Your dog is stubborn? Maybe you need a new strategy.

Stubborn is used frequently to describe dogs that don’t perform a task that is asked of them. Maybe the dog is pulling on his leash, maybe he doesn’t lie down when cued, or maybe he lies down when you he was asked to “Sit”. I think it is much easier to call a dog stubborn than to get at the root of the problem.

One of my areas of expertise as a positive reinforcement dog trainer is motivating a dog to do something without the use of fear or pain. That takes much more skill and thought than physical means such as mindlessly jerking a dog around. But, if you know some simple strategies to get started I think you will find it is not as daunting as a task as you might think – and more effective. 

These are some of the “big picture” ideas. As you gain experience, you can fine-tune your understanding of what motivates your dog.

For instance, one of the suggestions outlined below is to say, “Too bad” and walk away from a dog if he does not do the request that is asked of him. For some dogs that is an incredibly effective strategy because you removed any chance of playing with you. The motivation happens because either they listen to you or you stop playing with them.

However, if a dog is happily self-entertaining himself by playing with chewtoy and doesn't sit when you say, "Sit", saying “Too bad” and walking away is not the correct strategy. He is already enjoying chewing on the toy and that is the current reward. You are just an afterthought, when you leave the room, he will happily continue chewing. Instead, you should take the toy away, ask him to "Sit" and then give the toy back when he does.

Control the rewards and control the motivation.

The following strategies are used to troubleshoot situations when a dog does not do the cue when asked such as sitting, lying down, coming when called, dropping an object, etc. When I am training a dog and he doesn’t do a behavior, I always look at a few factors to determine my next move.

  1. Has he had a lot of experience with the cue that I am asking? In other words, do I think he knows how to do the behavior? If not, I need to do more repetition of the behavior.
  2. Have I ever seen him do the behavior in the current environment? Distractions are ever-present in dog training. Whether it is because a dog is scared, excited, hungry, has to go potty, is thirsty, wants to play, has never seen snow, etc. Dogs have incredible senses and have to learn to focus around distractions. If you put a dog in a new situation you can’t expect him to do a new behavior if he is completely distracted. If I have never seen a dog do the behavior in the current situation and I think he is distracted, I need to move him away from the distraction and do more repetitions and/or provide more help to get the dog to do the behavior.
  3. What does he want? The answer to this question is often tied to the distraction. If he wants to go play with a dog 100 yards away, that is what he wants. If he wants a treat more than anything, than that is what he wants, or he might want to play with a toy. Pay attention to what your dog wants and then use it as a reward.
  4. Is he physically able to do the behavior? That is always a crucial question to ask. If a dog has an injury or bad hips, he might have difficulty performing tasks such as lying down.

So here is an example of a training exercise and the strategies for motivating a dog to do the correct behavior. You might have to do many repetitions of a behavior in each situation before you can feel confident that your dog knows the behavior. Don’t get frustrated. Pay attention to making a bit of progress each session and eventually you will have success. One of the biggest mistakes novice trainers make is that they have expectations that are too high. 

The example that I am going to use here is a common one. In this example, a dog is asked to lie down and he doesn’t do it. 

Here are four strategies to try if your dog doesn’t do a cue when you ask.

  1. Put food in your hand, get him to do the behavior and reward.
  2. Put food in your hand, get him to do the behavior, get really excited “Good Boy!” but don’t give him the food reward. Then, quickly take food out of your hand, ask for the behavior again and only reward when he does it on his own. This strategy is used to motivate the dog to do the behavior on his own. If he always gets the reward and then the rewards stop, he will be a bit frustrated. Then, ask him to do the behavior again and wait him out to see if he does the behavior on his own. If not, give him just a little bit of help such as a more subtle hand signal. He might start to anticipate what you want him to do and start lying down. Great! That is the point; he is starting to understand to do the behavior when asked. Reward him when he does the behavior.
  3. Wait him out. Ask for a “Down” and then just wait. DON’T say the cue again. If you see a delay frequently, focus more on conditioning the behavior by helping more using the treat until he is doing the behavior more reliably. Then, ask for it and wait. The goal is that he starts to do the behavior on his own without help.
  4. Say “Too bad” turn around and leave. Then, come back after a short period of time (5 seconds) and ask for the behavior again and reward. If he doesn’t do it again, help by luring with a treat or using a hand signal without a treat in your hand. This is a way to teach him that he has to do the behavior when asked in order to play with you. Don’t rely on this strategy more than one or two times in a row. If you do this constantly, it is a good indicator that your dog doesn’t know the behavior or is too distracted.

The overall goal with training consistent behaviors is to condition the response through repetition. Think of repetitive movements that you have learned such as playing a sport, typing, or even learning the alphabet. Everything involving learning and physical movements takes repetition for any animal. 

Focus on saying the cue ONE TIME and helping your dog get it right.

If you find that your dog is too distracted, move him away to a less distracting environment, or provide more help. More help would mean using a lure to help your dog do the behavior, gently guiding him with the leash, tapping your leg to get his attention or motivate him to come to you, etc.

Another important strategy is to do really short training sessions. A session might be only one minute to start. You don't want your dog to get tired of training, you want your dog to want MORE. Do short training sessions and stop before your dog wants to stop.

If you focus on being a good teacher and being consistent while using a variety of rewards that your dog wants, you will do great.
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