Training Time!

Is My Dog Stubborn?

Joey (Photo: Sandy Modell)

Alexandria, VA – Sometimes, clients tell me their dogs are “stubborn” or “won’t listen.” They say they ask them to do something, and their dog turns and walks away. Or, they call them to come, but they don’t. That certainly sounds like a stubborn dog, right? Well, if they were human, probably so. But they are dogs, and what looks to us like a dog being defiant or refusing to cooperate out of spite may, in reality, be a dog who is having trouble understanding what we are asking, or maybe they didn’t hear us clearly, or the environment made it difficult for them to focus on the task at hand.

Remember, English is not a dog’s first or second language. It means our cues must be clear enough for them to understand us. Dogs are more in tune with our body language, so we start with hand signals or work to get the behavior before we even name it and put it on a verbal cue. Otherwise, there is a tendency to repeat the verbal cue over and over again, which, unfortunately, can lead to what is known in science as “learned irrelevance.”

Saying the cue repeatedly or using it in praise, such as “good down” or “good come!” weakens the association between the cue and the behavior. We teach our clients to avoid repeating the cue, which is hard for humans as we are very verbal animals. When training dogs, sometimes less talking leads to a better understanding by the learner.

Reinforcement drives behavior, which is valid for both humans and dogs. For example, what if you worked on an important project and stayed up nights researching and writing, but after submitting it, you received no feedback, accolades, or recognition? Maybe you won’t spend the same amount of time and energy getting it done next time.

Dogs are the same in this regard. That is why it is essential to start your training in no- or low-distracting environments, like the room your dog spends the most time in. As you gradually increase to more distracting environments, the value of your reinforcers and your reinforcement rate must also increase.

Kibble rewards might work great inside your home, but outside, chicken, cheese, hotdogs, or tripe will be much more memorable to your dog and increase the likelihood that they will repeat the behavior. When a dog “blows us off,” it is likely due to not having enough value in the behavior for the dog to do it or do it reliably. Other contributing factors include one or all of the three “D’s”:

  1. Distraction—too many competing reinforcers. These may be environmental factors, such as other dogs, squirrels, people, a bush, or a leaf. This is where the importance of high-value reinforcers comes in. Reinforce your dog over and over again until the behavior is reliable both inside and outside your home, with no distractions and with many distractions.
  2. Duration—for example, working on stays for too long. Your dog gets up after being in a down stay for two minutes. Instead of thinking that your dog is stubborn when they get up, think that maybe they are struggling with staying in one place for that long. Or maybe there are too many distractions. Try going back to one-minute duration and see what happens. If they remain in a down, reward them with multiple treats and make it easier for them to be successful. Never jerk them back down or push their butts down, and don’t get mad or have an angry tone. That’s the old-fashioned way of training used before we understood how dogs think and learn.
  3. Distance—when training a rock-solid recall, start in a non-distracting environment and start close by taking only one step back as you call your dog to you. Reward heavily every time they come to you, and always use high-value treats when training a recall. Gradually increase your distance and your distractions. We can train a reliable recall using reinforcements instead of shock collars. And we make it much more fun!

Training should be fun, so always add some play to your training sessions. Play is an excellent reinforcer of behaviors. In a 2017 study on playful activities after training sessions, researchers found that play improved a dog’s training retention for 24 hours. And that was in 2017. We now know that giving your dog play breaks during training can enhance their training retention even more.

So, next time you think your dog is stubborn or defiant, think about what you can do instead to set your dog up for success. It could be changing the environment, upping the reinforcer, being clear with your cues, moving closer to your dog, or just taking a break and giving your pup a belly rub or playing a game of tug or fetch.

Sandy Modell, CPDT-KA, is the Founder, Owner, and Head of Training of Wholistic Hound Academy, Alexandria’s award-winning, premier canine training and learning center — offering classes and private lessons in puppy training, adolescent and adult foundation and life skills, behavior modification, agility, nose work, sports and fitness, kids and dogs, pre-pet planning and selection. Classes are starting soon! Visit to enroll in our programs, like us on, and follow us on Instagram at

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