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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Piedad

The Stubborn Dog Myth - Part 2

In my last post, I introduced the idea that stubbornness isn't really a dog trait because dogs perform behaviors that are reinforced, and there really isn't anything that can be added or removed from the environment to make "stubbornness" a reinforcing behavior. But sometimes dogs behave in ways that can appear very much like stubbornness, so I discussed five of the most common reasons. If you haven't read that post yet, I'd suggest starting there and then come back to read Part 2.

Today, I want to talk about five more reasons that we might think we are observing stubborn behavior in our dogs. And if you can think of any more, by all means, please share them in the comments.

6. The reinforcement is not consistent and/or contiguous.

Are you reinforcing every single time your dog does the new correct behavior? Are you reinforcing immediately after the behavior happens? If your reinforcement is lacking in consistency or contiguity, your dog may not be able to figure out what behavior gets the reinforcement, which leads you right back to #3 in the previous post, the dog doesn't understand what they are supposed to do. Lack of consistency is confusing to a dog. They need sufficient repetitions of experiencing the behavior-consequence contingency to understand the connection. Additionally, if they are only reinforced some of the time, some dogs may find that simply isn't motivating enough to keep trying. And if the reinforcement doesn't occur right after the behavior event, the dog is less likely to make the connection between the behavior and the consequence. A lot of other behaviors can happen between the desired one and your reinforcement if there are more than few seconds separating them, which makes the communication really confusing to a dog.

Try filming your training sessions. That way you can see just how consistent you are and how good your timing is. If you find you are lacking the coordination to provide contiguous reinforcement or that you are missing opportunities for reinforcement, don't be too hard on yourself. Some dogs are really fast, and we all get better with practice. Also, there are games we humans can play to improve our own skills. I'll post about some of these another day. But realizing where the communication breakdown is in your training will enable you to build your skills and therefore to communicate better with your dog by offering consistent and contiguous reinforcement.

7. Extinction burst.

You are in the middle of training class. You ask your dog for a down, and they look at you... and bark. Your dog is loud. You ask them for a down again. The barking gets louder. Why won't they stop?! Is it possible that you were giving your dogs treats every time they made noise while your class instructor was speaking? Your goal was to keep them distracted with food so they'd stay quiet, but they learned that barking got reinforced. Suddenly, you've stopped reinforcing that behavior. But the behavior is worse! Eventually, you get so flustered because who can think with all that racket? And it's so embarrassing. So you toss another treat.

This cute little puppy quickly learned that barking made treats happen. Oops! Now, we have an extinction burst!

That first explosion of barking after you've stopped reinforcing the behavior is called an extinction burst. If you could have avoided reinforcing the barking during the extinction burst, it would have eventually stopped (however unfairly frustrated your dog might have been), but since you did actually end up reinforcing in the end, you've now created a behavior that is resistant to extinction. In other words, you taught your dog that if he just barks long enough, loud enough, and with enough fervor, you will eventually reinforce it. Ugh. This can look a lot to us like stubbornness, but this was actually a very well taught behavior. You taught barking with duration!

We also see extinction bursts a lot with jumping dogs. As a puppy, you thought jumping was cute. You petted your dog, snuggled her, and paid her loads of attention when she jumped on you. But by the time she became an 80-pound exuberant adolescent dog, you changed the rules on her because jumping is now painful. The trainer told you to ignore the jumping, and you try, but it seems to get worse. Now, the dog is body slamming and nipping. Eventually, you can't ignore her anymore because she is injuring you, and in your attempts to stop the behavior, you give the dog exactly what she is looking for... attention. And thus, the cycle repeats. And it worsens.

