The Stubborn Dog Myth - Part 1
If you are a dog trainer, you've heard it a thousand times. If you are a pet dog owner, you may have said it or thought it a thousand times. "My dog is really stubborn!"
I have a confession to make: I've said those words. Before I learned more, I thought I had a stubborn dog, too. Some people might use the term, "hard headed." Many think it's a typical trait of their dog's breed. "Pit bulls are stubborn." "Cane Corso's are stubborn, so you need to show them who's boss." "German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are hard-headed and need a heavy hand." "Livestock guardian breeds need strong leadership, or they will just walk all over the owner." Stubbornness is a human construct. It means having relentless determination to maintain one's position or belief in spite of good argument to the contrary. I was thinking of what motivates stubbornness for us humans, and I came up with fear of embarrassment, of decreased social status, of punishment from society, of having to examine our world view, and of personal guilt for having held to a wrong belief that caused action we'd now have to disapprove of. In behavioral terms, we call these things negative reinforcement because they cause us to continue or increase the behavior in order to avoid them. Acceptance from a specific group or social status for maintaining a specific viewpoint are ways in which stubborn behavior might be positively reinforced. Perhaps you can think of some others and would like to share those in the comments.
But do dogs really care about these things? If your dog thinks you have a treat in your hand, and you show her that you've actually dropped it to the floor, does she keep searching your hand to avoid the social consequences of admitting she was wrong? No. She is delighted to learn where the tasty treat is so that she can gobble it up! Granted, she might go back to your hand if it still smells like treats, but show her another goody on the floor, and she'll be quick to abandon the hand once again. All animals do what works. Dr. Susan Friedman, Professor of Psychology at Utah State University and pioneer of Applied Behavior Analysis, says so very succinctly, "Behavior works." Animals do what is reinforced. If the behavior is not reinforced, the animal has no reason to continue doing it. So why is it that your dog isn't sitting when you ask him to? Why is he barking and lunging at the end of his leash when he see's another dog no matter what you do? These sure sound like stubborn behaviors. But the answer is... LOTS OF REASONS! Let's break down the first five of ten of the most common ones I've seen so that we can help our dogs be more successful.
1. Something in the environment is more reinforcing than the reinforcement for the desired behavior. You are practicing your leash walking when suddenly your adolescent Labrador spots another dog up ahead. Suddenly, your treats are forgotten, and your dog starts lunging like a maniac toward who he is sure will be his new BFF. Your dog thinks friends are WAY more important than treats! So your dog drags you over to his new friend. Or how about, your puppy steals a stuffed animal off your child's bed? You tell the puppy to drop it. You even offer a cookie for it. But your puppy just starts ripping away at the toy, tossing stuffing everywhere. Your dog blows a recall in order to chase a rabbit. Your dog ignores a sit cue as he grabs for a treat that fell on the floor.
These types of situations are innumerable, but there are actions we can take to work through them. First, train your dog in a low-distraction environment, and very gradually, as your dog is being successful, add in the distractions. Not all distractions are competing reinforcers, but many are. You probably have a good idea about what things are most distracting to your dog specifically. Maybe it's bicycles, maybe squirrels, perhaps dogs or stuff blowing in the wind or food. You get to judge what is the least to most distracting for your dog. Start training in easy environments, and gradually add in the difficulty. Distance from distractions is your friend. As you train, make sure that whatever you are using for reinforcement is of very high value to your dog. Does she prefer tug over food? Does your dog like steak over crunchy treats? Is she a ball nut? Consider a ball on a rope or a nice assortment of moist, smelly, meaty treats. And make sure you are working with your dog while she is under threshold. For more information on thresholds, check out this podcast.
2. The learner is too concerned about something in the environment to focus on you.
This is similar to the one above because it also deals with distraction, but the dog's emotional state is different. Perhaps that dog she sees while on her walk is really scary, and your dog starts barking and lunging to try to make the other dog go away. Maybe, you are at the vet's office, and your dog hasn't spent much fun time there, so the new environment is just intimidating. It could be that you have company over, and your dog is feeling a bit overwhelmed by them. The concern may appear subtle, with head turns away, lip licking, shake-offs, scratching, or displacement sniffing. Or it may be more demonstrative, like growling, snarling, lunging, and hard stares.
This situation requires helping your dog feel safe. Again, distance is your friend. Dogs aren't likely to get used to things that scare them when those things are forced upon them. Rather, they become more sensitive. When something in the environment is frightening to your dog, it's best to understand that he isn't giving you a hard time; he is having a hard time, and it's up to us to provide him with systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to enable him to feel safe in our human world. It's beyond the scope of this post to address exactly how to do that, but if you find your dog is regularly fearful and/or reactive, I recommend consulting with a positive reinforcement trainer who will help you help your dog feel safe and show you exactly how to apply a desensitization and counter conditioning protocol.
3. The dog doesn't understand what they are supposed to do.
This is one of the most common reasons dogs appear stubborn. We humans think they understand what we are asking for, but they don't. Maybe he did a down perfectly in training class 50 times. But as soon as we get home, he won't do it. Just yesterday, a dog I had trained to put a ball in a basket stopped performing the behavior. He'd pick up the ball, but he kept putting the ball down before he got to the basket. I'm not sure what I did to confuse him, but there was clearly something!
