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— March 27, 2012 —

Dominant, Stubborn or Uneducated? Which one is it?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

One of the biggest misconceptions I come across in my training it the concept of the “stubborn” or “dominant” dog. I don’t mean that dogs can’t be stubborn, because they definitely can. It’s just that many times when we think they’re being stubborn, they really have no idea what we want. This week, we’ll try to decipher whether your dog is being stubborn, dominant or just has no idea what you’re asking him to do.

The majority of my training is for the average person who just wants to have a better relationship with their dog. While I do a fair amount of advanced training (service dogs, working dogs, etc.) the majority of my work is pet dogs. Basically, I train people to “handle” their dogs and I train dogs to accept and respond to handling. Then, I teach this “team” how to operate in the real world. Pet dog training is very simple. Good training is nothing more than good handling-consistently.

For years now, there have been three rules I tell almost everyone when I first meet them. These handling rules are applicable to pretty much all dogs:

1. If you move away from a dog, the dog will be inclined to move towards you.
2. If you move towards a dog, it will be inclined to move away.
3. If you try to move a dog with steady pressure, the dog will likely resist.

There is a natural attraction between dogs and their handlers. I generally demonstrate the first rule by walking backwards with the dog on leash. Almost invariably, the dog will drift towards me. If fact, try this next time you walk your dog. Stand still with your dog on a loose leash. Then, take a quick step backwards. If your dog steps towards you or turns his head to you, that’s the beginning of what I’m describing. Through training, we work to strengthen that natural attraction.

The second is common sense. If you walk towards your dog they will move away to avoid being stepped on. There is, however, a deeper behavior in play. A lower ranking dog will retreat from a higher ranking dog. We can use this concept in training as well.

The third rule is that if you pull on your dog, he will resist. Dogs, like humans, have a behavior known as “opposition reflex.” One example of this is when we are trying to teach our dog to perform a “down.” If you try to pull a dog into a down, he’ll invariably resist and possibly go into a wild bucking frenzy. This does not indicate a stubborn or dominant dog. It’s just a natural reaction to being pulled.

I think it’s time to add another rule.

4. Dogs watch us more than they listen to us.

In the last couple of Tails, I started to discuss how dogs don’t talk, rather they communicate using body language. Sometimes, our whole impression of the stubborn dog is based on the disparity in how our two species communicate differently. Sometimes we unintentionally say one thing with our commands and something completely different with our body.

This helps to explain another supposedly stubborn behavior. It’s when we “mis-cue” our dog. What I mean is this. If you have taught your dog to “down” with a sweeping hand motion, then try to tell him down with your hands in your pockets, he will likely not perform. To him, it’s not the same command that he was taught to respond to. Here is a simple test. If your dog will lay down happily with a hand motion, try to tell him to “down” without moving at all. If he fails, try to do the hand sweep without talking at all. If he only responds correctly with the hand motion, you will see what I’m describing. This is not a stubborn dog. He is simply uneducated to the spoken command. Next time your hands are full and you need your dog to perform, you will understand why it’s important to teach your dog to listen to spoken commands.

There is a whole training process (fading) that teaches the dog to listen to commands v/s watch for hand signals. Without going through this fading technique, we can end up with a spiral process of giving the dog a command which he doesn’t listen to because he really doesn’t understand, then we grab the leash and try to pull him pull down and he fights more and more until everyone is exasperated with this stubborn dog.

So next time you think your dog is just being stubborn, take a step back and think about these four rules. Is it possible that he’s confused, or could we be saying something with our body that contradicts what we are saying with our mouth?