Rather than merely trying to ignore undesired behaviors, see if you can figure out what it is your dog wants or needs. Is it attention? Is it the yummy pork bits in your treat bag? Now, ask your dog for an easy behavior that she already knows. The second she gives you that behavior, give her a generous allotment of the reinforcement she was looking for and maybe some other awesome additional reinforcement. Yes, you'll continue to ignore the undesired behavior. But pay close attention because every single time you get the preferred behavior, you want to be able to reinforce that. You may need to tweak the environment a bit to make it more conducive to getting the new behavior so that you can reinforce it enough times for your dog to understand how to get what they need. Soon, the new behavior will be happening with much greater frequency, and the old behavior will fade away. In my home, dogs who ask for my attention by putting their chin on my lap get my attention every single time. Jumping without receiving a cue to do so gets nothing. Unsolicited jumping doesn't often occur because they've learned better ways to get their needs met.

Hendrix asks for attention by resting his chin on my lap.

In the case of the relentless barker in class, you can even reinforce quiet moments to get your foot in the door. Once you have some quiet moments, give your dog a few easy cues. When your dog is performing those well instead of barking, you can return to teaching the new behavior.

8. Boredom.

Some dogs are willing to sit for a piece of steak or cheese 10 times. Some will do it 30 times. But eventually, most dogs will get bored performing the same behavior over and over again. Keep your training sessions short (5 minutes or so), especially in the beginning. And try to end before your dog really wants to. That will help you keep training exciting for both you and your dog.

Additionally, consider your reinforcement. Is it something your dog really loves? Maybe your dog is willing to work for kibble or crunchy dog treats; but for many dogs, that's just not interesting enough to maintain their attention for any length of time. Sleeping or watching out the window or sniffing that corner over there or doing anything else that requires less effort is more reinforcing. So bring on the steak and pork chops. Try cooking up some organ meats from various animals. Grab a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. ADD IN SOME PLAY to your training sessions!

9. Low rate of reinforcement.

This could also fall under the category of boredom. It might also be frustration. If your dog can't figure out what you want and only rarely is getting reinforced for all their efforts, they may just quit on you. After all, their effort seems to be for nothing. If you find this is the case, reevaluate your training plan. See if you can break things down into smaller, more achievable, reinforceable steps for your dog.

This happened to me last night. I was trying to train my Cane Corso to step on something with his back right foot. I was clicking and treating every time he made contact with that foot, and I was using a lure to get the movement, but he wasn't understanding (likely because he was too fixated on the lure to notice what his body was doing). So I switched it up. I removed the lure and started clicking and treating every single time he simply moved that foot. Then I clicked and treated for efforts to move the back right foot that caused it to touch the target I wanted him to step on. That target had been strategically placed to make it easy for him to accidentally touch it. Finally, I clicked and then treated for actually stepping on the target with the correct foot. It took several training sessions because he does not yet have great hind end awareness. But that's okay! Because I was able to help him stay motivated by breaking down the behavior into smaller steps to help him be successful. And now, he knows where his back right foot is and how using it can help him obtain reinforcement. We call this process shaping, and while the concept of breaking down big behaviors into small, achievable steps is simple, the application can be pretty tricky. Don't hesitate to reach out to a professional positive reinforcement trainer to help you break down the steps of your goal behavior so that you and your dog can experience continued success and a high rate of reinforcement.

10. The cue isn't what we think it is.

This one makes me giggle, but I see it all the time. The owner holds a treat in their hand with their elbow bent at their side and treat hand held at shoulder height. Unaware that this is their body position, they capture a sit. They attach the sit cue. Everything is going beautifully. Later, they capture a down. They attach the verbal cue, and suddenly, as they are giving their down cue, the dog sits. He sits with certainty. He's making solid eye contact. He's expecting reinforcement. And the owners have no idea why he won't lie down. I look at their hand position. They are holding a treat in their hand with elbow bent at their side and treat hand held at shoulder height. They didn't realize it, but they taught the dog that this hand position is actually the cue for "sit."

Another common unintentional cue is pointing to the ground for a "down" when the owner thinks the dog understands a verbal cue. Verbal cues that have been given with hand signals are often not understood at all by the dog. Dogs tend to be more visual, so for them, the cue is commonly just the hand signal unless dedicated training time is given to properly transfer the cue to a verbal word. Sometimes the cues are environmental. A dog may wait in doorways, but he's unable to perform the very same behavior out in the open. The cue for "leave it" might be an inadvertent tug on the leash, which is why it doesn't seem to work off leash (or possibly because something in the environment is more reinforcing to the dog than the reinforcement for "leave it," which we covered in the first post).

