Help! My Dog Is Stubborn!

Help! My Dog Is Stubborn!
By Don Hanson, PCBC-A, BFRAP

< A version of this article was published in the April & May 2022 issue of Downeast Dog News>

< Updated 29AUG22 >

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What Is Stubborn?

I have often heard a prospective or existing student say, Can you help me? My dog is so stubborn.” I’m not a fan of the word “stubborn.” Too often, it is used in a derogatory manner as a result of frustration when something or someone is not behaving in a way that is perceived as desirable. Yet it is a word that most of us, myself included, use occasionally. “Stubborn” is used between spouses, co-workers, parents, children, and yes, by people describing their dogs.

Before starting this article, I looked at several definitions for “stubborn” and finally settled on one from All of the definitions reviewed were revealing in that they suggested the response of the “stubborn” party was “unreasonable.”This indicates a lack of understanding why another being might choose not to do something we want.

Empathy is essential when interacting with anyone, but especially when working with a different species, such as a dog, which has very different needs and communication methods than humans. Understanding these needs and what our dogs communicate to us is crucial to empathizing with them. Furthermore, if we want to have the best relationship possible with our dogs, we need to work diligently toward meeting their species-specific needs. [ FMI ]

Let’s examine the simple exercise of teaching a dog to sit and examine why even a well-trained dog might choose not to “sit” when asked to do so.

Anxious/Afraid/Hyper-excited – No living thing learns or responds well when stressed. If your dog is under stress for any reason, it is not a good time to train; it does not matter if the stress is rooted in fear or excitement. When under stress, the part of the brain responsible for learning is deactivated to allow one to focus on survival. Even if your dog is exceptionally well trained, it may be unrealistic to expect them to respond reliably when they are worried or highly aroused. [ FMI – ]

Physical Discomfort or Illness – Think of the last time you were hurting, nauseous, or tired. The odds are that it caused you to move slower or possibly not to move at all. Unfortunately, our dogs experience injuries and exhaustion just as people do, and this may cause them to appear to be “stubborn.” Additionally, some trainers use tools designed to cause physical pain (shock, prong, and choke collars). Pain, whether from an injury or intentionally inflicted by a person, will cause stress, which may cause a dog to shut down, act “hyper,” or respond aggressively.

Not all physical discomfort comes from pain. I have known more than one dog that refused to lie down on a cold floor or sit on hot asphalt. My dog Muppy will choose not to go outside during heavy rainfall. The anatomy of some breeds also makes certain positions, such as sitting or lying down, more or less comfortable. Is it fair to say your dog is “stubborn” for refusing to do certain behaviors when they are in physical or emotional distress? Of course not.

Lack of Understanding/Training – Have you ever started to learn something and were then asked to use that knowledge before you were ready? Was that stressful? Over the years, I have encountered people who expect their dog to “get it” with only minimal training. Unfortunately, when the dog fails to respond, they blame the dog.

Dogs are discriminators, which means that training a dog requires teaching behaviors in a wide variety of environments and situations while gradually increasing distractions for many repetitions. Training a dog for an hour a week in a six-week training class is just the beginning of a training program that would benefit almost every dog. Achieving reliable responses from a dog requires that you, the trainer, be knowledgeable and skilled in canine behavior, body language, and the selection and use of rewards. The treats you use and the timing of the treat delivery are essential to getting reliable behavior. Working with a professional and credentialed dog training instructor can be very helpful. [ FMI ]

Your Challenge

If your dog is not behaving as you desire, before you call them “stubborn,” ask yourself why that might be. Is your dog afraid or over-excited? Could they be experiencing physical or emotional distress? Do they understand what you want? You and the dog will get more frustrated with one another until you address the core issues for their lack of response.

I believe that a dog that appears to be stubborn is under stress or in pain, has had inadequate training, or is insufficiently motivated.

Like us, our dogs need to be motivated to do things. Motivation is simply offering an incentive to another living being to do something. For many people, an example of a primary motivator is the paycheck we receive from our employers. Of course, our employer could punish us instead of paying us, but we are unlikely to show up the next day unless we’re enslaved.