Whether it's because the dog hasn't generalized a new behavior to different environmental variables (locations, my body position and orientation, distance from me, etc.) or I haven't communicated with my dog as clearly as I thought I had, the best course of action is usually to "go back to kindergarten." That is, go back to the beginning. Set up the environment so that it's conducive to getting the behavior you want. How did you teach that down in training class? Teach it again at home the very same way. Your dog will probably go through the steps faster this time. I'll be doing the same thing with my basketball playing dog. I'll ask him to "basket" while the basket is essentially right under his chin, so all he has to do is drop the ball. Then, I'll build distance again. Finally, I'll ask him to pick up the ball on his own and then "basket." I'm going to make it almost impossible for him to fail so that I can keep him motivated by the easy reinforcement. I know he wasn't being stubborn when he wasn't doing what I was asking even though he's successfully performed the behavior many times before. He was looking right at me. He was offering an assortment of behaviors. He was trying to figure out how to make the reinforcement happen. We don't always know what caused the confusion (If I had video, I'd likely find an ill-timed click, reinforcement of something I didn't intend to reinforce, or failure to reinforce something I should have), but we know that dogs do what is reinforced, so it's up to me to communicate clearly what behaviors bring the goodies.
4. Something is punishing the behavior.
Sadly, this happens all too often. I've done it with my own dogs. I've asked for sits when my senior dog's hips were hurting. I've asked for a heel right before encountering a barking/lunging dog. I've asked for a down on a hard, cold floor from a dog with little fur on his belly. I've seen clients ask for their dog to get into positions that were uncomfortable due to medical reasons or the fit of their equipment. I've seen them accidentally pull up on leashes every time their dog sat on cue. Often, dog owners will scold their dog after the dog has just successfully come when called because prior to coming the dog had done something undesirable. The dog only knows that coming when called was punished. One friend recently wrote about accidentally stepping on her dog after giving a down cue, causing her dog to resist performing the down in an obedience competition shortly thereafter. When the dog perceives a consequence that they wish to avoid immediately following a specific behavior, they will stop performing the behavior or perform it less often and/or more slowly. It's up to us to ensure that what we ask of the dog will have no aversive consequences. And when we make a mistake, as we all do, we can either find a way to rebuild the behavior without the punishing consequence, or, if that's not possible as in the case of asking a dog with bad hips for a sit, we teach an alternative behavior. Good training is about constantly modifying our plans to better meet the dog's needs.
5. The antecedent is a previously learned stimulus.
Antecedent is a fancy word for the thing in the environment that signals the availability of a consequence after a specific behavior is performed. In short, it's the cue. The stimulus is a thing or event that evokes a specific reaction. It can also be a cue, but it may not be. Have you ever told your dog "DOWN!" when he was jumping on you and then tried to teach him to lie down using the same word? That can be pretty confusing to a dog. Or what about that time when your dog took off out your open gate, and you yelled, "Fido, come! Come, Fido! OMG! COME HERE RIGHT NOW!!!!" And when Fido finally came, you were so upset that you scolded him for running away. Okay, YOU probably never did that. But I'm sure you know someone who has! In the first scenario, the dog has learned that the cue alerts to the availability of reinforcement for a specific behavior. However, we suddenly changed things up on the dog and started expecting an entirely different behavior from a cue we already taught. Yikes! That's pretty unfair. So think about the cues you select, and make sure you've never used them before with your dog. If you have, it's easy enough to pick a new cue. Dog's don't actually care what words or hand signals we use as long as they are clear and not closely resembling another known cue. You can call a sit "pickles" if you want. All that matters is that it's consistently reinforced every time immediately after your dog sits when you say "pickles." The second scenario is what we call a poisoned cue. "Down" in the first example can also be a poisoned cue depending upon the history of consequences that followed the word. Essentially, when something unpleasant or scary happens to the dog following a stimulus (a word, an action, something in the environment), the dog learns to feel all the scary and unpleasant feelings in association with that stimulus. So when the dog hears "come" and is then scolded or "down" and is forcibly shoved, the dog may develop a very negative association with those words, and instead of being able to learn that "come" means run to the owner for tug play and "down" means to lie down on the ground for treats, the dog becomes very hesitant to act because he's already learned that sometimes very bad things accompany those words. When you suspect you have a poisoned cue, train the behavior again with a new cue.
This post is one I've wanted to do for a long time, and I'm grateful for a recent online discussion with trainer Emily Strong of From Beaks to Barks and her apprentices who inspired a brainstorming of many of the causes of perceived "stubborn" behavior. This post only addresses half of the reasons we came up with because I had far too much to say on the topic, and who wants to read that many words in a single blog post? So the rest of our ideas will be forthcoming, and once I've spelled out all the reasons we thought of, it will be fun to see if you can think of any more. In the meantime, stew on these five for a bit, and see how they might apply to you and your not-so-stubborn dog.