My dog is stubborn! He just won’t listen!

My dog is stubborn is a sentiment I hear fairly often.

Believing dogs to be willfully disobedient seems to be an easy leap for many of us to make. After all, why wouldn’t our dog listen? Perhaps they just like to be difficult and cause us frustration?

I’m certain that from time to time dogs do make an actual judgment to ignore our directives. But I don’t think it is as often as we want to assume. All these years in the dog training profession have lead me to the perspective that it boils down to only three reasons that our dogs don’t listen to us.

The primary one being, more often than not, our dogs don’t understand that what we’ve asked them to do pertains to the situation they are in at the moment.

Rather than assuming the worst about our dogs, let’s understand that they simply don’t generalize very well.

They usually understand how to perform specific behaviors, in specific locations, with specific cues. But when we ask the dog to perform that same behavior in a brand new environment we’re surprised (or upset) when Fido doesn’t follow through.

So we jump to the conclusion, my dog is stubborn, when it is more likely that we’ve changed the context so much that the dog just truly doesn’t understand what is expected.

Let’s say, for example, we’ve taught the dog to Lie Down. We’ve practiced the command numerous times. We’ve lured the dog with treats and a hand signal. We’ve had the dog do it in the living room, the kitchen and in the back yard.

Now we travel to the animal clinic and while waiting our turn for the exam room we’re frustrated because our dog constantly wants to pull away and go sniff the calm dog lying in the corner. Plus, our wayward pooch barked and lunged at the cats at the other end of the waiting area. We’re frustrated and keep raising our voice and yanking on the leash to Lay Down! Nothing is working and the dog just gets more worked up each time a new person and animal enters the building.

So we conclude the dog is stubborn.

What we failed to realize is we never actually taught the dog how to concentrate and work through distractions. Fido really has no idea of the concept of keeping his belly to the ground when there is exciting stuff going on.

If we had done a better job generalizing the concept of laying down by teaching the dog to position themselves and stay in lots of varying situations, with lots of varying levels of distractions then we would not have struggled so much while at the vet clinic. This new situation of expecting a down would only be slightly different than situations the dog had trained through before.

To generalize trained behaviors we have to put in some real effort and it involves hours of practice. Next time you’re thinking; my dog is stubborn, ask yourself how much actual work you’ve done to train him?

There are no short cuts to a well -trained dog. It takes consistent practice and creativity to make sure you give the dog thorough exposure that will hold up in the field, at the park, in competition, at the dinner party and in all the situations you expect your dog to behave in real life.

Now, if you have done the work of generalizing and find that your dog suddenly is not responding to you as you expect there is an additional reason to consider before you jump to the conclusion that your dog is stubborn.

This is, IMO, the most overlooked reason for disobedience. Overlooked, many times, even by seasoned dog professionals.

Sometimes a dog just physically can’t do what we ask them to. Or an underlying physical problem has ignited the fuse on a behavior problem we want them to stop.

I’ve encountered this more frequently as years have passed and I’ve learned to sharpen my eye and understanding of what is normal and what is not. For one thing, it is not normal for a dog that previously performs well to suddenly resist doing what he’s done many times before. When that happens there is typically a good reason beyond the dog is stubborn so let’s not jump there with our thinking.

The same holds true for a dog that previously was very tolerant of other dogs or humans and suddenly begins to show signs of aggression like lip lifting, growling or nipping.

(NOTE – I’m talking about a truly sudden behavior change. If your dog growled at you for getting near his food bowl in the past and now takes a shot, that is not a sudden change in behavior. That is an escalation. The dog has been giving warning signs that you didn’t take seriously. )

Sometimes the underlying physical issue is fairly easy to identify like an ear infection or an abscessed tooth. Other times it takes more sleuthing to uncover disease states and problems that are affecting the dog physically and mentally.

One of the more unique cases I had several years ago involved a GSD that was exhibiting a serious amount of spinning and tail chasing behavior. What was initially labeled as an OCD behavior by other professionals revealed itself to be a learned behavior in response to an underlying physical problem. Once the dog had some chiropractic adjustments to realign tail vertebrae the instances of spinning began to decline. We combined the medical treatments with obedience training so we could interrupt the learned behavior and re-focus the dog’s attention. Within a few weeks the behavior was dramatically improved and eventually  resolved.

So when you are running into problems with your dog’s listening, I want you to contemplate which of the three reasons is the root cause.

  1. The dog does not understand what you want.

The most common reason is because he does not truly understand what you want. The dog is not being disobedient if we have not done adequate training to generalize the concepts in a variety of situations with a high variety of distractions

  1. The dog has an underlying physical issue creating behavioral complications.

The second reason is because there is some underlying physical issue limiting performance or ability. Too often we make a judgment that the dog is “fine” because he’s perhaps eating or sleeping as normal or not showing obvious signs of discomfort, but just as we may have a headache, stiff neck or indigestion…unless we tell someone those complaints there are no obvious outward signs to others who observe us.

  1. The dog is being disobedient.

Once we’ve honestly eliminated the two previous causes for poor performance then we can go on to the conclusion that the dog is making a choice to follow their own agenda and may in fact be ‘giving us the paw.”

Let’s just be sure we are being fair in assessing the first two causes before we jump to the conclusion of “my dog is stubborn!”


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