Have you ever cued your dog to do a behavior and they didn’t do it? Sure, that’s happened to all of us. It’s important to look a bit deeper into what’s going on before assigning a label to your dog, like “stubborn” or “disobedient.” Let’s look at some common reasons a dog may not respond to a cue:
1.They don’t really know it:
It may be that they have not practiced the behavior in enough scenarios to have reached proficiency. It’s important to be aware of the “3 D’s” of dog training: distance, duration, and distraction. If you teach your dog to sit in the kitchen for two seconds when all else is quiet in the house and you are very close to them, that doesn’t mean they know how to sit for thirty seconds outside the distracting dog park when you are five feet away. Of course, dogs are amazing, so they can learn to generalize their skills to more and more scenarios. But they can’t automatically generalize a cue to scenarios that have not been trained for!
Whether a dog knows the cue or not, they may avoid performing the behavior if it is in any way aversive. What is aversive to one individual may not be to another, just like what is reinforcing may be different creature to creature too. If you’ve raised your voice to teach a cue or used physical manipulation, your dog may hate doing the behavior. They can also avoid doing a behavior if it’s been cued many times and they’ve been confused. If they didn’t receive reinforcement, this could bum them out. When we create this situation, it’s known as “shutting down our dogs.” Being shut down can look a lot like “being stubborn.” Remember, avoiding a situation that doesn’t feel safe is a survival mechanism.
3.They aren’t motivated to do it:
Dogs do what works. If doing something other than what you’ve cued will better get their needs met, they may opt for that instead. Or, if they know the payout is going to be marginal or non-existent, it isn’t a behavior that works for them. So why would they do it? It’s important to remember that our dogs have preferences that may override or clash with our desires – that’s part of living with an adult creature of another species.
4. Pain or physical discomfort:
A dog should refuse to do a behavior if it is physically uncomfortable. If your dog is arthritic, they may not want to lie down on cue. If your dog has GI issues, they may not want to respond quickly for treats. It would be unkind to press the issue.
Avoiding the label “stubborn” helps you look deeper at what is truly going on for your dog instead of chalking their behavior up to a perceived character flaw. So, let’s see what we can do about it:
If your dog isn’t responding to a cue you thought they “knew,” try reteaching it. Go back to basics as if you had never taught it before. This could involve dropping out the cue and just getting and reinforcing the behavior. Then, make sure to help them generalize it. This includes working with them in different locations, at different times of day, and varying your body position, treat bag position, and any other cues that are present. You can do things like cueing the behavior from one step away, then two. Reward heavily so this feels reinforcing for your dog.
Do you really need it?
Ask yourself if you really need your dog to do the cue – right when you cue it, or ever. If the behavior causes your dog pain or physical discomfort, you do not need it. If it’s something they don’t like to do, what are you gaining from asking them to do it? Make sure there’s a purpose for said cue besides our aversion to our dogs not doing what we ask.
Find an alternative:
Find something your dog likes better! If they think sit sucks, how about down? Can you use a trick instead of an obedience behavior to get the result you’re looking for? Sometimes dog training requires troubleshooting. This is your chance to be creative!
Take a break:
Instead of beating your head against a wall and bumming out your dog, go do something you and your dog both like. Worry about the cue later. Having a dog is supposed to be fun. Go have fun!