation distress and associates crating with you leaving, alleviate the separation distress through behavior modification (and possibly appropriate medications), and then convince him that crating is wonderful.

Does he not understand? You may have taught him to respond to a cue for the desired behavior, but perhaps you’ve used body language prompts in the past without realizing it, and now, absent the prompt, he doesn’t understand what you’re asking of him. Fade all prompts if you want him to respond reliably to verbal cues. Perhaps you’ve always trained in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator, and so he thinks “Sit” means “Sit in the kitchen.” When you ask him to sit in the living room, he doesn’t sit because it’s not the kitchen. He’s not being stubborn – he needs you to help him generalize his behavior so he understands that “Sit” means to put his tail on the ground wherever you ask him to do it. Even your tone of voice can matter. If you usually give cues with a happy voice but your own emotional state causes your voice to sound different, he may not understand.

Is he distracted? If you haven’t generalized your dog’s behavior to distracting environments, his attention will naturally be drawn to the multitude of exciting things happening around him. He’s not ignoring you; he probably isn’t even hearing you because he’s so focused on the fascinating world around him. Help him hear and respond to your behavior requests by training in various environments with gradually increasing distractions.

Is he stressed? “Stressed” is an even bigger challenge than “distracted.” When stress happens, the thinking part of the brain (the cortex) shuts down and the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) takes over. We even have phrases in the English language to describe this phenomenon: “I was so scared I couldn’t think straight.” “I was out of my mind with worry.” When your dog is so stressed he can’t think straight, it’s unfair to blame him for not doing what you ask. Relieve his stress (remove him from the stressor, and/or do behavior modification to change his association with the stressor) and try again.

Your relationship with your dog will be so much happier when you stop characterizing him as stubborn and realize how you can help him be more responsive to your behavior requests. Now get busy helping him want to do what you want him to do.

Featured photo: Christine McCann/Getty Images

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Sixteen weeks in lockdown and not being able to have his injections has course many problems with Loki. He was sim months old when he took his first steps out side.
    He barks non stop when he sees any one and doesn’t stop when they go out of sight.
    His anxiety levels are very severe.. he hates going in the car I have tried everything and brought everything to help make him more comfortable in the car.
    I can’t house train him probably because whilst most of the time he will go to do his toilet near the door he often do a wee in the any where. He has started cocking his leg up the table or the sofa to do a wee.
    I wasn’t able to use the toilet mats while he was in lockdown because he would chew them up the second I put them down.
    I was so looking forward to taking him for walks when we were able to go out. Whilst he does love to go into the field for his walk he just in inconsolable when another dog appears or a person.

  2. I beg to disagree….My dog could be called stubborn, but I call him bull-headed. Proof…..He used to bark at dogs; people; bikes; cars. I have finally got him to stop doing it. BUT…when he does not do anything like that and the point of contention is out of sight, I might say “Good dog” and give him a pet. He immediately turns around in the direction the stimulus went and barks like crazy. Nothing is there, but he still has to bark. That is bull-headed! Still love him to pieces!

  3. I was just having a discussion with my mother on whether dogs could be stubborn. This isn’t a training thing but I was complaining that my old guy who now has cancer + arthritis insists on accompanying me when I move to a different room, even when I tell him I’ll just be gone a couple of minutes. I’m having a really hard time letting him go but I also hate so much to see him hurting. Still, I contend that he IS stubborn! 😀

  4. I think our dog is stubborn! Got nothing to do with training or barking, nothing like that. To me stubborn is when HE decides which way we’re going on a walk. We are very lucky to be able to walk through woods and heathland which are crisscrossed by multiple paths and our Sid will come to a meeting of paths and once he decides which path he wants to follow he’s very difficult to persuade otherwise. Backside on the ground and refuses to budge. This by the way is a 10 kilo Jack Russell, heaven alone knows how you persuade a 30 kilo lab!

  5. My pit bulls are stubborn for sure! They occasionally say, nope or I don’t want to. It could be the sit command which has been mastered for 6+ years in any and every circumstance. But sometimes Daisy just looks at me and stands. She’d prefer not to sit at that exact moment and I see that as stubborn 🙂

  6. I completely disagree. Stubbornness is fluid and they will choose to ignore cues, treats and all other forms of positive reinforcement if they simply don’t want to do something. We cannot assume it’s our/owner/handlers own “fault” if the dog does not respond to our cues and commands in a low distraction environment. They are being STUBBORN!

  7. I disagree. My current BMD is very stubborn, and he is also very well trained. But when he doesn’t want to move, for example to come into the house, he will plant his butt down and you cannot budge him. He recently had TPLO surgery and we must keep him on leash and quiet. Taking him out is a challenge as he doesn’t want to come back in because he will be put back into his Xpen. I have tried every tasty treat out there, including tripe, but he is stubborn! He knows to come when called and many other commands, and he heels very well, but when he doesn’t want to do something, he won’t, and I call that stubborn. I use positive training techniques and have for over 25 years, and have trained dogs for over 50 years.

  8. It always bugged me that breed books characterize Basset Hounds as stubborn. They were bred to put their nose down and follow it, so when they don’t listen to owner’s commards, they’re labeled as stubborn when they are listening and following their genetic makeup.

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