How to Train A Stubborn Dog

Have you ever described your dog as strong-willed, independent or let’s face it… just plain stubborn? Or maybe this is how your friends and neighbors characterize your pet? I can tell you that as a dog trainer, I hear this description of “stubborn” on a weekly basis, but I can honestly say that I have never, in over 25 years of training animals, encountered a truly stubborn dog. How is this possible, you ask? Well the key is actually in the understanding that what we might view as being stubborn, is more likely another scenario such as the dog is suffering from a lack of training, it can not handle the level of distraction difficulty, is of high intelligence and is getting bored with the skills set before him, or the dog has an independent personality that might require a different approach to your dog reinforcement.

Once this information has been established, then you will be able to not only find out what motivates your dog to learn with you, but also to develop a game plan to help your dog succeed at the tasks given to him and be a willing partner in the learning process. I’m here to help you break down some easy steps that you can take with any dog to make your so-called stubborn dog a star pupil!


Exercise Patience and Have Clear Communication Skills

First and foremost, it is important that our communication skills of what we want from our dog are crystal clear. If we ourselves are not consistent in how we are teaching a new behavior, how can we ever expect our dogs to be consistent in their effort to perform them.

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This owner is teaching his dog how to walk a balance beam for the first time. He is luring the dog forward with very clear communication and is breaking things down by rewarding his dog for each step he takes in the beginning. 

  • Break things down into small steps.

Don’t always aim for that end result you have planned out in your mind. Break harder skills down into smaller, easier steps. This lets your dog know early that he is heading in the right direction and can keep your dog from getting frustrated, as well as keeping training sessions light and fun. Teaching through Shaping is a great way to do this.

  • Focus on visual signals.

Dogs learn skills quicker by watching your visual cues more so than listening to your verbal ones, so put more emphasis on these things and limit the amount of time you verbally ask for a behavior. An intelligent dog might actually start waiting until you say a cue a certain number of times before performing it because this is how he is being taught daily. Hand signals should be given with big, fluid motions, that are easy for your dog to comprehend in a busy environment.

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This student has given her dog the visual signal for Sit and has delayed dropping her hand signal out too quickly so her dog had time to internalize the request and respond. 

  • Give your dog time to respond.

Remember, it takes a certain amount of time for your dog to respond once you have given a cue. From the time your dog sees or hears your cue, connects in his brain the behavior he has been taught to do and actually executes it can be a matter of seconds with some dogs. This is even in a quiet environment with virtually no distractions. These seconds might not seem like much, but many times we move too quickly and lose connection with our dog, causing them to get confused in what is requested of them and ultimately not execute the behavior. If your dog is watching you, delay dropping out your visual signal and give him that time to respond, before restarting him again.

Be Consistent in Your Practices.

Consistency is so important in every aspect of training. You know the old saying “Practice makes perfect”? Well, practicing often and being consistent in your practices can make all the difference in the world in how well your dog responds to you.

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This dog knows that he must Sit first before his owner puts his leash on to go out. It took a lot of practice, but now he offers the behavior even before his owner has to ask. 

  • Know what you are doing before applying it to your dog.

Know what words you want to use, visual signals, markers and secondary reinforcers you plan on using beforehand. Practice so it is on autopilot for you, before trying it with the dog. For instance, many people practice their hand signals in front of a mirror, without the dog present first, to make sure they are giving the same cue. If you aren’t giving consistent signals, your dog is not going to consistently respond to you.

  • Have a training game plan.

Come up with a daily ritual that works training into your everyday routine. Three to five minute practice sessions set up a few times a day, everyday, can make a huge difference in your dog’s accuracy in performing. Repetition of any new skill is one of the things that will make the difference between the dog that executes a skill some of the time when asked or all of the time and at a higher difficulty/distraction level.

Know What is Rewarding to Your Dog

If you don’t know what is truly rewarding to your dog, then the so-called stubborn and simply intelligent and independent dog, is not going to see why working for you is beneficial to them.

  • Make a list of motivators.

I suggest making a list of all the things that motivate your dog and putting them on a scale from 1 to 10. Think of it like you getting paid. A #1 might be like someone handing you a dollar bill. A #10 might be like someone handing you $100. What would you be more motivated to work for?

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Here’s a chart for ranking your dog’s motivators. 

  • Test more than just food.

While stinky meats and treats almost always have a place somewhere high on your motivator list, it is important to rank all the other things that might be even better motivators in certain situations. Toys, a game of tug or fetch, touch and praise are all just a few examples of alternatives for food. So let’s say your dog is hyper-focused on his frisbee everytime you grab it. This might be of higher value to him, even over your super, high value treat. If that is the case, Then use playing with the frisbee with you, for those new distraction situations, when working on fine-tuning some skills or whenever you need better attention from your dog.

