“My dog can’t be trained. I’ve tried everything and nothing works with him. He’s just a stubborn dog.” Most dog trainers hear some version of that story pretty frequently. While it’s completely understandable for dog owners to be frustrated, especially when they are trying to change an unwanted behaviour, the truth is that all dogs can learn. After a closer look at the problem situation, most “stubborn” dogs fall into one of two categories: they lack an understanding of what you are asking for, or they lack the motivation to respond to your cue.
Lack of Understanding
Humans are really good at seeing the big picture and generalising new information. Dogs are not; they are better at noticing tiny details of specific situations. This attention to detail has a lot of benefits, but it can also cause a lot of frustration when we forget to account for it during training. Many of us train our dogs at home when we are first starting out – the environment is quiet, familiar, and it’s easy for your dog to focus on learning. Once he has a behaviour on cue at home, the dog is ready to be a perfect citizen in public, right? Well, not quite. He will need to generalise that cue to make sure that he understands what you want from him in different scenarios.
When trainers talk about generalisation, they are referring to a dog’s ability to respond to a cue and perform its associated behaviour in more than one environment. Sit doesn’t just mean “put your bottom on the ground in the kitchen when mom has the food bowl in her hand.” We also want “sit” to mean “sit” when you’re at the park, in the pet food store, at the beach, around new people, around other dogs, etc. If your dog is not responding to a cue in a new place or around new distractions, he is not being stubborn. Remember, his focus is on the details of the environment around him. If you haven’t practiced that skill around those details, it’s very likely that you’re dog has no understanding of what you want from him! Take a step back in your training and make sure that you are actually training in the environment where you want the final behaviour. Most pet owners are very surprised at the quick turn-around in their dog’s behaviour once they include that step in their training program. See here for some tips to make generalisation easier.
Lack of Motivation
Sometimes dogs do understand what we are asking them to do, but the reinforcers that we are offering them for responding to cues are not strong enough to counteract the temptation offered by outside distractions. To give a human example: imagine if your boss praised you for a job well done instead of giving you a paycheck. Would you still go to work every day? If you would, do you think that you would work as hard or as long as you would if you could earn a big paycheck? For most of us, the answer to both of those questions is no. The potential reinforcer isn’t strong enough to motivate us to continue putting forth the same amount of effort. It’s the same for dogs! More difficult tasks that require lots of effort and energy from your dog need to be “paid” accordingly. Otherwise, it’s actually more reinforcing to ignore the work and just focus on fun activities.
It’s important to note that not all dog treats and toys are created equal. Each dog has his own preference and part of the training process is figuring out what he likes. If you can find something that your dog LOVES, then he will probably pay a lot more attention and work a lot harder during training for the opportunity to have that treat/toy when he’s done. Finally, just because your dog likes a particular treat or toy at home doesn’t mean that it will be motivating enough to work for at the park. Bring some different options with you when it’s time to bring your training sessions someplace new!
Also, sometimes dogs understand what we are asking them to do, but they find the task unpleasant and try to avoid doing it. A “poisoned” cue is one that your dog associates with unpleasant things. Because of that, he is likely to either hesitate to perform the behaviour or not do it at all. A common example of this phenomenon in dog training is recall training. Sometimes we accidentally “poison” the “come” cue by calling our dog to us, and then immediately following his response with an activity that he does not enjoy. For example, for a lot of pet owners, the only time that they ask their dog to come to them during an afternoon at the park is when it’s time to leave. Their dog learns that the word “come” means that the fun is over. In that scenario, the dog is actually being punished for responding to the “come” cue. By definition, punishment is supposed to decrease the frequency of the behaviour in question in the future. The dog is absolutely correct to stop coming when his owner calls because that’s what he was trained to do!
“Stubborn” is a misnomer for a lot of unwanted behaviour. It’s a label that is neither accurate nor helpful. Once we call a dog “stubborn” it becomes part of his personality – it feels like it’s just the way he is and nothing can change him. But we know that’s not true because all dogs are capable of learning. If your dog is not responding to cues that you think that he should “know,” take a second and re-evaluate. Have you trained in that environment and around those distractions before? What kinds of reinforcers are you offering for good responses? And, were there any adverse effects for your dog the last time that you asked for that behaviour? If you are still having trouble, consult with a certified trainer that specialises in positive reinforcement if you need help creating a training plan to address any unwanted behaviours from your dog. A professional trainer will be able to help you identify and fill any gaps in your training so that you have a happy and compliant companion!