Pay attention to your environment and to all the parts of your body. Take video of yourself. Notice how you are standing, the tone of your voice, where your hands are, and what you do with your face when you give a cue. Ideally, when giving verbal cues, they should be given in a neutral to pleasant tone only once, and your hands should remain empty and at your side or in some other neutral position until after the dog performs the desired behavior. Then, your body can spring to life as you reinforce promptly. This helps prevent loads of confusion down the road.

The Kernels of Truth

There are some breeds and some individuals that seem to have an amazing tenacity: Terriers who will tunnel incessantly until they have caught the rat, pointers who will chase and point at flying things until they collapse, bored huskies who go to amazing lengths to escape enclosures, working bred dogs who will work for hours in the hope of a few minutes of tug or ball play. I'm sure you can think of others. But even still, this isn't about stubbornness but reinforcement. These animals are genetically predisposed and/or trained through their learning history to be willing to work for long duration between reinforcement. However, the reinforcement is still driving the behavior.

Livestock guardian dogs learn through positive reinforcement just like every other dog.

Additionally, there are a few breeds and individuals for which reinforcing behavior can be more challenging. Dogs bred to work independently from people tend not to find human praise or affection particularly reinforcing. Some may have no natural interest in toy play. Some only eat enough to stay healthy but don't really love food for its own sake. With these dogs, it's generally a good idea to have them examined by a veterinarian to make sure there isn't some underlying condition causing their lack of motivation, but once you've ruled out health issues, you can train behaviors using portions of their regular meals spiked with yummy treats as reinforcement. The hungry dog will find the food much more reinforcing, and playing training games to acquire the food makes everything more fun. Adding in your praise and careful affection (assuming it isn't actually punishing to your dog) during these fun training sessions can build positive associations that make your praise and affection secondary reinforcers. Similarly, you can shape toy play as a training exercise until the play itself is reinforcing. We may have to work harder to create reinforcers for them, but it can be done.

And finally, there is that poor rescued dog who has had little interaction with people, and perhaps what interaction he has had wasn't very good. This dog learned he couldn't really control good consequences with his behavior, and doing stuff often led to bad consequences, so he just quit. He doesn't seek reinforcement beyond his basic needs for survival because he doesn't really believe anything more is available. He's not stubborn either. He's just trying to avoid punishment by not doing anything. This dog requires patience. But there are still primary reinforcers, like food, water, and shelter. And these things are a small starting point for building positive associations that create secondary reinforcers. It may take a while to teach this dog that your presence is a good thing, that interacting with you results in more good things, and that his behavior can result in wonderful consequences; but little by little, he will become more empowered as he receives consistent and immediate reinforcement for his behaviors, even if you have to find teeny, tiny things to reinforce at first, like simply looking at you. To help build this dog's confidence and motivation and to create many more ways to reinforce this dog, I highly suggest enlisting the help of a positive reinforcement trainer.

Sometimes, we have to build confidence by teaching dogs that good things happen even when they perform the smallest of behaviors.

Don't You Wish Dogs Could Just Be Stubborn?

So you see, calling dogs stubborn would be so much easier! After all, if they are stubborn, then they are at fault for their failed training, not us dog owners. But really, "stubbornness" is caused by a whole lot of factors, all of which we owners can modify to help the dog be successful. Figuring out what is muddling up our training plan can take some investigative work and possibly require some outside help from a trainer. I know the sleuthing can seem challenging, even a bit overwhelming at times, but the great news for us is that we can fix it! When you start feeling like your dog is being stubborn, pull out this list, and put some thought into what might actually be reinforcing the behavior you are seeing. If you can't figure it out, don't despair! These are the kind of puzzles we trainers love to help you solve.

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