By Don Hanson ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA
I have often heard a prospective or existing student say, "Can you help me? My dog is so stubborn." I'm not a fan of the word "stubborn." Too often, it is used in a derogatory manner as a result of frustration when something or someone is not behaving in a way that is perceived as desirable. Yet it is a word that most of us, myself included, use occasionally. "Stubborn" is used between spouses, co-workers, parents, children, and yes, by people describing their dogs.
Before starting this column, I looked at several definitions for "stubborn" and finally settled on one from Dictionary.com. All of the definitions reviewed were revealing in that they suggested the response of the "stubborn" party was "unreasonable." This suggests a lack of understanding of why another being might choose not to do something we want.
Empathy is essential when interacting with anyone, but especially when working with a different species, such as a dog, which has very different needs and communication methods than humans. It is crucial to understand these needs and what our dogs communicate to us to empathize with them. Furthermore, if we want to have the best relationship possible with our dog, we need to work diligently towards meeting their species-specific needs. [ FMI – http:// bit.ly/Brambells-1-5 ]
Let's examine the simple exercise of teaching a dog to sit and look at reasons why even a well-trained dog might choose not to "sit" when asked to do so.
Anxious/Afraid/Hyper-excited – No living thing learns or responds well when stressed. If your dog is under stress for any reason, it is not a good time to train; it does not matter if the stress is rooted in fear or excitement. When under stress, the part of the brain responsible for learning is deactivated to allow one to focus on survival. Even if your dog is exceptionally well trained, it may be unrealistic to expect the dog to respond reliably when it is worried or highly aroused. [FMI – http://bit.ly/Canine-Stress ]
Physical Discomfort – Think of the last time you were hurting or simply just tired. The odds are that it caused you to move slower or possibly not to move at all. Unfortunately, our dogs experience injuries and exhaustion just as people do, and this may cause them to appear to be "stubborn." Additionally, some trainers continue to use tools designed to cause physical pain (shock, prong, and choke collars). Pain, whether from an injury or intentionally inflicted by a person, will cause stress which in turn may cause a dog to shut down, act "hyper," or respond aggressively.
Not all physical discomfort comes from pain. I have known more than one dog that refused to lie down on a cold floor or sit on hot asphalt. My dog Muppy will choose not to go outside during heavy rainfall. The anatomy of some breeds also makes certain positions such as sitting or lying down more or less comfortable. Is it fair to say your dog is "stubborn" for refusing to do certain behaviors when it is in physical or emotional distress?
Lack of Understanding/ Training – Have you ever started to learn something and were then asked to use that knowledge before you were ready? Was that stressful? Over the years, I have encountered people who expect their dog to "get it" with only minimal training. Unfortunately, when the dog fails to respond, they blame the dog.
Dogs are discriminators, which means that training a dog requires teaching behaviors in a wide variety of environments and situations while gradually increasing distractions for many repetitions. Training a dog for an hour a week in a six-week training class is just the beginning of a training program that would benefit almost every dog. Achieving reliable responses from a dog requires that you, the trainer, be knowledgeable and skilled in canine behavior, body language, and the selection and use of rewards. The treats you use and the timing of the treat delivery are essential to getting reliable behavior. Working with a professional and credentialed dog training instructor can be very helpful. [ FMI – http://bit. ly/HowToSelectADogTrainer ]
Your Challenge for This Month If your dog is not behaving in a manner you desire, before you call the dog "stubborn," ask yourself why that might be. Is your dog afraid or over-excited? Could your dog be experiencing physical or emotional distress? Does the dog really understand what you want? You and the dog will just get more frustrated with one another until you address the core issues for its lack of response.
I believe that a dog that appears to be stubborn is under stress or in pain, has had inadequate training, or is insufficiently motivated. I will discuss motivation in detail next month.
Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He also produces and co- hosts The Woof Meow Show heard on AM620 -WZON every Saturday at 9 AM. Podcasts of the show are available at www.woofmeowshow.com. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com. He is committed to pet care and pet training that is free of pain, force, and fear. The opinions in this column are those of Don Hanson.