Is your dog really stubborn?

Trainers often hear clients referring to their dogs as “spiteful” or “stubborn”.  And you often hear “but at home she does everything right, she is just being stubborn now!

Really? Let us have a look at how dogs learn things, then we decide if your dog is really “stubborn”.

Firstly, to be stubborn the dog must know exactly what is expected of him (the wanted behavior must have been generalized and proofed) and then the dog must make a conscious decision not to obey.  Taking into account that all behaviors are motivated by reinforcement, being stubborn would be to no benefit of a dog and that makes it not logical.

So why is my dog not listening to me? Let me use Sky as an example.

Sky (not a stubborn dog in any sense) is my Border Collie. We are at home in my living room. We are relaxed and alone so it is the ideal time to teach Sky a new behavior.  To make this explanation simple, let’s say I teach her to sit. In five minutes flat she sits every single time I ask her to. I started with luring her in position and after minutes she sits for me without the lure and just a hand signal. Another ten minutes later I can ask her to sit using a verbal cue only and she does it perfectly. Wow Sky is a clever girl… she learn so quickly… good girl!!!!

The following day I want to go show Sky off, so I go to the obedience training field. I am going to show that trainer how it’s done. I walk up to the trainer with Sky and I ask her to sit. She prefers to jump up on the trainer . I pull her back and this time I show her the food in my hand. She runs up to me and tries to grab the food from my hand. BAD DOG!!!! The trainer looks at me and my response to him. “I don’t understand it, she did it yesterday at home, she knows how to do it, she is so naughty, I think she is just stubborn today.

Now let us back track a bit and figure out why Sky is now so “stubborn”.

For us, and for the dog “sit” is very easy to do and very easy to teach and learn. The problem is, a dog’s brain is wired much differently than ours. When a dog learns a behavior, he learns that specific behavior in a specific context. If we humans learn a new skill, we can apply it pretty much under any condition and situation at any place. If I learn to balance a glass on my head I will be able to balance the glass at a club, a park or any other place for that matter. A dog’s brain works differently. If he learned to sit in my living room, he learned that behavior in that specific context. That is where generalization comes in. We can define generalization as an extension of a concept (or behaviour) from a familiar situation to a less familiar situation. Dogs are NOT good at generalizing learned behaviours. Let’s see under what conditions I trained Sky to sit.

  1. We were alone
  2. The television was on
  3. There was music playing in the background.
  4. In my living room are 2 chairs and 2 couches
  5. We were practicing on a carpet.
  6. I was kneeling down when I taught her to sit.
  7. I did not have any shoes on.
  8. There was no distractions from outside and the list goes on. I am basically describing my whole living room.

Sky learned to sit under those exact circumstances. So what happened at the field? The thing is, when dogs learn something new, the dog (Sky) applies the whole context in which the new behavior was learned. So I taught Sky to sit in the living room, she will do it because the behavior was taught in that context. At the field the training fell apart, why? Because dogs are not good at generalizing. Sky is not choosing to disobey me and she is not being stubborn or spiteful in any way, she just was not taught that new behavior in other contexts. For Sky to fully learn and understand the sit behavior, I need to teach the behavior in different contexts, under different situations and in many different places, in other words I need to generalize the sit behavior.  So for me to teach Sky how to sit, I need to do the following.

  • Teach her the physical position by luring or whatever method I can use
  • Reinforce the behavior, pay her in dog currency (food) for correct responses
  • She must learn to obey my cue in a very simple and specific context.
  • She must learn to resist possible distractions.  (this I can set up at home)
  • I must take the behavior on the road. I must teach her to do the same behavior under different situations and at different places, in other words the behavior needs to be generalized.
  • In the end she must learn to resist almost all distractions.

The above I can do by positive reinforcement. You can say I pay her for the wanted behaviors in dog currency, something of a very high value to the dog namely treats or food. Food rewards work well because it is a biological need, so a very good primary reinforcer.  I therefore reward her well for the wanted behaviors so why would she at some point make a conscious decision not to do what I ask of her?

Maybe the problem is just that some types of dogs are harder to train than others in certain areas. It will take a real effort to teach a Beagle to retrieve something. It still does not mean he is stubborn. He was simply not “designed” to do it. They were selectively bred for a specific function, to follow their noses and to follow a scent and they are really brilliant at doing that. They have lots of stamina to do what they were “designed” for to the best of their abilities. Beagles not wanting to retrieve an object is not being stubborn in any way. They were simply not designed to do that. My Border Collie will never be able to compete with a Hound or Beagle when it comes to following a trail and they being unable to perform at the same level as a Beagle does not mean they are stubborn or spiteful, they just cannot do it as well because they were selectively bred for a different function. A Beagle will never perform as well as a Border Collie (you get exceptions but in general) in Agility. They are not sprinters but rather long distance athletes, they are simply not as fast.

In conclusion I think we are quickly to “blame the dog” even though we don’t really know what makes that particular dog tick. To call the dog stubborn is an easy way out of an uncomfortable situation. Sky is used to learning new things and I keep it fun and rewarding for her, so teaching her is very easy. Other dogs might not be used to learning new things and it will take much longer to teach them. The bottom line is all dogs are different, even dogs within the same breed are different, but because one dog learn something faster than the other does not mean such a dog is stubborn.

For more information regarding this feel free to contact me:

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Force free science based behavior modification and training

Eden K9 Abilties

George van Huyssteen (DipCABT)
Practitioner Member CAPBT International
Garden Route, South Africa


Petra du Toit (CPDT-KA)
SABCAP Companion Animal Behaviorist (AB/013)
SABCAP Dog Training Professional (DT/015)