Help! My Dog Is Stubborn! – Part 2 of 3 It's All About Motivation

Help! My Dog Is Stubborn! – Part 2 of 3 It's All About Motivation

By Don Hanson, ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | May 01, 2022

Last month I reviewed reasonable reasons why a dog might choose not to do something we ask the dog to do; the dog is stressed (anxious, afraid, or over-excited), experiencing pain or discomfort, or the dog’s training has been inadequate. As a result, the dog does not understand what is being asked. Lastly, I suggested the dog may be insufficiently motivated.

Motivation is simply offering an incentive to another living being to do something. For many people, an example of a primary motivator is the paycheck we receive from our employers. Of course, our employer could punish us instead of paying us, but unless we're enslaved, we are unlikely to show up the next day.

Motivation can be either a reward or a punishment. With dogs, using punishment as a motivator typically involves yelling or using force to cause physical pain, fear, or emotional distress. Pain and fear can be highly motivating the instant they are applied. However, using punishment as a motivator will likely irreparably damage the relationship between the punisher and the victim. It can make the mere presence of the punisher a demotivator for life. Thus, choosing punishment as a motivator is not only cruel; it is an inefficient and unproductive way to train. This is one of many reasons why the PPG, AAHA, AVSAB, and many trainers recommend punishment NEVER be used to train or care for a dog. [ FMI – ]

Many types of rewards can be used to motivate dogs: food, play, and physical touch being at the top of the list. Contrary to popular belief, praise does not qualify as a reward in and of itself. Back in the seventies, a group of Monks wrote a book suggesting that you should never use food as a reward with your dog. Several studies have since confirmed that food has more value as a reward than either praise or touch.

Food is not only a great choice when training dogs; professional animal trainers commonly use it all the time. At Sea World, the animals are trained with food and subsequently continue to get food as a reward for their performances throughout their lives, just as people continue to receive paychecks for their work. Don't our dogs deserve this as well?

While play can be valuable as a reward, I find it less efficient than food. Since training is all about repetition, efficiency is critical. When using food while training a dog, I often get as many as 5 to 10 behaviors per minute. In contrast, one must refocus the dog after every play session when using play as a reward. It is similar to coming in from recess when we were in grade school; the teacher had to get us settled before learning could occur. However, play can be a great reward after a dog has been trained.

Food is a great motivator, but we must remember that some foods are more motivating than others, especially if what we are being asked to do is difficult or something we do not particularly enjoy. This is why we must identify the food that our dogs like best.

While many dogs are known to eat almost anything (even what we would consider inedible), some can be finicky. In my experience, treats that smell and taste of meat are usually valued higher by our canine companions. I have demonstrated this in a class by having a student ask the dog to come at the same time that I do. Based on the dog's past experience, it expects its guardian to reward it with a piece of kibble while I will reward it with a bit of freeze-dried liver. The dog typically races to me and chooses to stay with me or races to me and eats my treat and then races to its person. The point is that treat value matters.

Teaching a dog to sit can be relatively easy since most dogs sit anyway of their own accord. With "sit," we are just teaching them to do something upon our request that they already do naturally. When initially teaching the "sit" in a low distraction environment, I will probably use a mixture of low to medium-value treats (kibble or other treats with very little meant content) with a high-value treat thrown in at random for an exceptional response. However, when training in a more distracting environment, for example, in a group training class or in a park where children are playing, I will probably need to increase the value of the treats to be successful.

Training recall is more difficult to teach than sit because we are asking the dog to go against their instincts. Often when we most want our dogs to come, they are simultaneously distracted by something extremely motivating (a taunting squirrel or anything else they find very tempting). Therefore, if we are going to be successful, we must be even more enticing. For this reason, I always use super special, high-value treats when training recall. Even after my dog has a reliable recall, I continue to reward it every time.

Your Challenge for This Month

Your challenge for this month is to spend more time training and look for ways to be more motivating as opposed to calling your dog "stubborn.". Next month, we will explore ways you can be a super trainer.


Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( ) in Bangor, Maine, where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He is also the founder of, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. Don is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC), and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), where he serves on the Board of Directors and Steering Committee and chairs the Advocacy Committee and The Shock-Free Coalition ( ). In addition, Don produces and co-hosts a podcast, The Woof Meow Show, available at, the Apple Podcast app, and Don's blog: The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.

©19-Apr-22, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved

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