Do you know a stubborn dog?

Often people will say that they have a stubborn dog who cannot be trained unless the human is firm with the dog. As with most things in life, it’s a little more complex than that. It is not just about how firm or kind we are with our dogs. Instead it is about how good we are at listening and responding to what our dogs are trying to tell us. As we humans have larger brains than our furry companions, it is only fitting that we take on the responsibility to improve our communication with our dogs. Sure, it’s much harder than saying that you have a stubborn dog, but your dog will thank you.


It’s all about communication

Put simply, to be good at communicating with our dogs, humans need to learn to be, well, less human. I’m not suggesting that we start trying to be more like our dogs and do all the gross things they do (do I need to specify all those gross things?). Instead, we want to simply consider how dogs communicate versus how humans communicate to understand the cause of many misunderstandings.

As primates, our method of verbal communication is to use repetition and volume if we feel that we aren’t being heard. Things escalate further if those techniques don’t work, however for the purpose of this blog I want to focus on the first part, repetition and volume.


The stubborn dog: case study

Often, when humans are trying to get their dog to do a particular behaviour, and the dog doesn’t do the behaviour, the human will repeat the cue. For example:


Human: “Fido, Sit.”

Fido:  looks at their human, wags their tail a little.

Human:  “Sit.”

Fido: Fido looks off to the side away from their human

Human:  “Fido….Sit. Sit” Human is now starting to lean over the dog and the human’s face is tense. Human is starting to think…”agh stubborn dog”

Fido: Fido licks their lips, averts their eyes from the human and Fido’s face is tense

Human: “SIT.”

Fido: sits down, Fido looks somewhat bewildered.

Human: straightens up their posture and relaxes. “Good dog”


We know what the human was doing and why (we’ve all been their and felt that frustration). But what about Fido? Is Fido being a stubborn dog?


What does Fido think?

In this scenario, Fido most likely thinks that the human is being pretty intense. Fido is telling us pretty clearly that they are not comfortable and they do this with:

  • Head turn away
  • Licking lips
  • Facial tension

While Fido is communicating this clearly, we as humans are usually focused on the verbal language so we don’t notice or understand what Fido is communicating.

As soon as we start to notice Fido’s body language, our paradigm changes. No longer is Fido being a stubborn dog. Instead, Fido is potentially overwhelmed or intimidated by their human because the human is getting louder and more and more tense.


How can we communicate better?

Once we understand what Fido is saying, we can change our approach. We can ask for the ‘sit’ once in a happy relaxed voice. We can keep our body relaxed and not loom over Fido.

If Fido doesn’t sit, instead of repeating the cue we can think about why they didn’t do the cue. Most often, it is because we haven’t trained that behaviour in the context we are asking. For example, we usually train a ‘sit’ mostly at home, so our dog gets used to doing this behaviour at home. Dogs are pretty bad at generalising information. If they have learnt how to sit at home, they may need a refresher to do this same behaviour in a different location. This behaviour becomes harder to do also if we start adding lots of distractions such as birds or other dogs being near by. So, when in a new location, we want to help our dogs out by giving a refresher of any behaviour we have asked for.  Here is a great article for more information about training skills under distraction, including a new environment.


But why did Fido sit?

In our scenario above, it is easy to think that Fido knew the behaviour that we wanted because Fido eventually sat. What is actually happening in that scenario is negative reinforcement. This is where something that the dog doesn’t like is taken away to increase a behaviour occurring. In our scenario above, the human being loud and tense and standing over the dog is the aversive. So, our dog is trying to figure out how to make the human stop being loud and intense. In doing this they try different behaviours. Most dogs will initially try a sit behaviour as this is something that they may have been rewarded for in the past. In our scenario, when Fido sits, the human relaxes and stops being loud.


Why does it matter if a dog is yelled at?

Why is this important? Surely a loud voice and a bit of intense body language won’t hurt our dogs? Some dogs won’t care about loud humans or intense body language. For those dogs, they won’t learn to sit in this scenario because they do not find the loud intense human to be scary enough. Instead they will learn is to stop listening to the cue that is being said if it occurs on repeat.

The dogs who learn to sit in response to the loud intense human do this because they find the human scary.  Recent research has also found that aversive methods of training, including yelling at the dog, increases dogs short term and long term stress levels. Long term, aversive training techniques were found to make dogs more pessimistic.

So, next time someone tells you that they have a stubborn dog, remember it is not as simple as that.

If you feel like you want some help in working with unwanted behaviours with your dog, please get in touch with us.