I’m sure you’ve heard it before, “I love my dog, but she’s so stubborn, I can’t get her to do anything!” Or maybe this variation: “I’ve tried over and over to get him to stop digging, but he’s such a stubborn mutt!”
People love to imbue their dogs with human characteristics and stubbornness is one of them. It seems completely harmless on the surface. We have trouble teaching our dog a certain behavior so we just assume they are stubborn because we can’t get their compliance or cooperation. Most of the time when I hear folks say this, I know they’re just being silly, applying a liberal dose of whimsy to a difficult situation.
The problems crop up when we say that our dog is stubborn and we begin to actually believe our own silliness. Branding a dog as “stubborn” is tempting at times because it relieves us from the responsibility to modify behavior, “I wish I could get him to stop barking, but he’s just so dang stubborn!” See how that works? There’s a problem with a behavior, nuisance barking. We try to fix it, we are unsuccessful, so it’s the dog’s fault because he’s “stubborn”.
I don’t like to make big, unequivocal, blanket statements, but let me go out on a limb here:
There is no such thing as a stubborn dog.
There. I said it, knowing full well that I have opened myself up for a bombardment of allegedly stubborn behaviors, many of which I may have insufficient talent to fix. Be that as it may, I will stand by my statement, “there is no such thing as a stubborn dog”.
Often, when a client or customer describes their dog as stubborn, I tell them, “There are no stubborn dogs, only unmotivated dogs.” Then we look at the behavior we’re trying to achieve and we start searching for an effective motivation.
What I’ve found is a dog who knows you or accepts you as a handler will do anything you ask as long as the following 3 criteria are met:
1. He must understand what you are asking.
2. He must be physically and mentally capable of the behavior.
3. He must be properly motivated to perform the behavior.
Number one is where things most often break down if we fail to gently teach the dog what we want.
Number two breaks down when we have unrealistic expectations about our dog’s mental or physical abilities.
Number three is the easiest one to miss. I’ve seen traditional trainers use excessive amounts of force trying to motivate and I’ve seen positive trainers using inappropriate rewards in their attempts to motivate their trainees. The possibilities for screw-ups are almost endless!
Let me tell you about my screw-up yesterday to illustrate my point. I was running a T-drill with a retriever yesterday morning. He had run the same drill in a different place the day before and he had been running this same drill with varying levels of challenges for quite some time.
The T drill is a common retriever training tool in which we place piles of bumpers at the top of a T and at the ends of the arms of the T. Imagine the T as a big letter, written on the ground. It can be just 10 or 20 yards tall for beginning dogs or over 100 yards tall for advanced dogs. We stand at the foot of the T and send our dog in a straight line toward the top. We have the option of stopping him anywhere along the line and sending him, via hand signals, to any one of the 3 piles of bumpers where he is to pick up one bumper and return to us by the shortest route. More often than not, we just send him to the top pile where he picks up a bumper and returns directly to the handler. That way he gets the idea that his main job is to run far and fast unless we say otherwise.
Peck was running the drill yesterday and for some reason he was running the route to the back-pile in a big curve. I don’t mind a little variation from a straight line, but I don’t want to see big curves that slow down the return or put the dog in territory that is clearly off the line. One of the main points of this drill is to teach straight lines so we can send a dog on a retrieve without worrying about him wandering into the next county or getting himself into trouble while he’s making a retrieve.
So… here’s Peck running out to the pile and making a big curve to the right, then making a big curve at the same spot on his return with the bumper. This happened on two retrieves in a row, so I began to put some pressure on him to run straight. I applied this pressure by yelling the command, “BACK” just as he neared the spot where the curve began. Nope… didn’t work. He still ran a curve, out and back!
DANG STUBBORN DOG!!
At this point I was getting frustrated because Peck is capable of running this drill perfectly. I was tempted to up the ante and nick him with the e-collar to add more pressure to my BACK command. Fortunately, I recalled my own little sermon about stubbornness. I decided to take a walk and find out what was going on. I sent myself on the same retrieve and took the curvy route that Peck had taken. I paid extra attention to the wind direction to see if there was some scent that was pulling him off the line. Sure enough, there it was, a partially eviscerated rabbit had been abandoned by a predator and the scent was pulling Peck off the straight line.
If we think about this scenario in terms of motivation we can see that it was actually amazing that Peck didn’t totally abandon his retrieving and go check out the tasty morsels that were lying there like a bountiful buffet line!
Peck had to decide if he was gonna make a perfect retrieve or if he was going to go have rabbit for breakfast. I shudder to think that I was about to zap my dog for nothing more than obeying his nature. This kind of stuff is going on all around us every second of every day in dog world. There are constant motivators at work. Some of this stuff is really difficult for us humans to even see.
So what did I do? Well… I want my dog to be able to work in the face of challenges like this, so I shortened up the lines of the T and continued running the drill. By shortening the lines I was able to increase my influence without resorting to force. We cut the drill down from being about 125 yards to about 50 yards and it made all the difference. Peck didn’t forget about the rabbit, but with me in close proximity he was more motivated to work with precision and less motivated to take a bunny-break.
The lesson I’ve taken from this is to look for the hidden motivators behind any behavior I am trying to modify. Every behavior has a consequence and every behavior has a motivator. There is no such thing as a stubborn dog.