Sometimes we see people labelling their dogs as ‘just stubborn’ or as ‘awkward’ when the dogs seemingly ignore the human’s cues. This is not fair and also inaccurate. Here we are going to look at reasons why a dog may not respond to a cue in the way their people want.
They have not learned the cue reliably
Coaching a cue to the point where the dog understands what is being requested from them consistently is a process, and it takes time and practise to get the dog able to be able to do what is asked of them every time. This is complicated by the fact that, just because a dog knows what ‘sit’ means in their garden at home, they don’t automatically know that ‘sit’ means the same at the park or on the path through the woods. Dogs are not good at ‘generalising’ cues to different environments without help. This is why we need to ‘proof’ our cues, by coaching them in a variety of different places so help our dogs understand that ‘sit’ means the same thing wherever it is asked of them.
There might be distractions in the environment around them
This follows on well from generalising cues as distractions in the environment are something we must be aware of. During the proofing process the number of distractions around should be gradually increased so that the dog is given the best chances of success at being able to respond to our cues. Returning to our example of a dog who knows and can follow a cue to ‘sit’ in their quiet garden at home is not going to be able to concentrate the same way in a public area where there are dogs playing within sight. Keep an eye on what is going on around when out with the dog to make sure it’s fair to expect them to do as they are asked, and pre-emptively plan for how to deal with the situation if the distraction levels are too high. Maybe use a long line attached to the dog’s harness if their recall might be a bit hit and miss in a higher distraction environment.
The rewards on offer might not be offering enough motivation for what is being asked
The reason why reward-based training is so effective is that dogs do what works to get them something they want – in the case of training, they do what we ask of them to gain access to the reward. (No, this is not bribery. It is payment for them doing something we ask of them.) We are never in a vacuum with our dogs, there are always other things going on around us and so, sometimes, there are other things that the dog can see and do which to them seem much more rewarding than what we are offering them to do what we ask of them. For example, that squirrel running through the leaves in the woods? Chasing that squirrel is much more rewarding for the dog than a bit of his kibble. Offer instead something really tasty – maybe a cube of cheese, a morsel of sausage, or a bit of liver cake – and that’s a much bigger motivation for the dog to listen to us and stick close by. This is one reason why carrying a range of rewards is such a great idea. For dogs who are motivated by play instead of food, maybe swap the tasty morsel for a squeaky toy they don’t get to play with often, so it again has that really high value to it.
They might be unsure about something in their environment
Dogs can’t tell us if there’s something that is bothering them in an environment in the same way that we would. Body language and behaviour are the tools they have available to let us know something is upsetting them. If a dog seems distracted and staring at something or is hyper-vigilant and looking all around them as if to try and spot something, that’s a good sign there is something worrying them, and/or they are anxious about being in that situation. Learning about canine body language is something that will benefit every dog guardian and their families, as canine communication can be subtle. Observing a dog to see how they look when they are relaxed is an excellent idea, and means being able to see when that body language changes much earlier so we can take the action our dog needs in that situation. Potential signs of an unsure or scared dog to watch for include ears out to the side or folded back (pinched in against the side of the head for long-eared dogs), whiskers flared out, and whites of the eyes showing. Scared or unsure dogs will also generally have a lower tail carriage, and may have a crouched posture, as if trying to make themselves smaller.
They may be feeling unwell or in pain
There is a very good reason why one of the first questions a behaviour professional will ask when gathering information about a potential new client is when the dog last saw their vet. Dogs tend to be very good at hiding if they are feeling unwell or if something is uncomfortable. Yes, there are dogs which are the opposite to this as well – my own dog is very vocal if something is sore and requires a lot of comfort if not feeling well. For many dogs though, they tend to be stoic and try to not let on that something hurts. Again, a bit of learning about canine communication and body language, in our own dogs in particular, is incredibly valuable. If our dogs suddenly seem to become unable of hearing us or of doing what we ask, a familiarity with their body language and behaviour will let us assess the whole picture of them in that moment and see if there could be something sore or uncomfortable for them.
A dog being ‘stubborn’ most likely comes under one of these categories. It is up to us to find out what is interfering with their ability to do as we have requested and work out a way to change the situation so that they have the best chance of success.
We are now offering online reactive behaviour support programs, to help you and your scared, anxious dog feel better in the world around them. Check out the website for details.