My Dog is Stubborn! He only learns when he feels like it!

Have you ever been frustrated by how “stubborn” your dog is about certain things. This blog is for you!

Sometimes it’s like wrestling a bear to trim his nails. Or maybe there are times on a walk when he won’t stop barking back at the dogs who bark from behind a fence. Perhaps you’ve gotten advice to use treats to improve his behavior in these situations, but he either refuses the treats, or the treats don’t seem to make any difference. It may be especially exasperating because this same dog will learn new tricks at warp speed. So clearly he isn’t stupid – all you can think of is that he must be hard headed!

Dog behavior can be baffling. The good news, however, is that there is a straightforward explanation. It’s not a silver bullet type of easy answer. But understanding what’s really going on with your dog can help you get on the right path to improving his behavior.

Emotions count, and they count for a lot!

The field of dog behavior and training has experienced major breakthroughs in recent years. The major shift to positive reinforcement is certainly the biggest change. With that has come the desire to better understand what motivates behavior and how to best elicit changes in behavior.

It is now understood that the dog’s emotional state is a huge factor in learning and behavior change. As a matter of fact, it may be the MOST important factor. If a dog is worried, his ability to learn or change his behavior is greatly diminished. Fear trumps every other emotion. Evolution made sure of that. If I’m walking down a dark trail and I hear heavy breathing behind me, I need to be focused on that situation and what I need to do to survive. It’s not a time for my brain to be processing anything else.  Survival comes first, always.

You might be thinking that this dramatic example couldn’t possibly relate to your dog when he hears another dog barking behind a fence. He’s not in any grave danger. That dog behind the fence is contained. Nothing bad is going to happen. But, the important thing to realize is that your dog doesn’t know that. As a matter of fact, the dog behind the fence is probably shouting the equivalent of canine obscenities at him. Our dogs, especially young dogs, don’t have a good grasp of what things in our human world are truly a threat. Your pup doesn’t know that the bus speeding by just 6 foot from where you stand on the sidewalk isn’t going to flatten him. It’s only through experience and careful exposure that he learns he’s safe walking beside you on the sidewalk, even when big, noisy vehicles whiz by.

When there’s stress, there’s not much space for anything else.

Many common scenarios that we subject our dog to are events that bring enough anxiety with them that survival instinct kicks in – in either a small or a big way. As soon as that happens, stress chemicals are released to his brain and the opportunity to learn or effect behavior change are gone.

One of the reasons training exclusively with positive reinforcement (i.e. no punishment) is so effective is that the dog no longer worries about his trainer delivering punishment.  Because of this, his mind is wide open. If I can make the reward motivating enough, I have a very willing participant who is ready to put the power of the canine brain into solving this puzzle of what you’re trying to teach.

Now what?

You’re probably wondering how to use this information to create behavior change in your own dog.

  1. First, make sure your dog is in a fear-free emotional state when you have training sessions with him.  He’ll be best able to learn what you’re teaching.

  2. Second, for those fearful scenarios that you want to change his behavior (think nail trims, or seeing scary dogs), focus your efforts on first improving his feelings about that scenario.

One of the best ways to change your dog’s feelings about a scary thing or scenario is to use the principles of desensitization and counterconditioning. These modalities are the gold standard for dealing with fear and anxiety. Here’s how it works. First the desensitization part means to expose him to the scary thing, but only from a distance or level that doesn’t cause him to actually feel fear. So for nail trims, I’d start at just picking up the nail trimmers and putting them back down.  The second piece is to pair the scary thing with something wonderful, like a yummy treat. That’s the counterconditioning part. For nail trims, I’d first pick up the trimmers. Then, I’d immediately give the dog a piece of hot dog. The order of events and the level of the trigger are very important. A qualified trainer can help you by designing a protocol and teaching you how to implement it. The pace at which you progress with this technique has to be at the dog’s pace. That pace is usually much slower than we’d like. But it’s what is necessary to be successful.  Feelings take time to change.

Reflecting on this information should help make it clear why your pup can learn new commands lightning fast, but it may take months of careful work on your part for him to deal with things that cause him anxiety. It also explains why the dog who normally has  beautiful leash manners may fall apart when a passing dog gives him a hard stare.

Being aware of your dog’s feelings will make you a better owner and trainer for your dog. It will also make you far more effective when you work to modify your dog’s behavior.