By knowing what motivates your dog you now have the capability to know what items you can move up to on your list if you are having any issues getting your dog into the game of working with you.

Make Training Sessions Your Dog’s Idea

This is a huge deal around our house! Simply put, a lot of dog’s thought processes (and humans for that matter) are “If we aren’t having fun, it’s not worth doing.”

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This Siberian Husky was taught loose leash walking skills by his owner using only positive reinforcement training methods. As a result, he is actively engaged in his owner, choosing to maintain connection whether they are walking or jogging! 

  • Avoid Punishment, Train Positively

An independent-minded, so-called stubborn dog, does not respond well to punishment or being forced into situations they don’t want to engage in. This type of training will only cause a strain on your relationship and cause your dog to resist engaging in training with you. Practice positive reinforcement training techniques and put more focus on rewarding positive behaviors your dog does, instead of disciplining the bad ones.

  • Incorporate games into your daily training sessions.

Mix up harder or less desirable skills with tricks your dog really enjoys doing. If your dog is having fun with you during practices, they are not only going to work easier for you, but they will even start offering behaviors to you because they WANT to engage with you more. Stubborn dog… no more!

Here’s a fun game I like to play with my own dogs. I can strengthen several cues during the same practice session and my dog has a blast doing it!

The Biggie…Proofing Cues Around Distractions

This is probably the most important thing to consider when working with a dog you consider to be stubborn. Many times, it has nothing to do at all with the fact that your dog just doesn’t want to work with you. In most cases, it is simply the fact that your dog is not prepared enough to work in the environment that you have put them in. Proofing of cues and distraction training is a timely process, but a necessary one if you want your dog to work well for you in ANY area.

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This pup is practicing strengthening his Down Stays at a local store. We started in a quiet isle like this and then upgraded to a busier isle when we were ready. 

  • Identify what is distracting to your dog.

Remember, that a dog’s sensory perceptions far outweigh what we will ever be able to understand. Take this fact into consideration when adding distractions to your training. A variety of sounds, smells, movements and more, can all add distraction to your dog’s environment. In fact, many times, the triggers for the big distractions, such as people or other dogs, are actually based on what the person or dog are doing. For instance, you are trying to practice a loose leash walk while another owner is working their dog down the street. Which is harder, the dog that is doing a Sit Stay, not paying any attention to your dog, or the same dog that is jogging with his owner? If the second seems much harder, then movement is one of the things that might be a factor in why your dog is not performing the same way.

  • Start easy and upgrade.

I always say, distractions are kind of the name of the game, when it comes to training. Let’s say we want our dog to Sit in our living room with no heavy distractions around. This could easily be achieved in one practice session. Now ask for that same Sit in front of your dog’s hardest distraction, such as in front of a person that wants to pet them, or a squirrel! That same position could take you weeks to achieve. There are of course, many levels in between and it is our job to gradually prepare them for working in that tough environment. Start in that easy area and make sure your dog can consistently perform the task you give them at least 80% of the time. Once that has been achieved, gradually start adding harder distractions to the environment or taking your dog to new locations. Be sure to achieve consistency from your dog at least 80% of the time with the new distractions, before upgrading to a harder level again.

  • Don’t be afraid to take a step back.

Distraction training, especially with young dogs that are new to the world, takes a lot of time and patience. If you are practicing around a certain level of distraction and your dog is consistently failing at performing whatever skill you are asking of them, then your dog is not learning. It is time to take a step back, go to a less distracting area and build them up again. It is our job to set our dogs up to succeed. Sometimes you will have to regress a little bit in the process and that’s ok. Consider these times as a learning process for both you and your dog. You are seeing what distractions are actually more difficult for your dog and your dog will be happy to earn rewards again because he is able to achieve the goal.

Enlist the Help of a Professional

If you really are at your wits ends trying to get through to your dog, then the logical decision is to get help from a professional. A great dog trainer can help you not only with all the aspects of training skills, but also teach you how to build the bond with your dog and give you creative ways to make the learning process more enjoyable for both you and your dog. Check out great organizations that promote positive reinforcement techniques such as the Pet Professional Guild or the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, to find a certified trainer in your area.

Of course, a trainer that can be hands-on with your dog is going to be the most beneficial, but if you cannot find a trainer close to you, there are some fantastic resources online these days. Check out this book to get some fun ideas on tricks and games you can teach your dog to keep them engaged.

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Remember, there are many factors that can cause your dog to not be as engaged with you as you might want them to be. Take the time to truly understand where your dog is coming from and you are sure to strengthen the communication between the two of you.
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