Pet owners often say that their dog is stubborn or hardheaded, but some pet training professionals believe that there is really no such thing as a stubborn or hardheaded dog. What owners perceive as being stubborn or hardheaded in a dog could indeed simply be something else altogether.
What could owners mean, then, when they say their dog is stubborn?
Pet owners think their dog is stubborn, but what they’re really seeing is an untrained dog. Owners say things like “He knows I asked him to sit. He’s just being stubborn because visitors are here.” Nope, he’s not being stubborn — he’s too distracted. The environment is filled with lots more exciting things, and sitting is the last thing on the dog’s mind. That doesn’t mean he’s stubborn–that means the owner isn’t done training. Yes, this is squarely on the owner, not the dog.
If it were that easy for the dog to sit; he’d go ahead and sit! It’s not like sitting is physically difficult or time consuming. It’s pretty darn easy for a dog to sit. So why wouldn’t the dog sit? Not hardheadedness, not stubbornness — it’s lack of training. When training experts say lack of training, what they really mean is lack of training in the face of distractions. That’s usually what trips most dogs up, what gives them the label of stubborn and hardheaded.
An example of a “stubborn dog”
For example, consider a dog named Nemo, who is a puller on walks. He likes to go now, go fast, and go far. Logically, it would be much easier and more pleasant for him to walk on a slack leash. A tight leash is a lot of work for the dog, as he’s constantly pulling, and it’s pretty uncomfortable — the leash is pushing against his trachea and neck muscles. Wouldn’t it be more comfortable for Nemo to slow down a bit and have a nice, enjoyable loose-leash walk? Well, yes, it probably would. So why, then, would Nemo still pull? Must be because he’s stubborn. Wrong! He’s excited. He’s over-threshold. He can’t wait to find out what scent the next blade of grass holds and just wants to know which dog peed on the neighbor’s mailbox. Nemo can’t wait to add his own scent. In short, he’s awfully excited to be out on a walk.
He’s far from stubborn or hardheaded. He’s flat out excited.
Plain and simple.
But it’s much easier for the owner to blame Nemo, rather than put the blame where it belongs: on the owner. In this case, the owner needs to spend more time teaching Nemo that a slack leash is the way to get to that next blade of grass or to the neighbor’s mailbox.
What should an owner do if he or she thinks they have a stubborn dog?
Teach the dog! If an owner has a dog that pulls on the leash, get some really good treats, such as chicken, steak or hot dogs, and cut them into pea-sized pieces. Then, follow these steps:
- Take the clicker and these treats on the dog’s walk.
- When the owner steps out the front door, wait for the dog to look. Don’t say anything to him, just wait.
- The instant he looks in the owner’s direction, the owner should click and give the dog a goodie.
- The owner should then take another few steps and stop. Wait for the dog to look in the direction of the owner then click and treat.
- Next, the owner should take several steps and when the leash gets tight, she should stop. She should just wait for her dog to turn to look in her direction before she clicks, treats, and begins to walk again.
The dog will get the message that the walk will continue when he looks at the owner. He’ll start to look at the owner
a lot and she’ll then click and treat a lot. When the dog is looking at her, he’s probably not pulling on the leash. Voila—the owner just taught her dog to walk nicely on a leash!
Now it’s time to add in small distractions.
Make a list of the things that really interest the dog. For Nemo, the dog used as an example, it’s the smells that
really draw him in. He loves to smell the ground, the bushes, the road. Those are Nemo’s distractions — another dog could really notice other dogs, or kids on bicycles, joggers, or other distractions.
The key to success is to start where the dog notices the distraction, but isn’t consumed by it.
If the owner needs to walk 100 yards away from the distraction, that’s okay. The owner is the teacher — the owner sets up the environment so the dog can succeed. A smart owner will click and treat every second that the dog doesn’t react to the distraction. If the dog has a problem with, for example, jumping on guests, the owner should put the dog on a leash before visitors arrive. Jumping is prevented by simply keeping the dog away from the guests and by asking the dog to sit.
Make sure the dog is really good at sitting, though, without the distractions of the guests! When no one’s at the door, a smart owner will ask the dog to sit, then open the door. Can the dog sit even when the owner opens the door? If the dog can’t do it when no one’s there, he or she won’t be able to do it with actual guests on the front porch. The dog is not stubborn—the dog just doesn’t know how to do it.
The next time an owner is tempted to call their dog hardheaded or stubborn, the owner needs to ask: did I really teach the dog how to do the behavior? With distractions?
Thankfully, it’s easy to teach a dog how to deal with distractions; it just takes some practice, some good reinforces, and a trusty clicker.
This article was originally published in our Fall 2016 print issue.