Motivation can be either a reward or a punishment. With dogs, punishment as a motivator typically involves yelling or using force to cause physical pain, fear, or emotional distress. Pain and fear can be highly motivating the instant they are applied. However, using punishment as a motivator will likely irreparably damage the relationship between the punisher and the victim. It can make the mere presence of the punisher a demotivator for life. Thus, choosing punishment as a motivator is not only cruel; it is an inefficient and unproductive way to train. This is one of many reasons why the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), and the American Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and many trainers recommend punishment NEVER be used to train or care for a dog. [ FMI ]

Many types of rewards can motivate dogs: food, play, and physical touch are at the top of the list. However, contrary to popular belief, praise does not qualify as a reward in and of itself. Back in the seventies, a group of Monks wrote a book suggesting that you should never use food as a reward with your dog. However, several studies have since confirmed that food has more value as a reward than either praise or touch.

Food is a great choice when training dogs.  Professional animal trainers use it all the time. At Sea World, the animals are trained with food and continue to get food as a reward for their performances long after they have been taught. Our employer doesn’t stop paying us after we learn how to do our jobs.  So why would we ever stop rewarding our dog for doing something we want?

While play can be valuable as a reward, I find it less efficient than food. Since training is all about repetition, efficiency is critical. I often get as many 5 to 10 behaviors per minute when using food while training a dog. In contrast, one must refocus the dog after every play session when using play as a reward. It is like coming in from recess when we were in grade school; the teacher had to get us settled before they could start teaching us. However, play can be a great reward after training a dog.

Food is a great motivator, but we must remember that some foods are more motivating than others, especially if what we are asked to do is difficult or something we do not enjoy. Therefore we must identify the food that our dog likes best.

While many dogs are known to eat almost anything (even what we consider inedible), some can be finicky. In my experience, treats that smell and taste of meat are usually valued higher by our canine companions. If one of my students doesn’t believe me, I suggest we call his dog at the same time. The student uses pieces of the dog’s kibble while I use some leftover roast beef or chicken. The dog races to me, and voila, the student gets it. The point is that treat value matters. So don’t be stingy to protect your ego.

Teaching a dog to sit can be relatively easy since most dogs sit anyway of their own accord. With “sit,” we are just training our dogs to do something they already do naturally.  When initially teaching the “sit” in a low distraction environment, I will probably use a mixture of low to medium-value treats (kibble or other treats with very little meat content) with a high-value treat thrown in at random for an exceptional response. However, when training in a more distracting environment, for example, in a group training class or in a park where children are playing, I will probably need to increase the value of the treats to be successful. Don’t let your ego get in the way of helping your dog be successful; use better treats when you need to!

Training recall is more difficult to teach than sit because we ask the dog to go against its instincts. Often when we most want our dogs to come, they are simultaneously distracted by something extremely motivating (a taunting squirrel or anything else they find very tempting). Therefore, if we are going to be successful, we must be even more enticing than the squirrel. For this reason, I always use special, high-value treats when training recall. Even after my dog has a reliable recall, I continue to reward them every time.

To learn how to turn your “allegedly stubborn” dog into your best friend for life, check out my article There Are No Stubborn Dogs–12 Steps to Becoming Best Friends for Life at –

Don Hanson lives in Bangor, Maine, where he is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( ) and the founder of, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. He is a Professional Canine Behavior Consultant (PCBC-A) accredited by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB) and a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP). Don is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), serving on the Board of Directors and Steering Committee and chairing the Advocacy Division. He is also a founding director of Pet Advocacy International (PIAI). In addition, Don produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Show podcast, available at, the Apple Podcast app, and Don’s blog: The opinions in this article are those of Don Hanson.

©24AUG22, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved
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Helping Your Dog Thrive – Brambell’s Five Freedoms – Part 4 – The Freedom to Express Normal Behavior

< A version of this article was published in the April 2018 issue of Downeast Dog News>

< Updated 7MAY18 >

< Click to download or print a PDF file containing all 5 columns in this series >

In the past three months, we have examined the first three of Brambell’s Five Freedoms; Freedom from Hunger and Thirst, Freedom from Discomfort, and Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease. This month I will address the Freedom to Express Normal Behavior.

When discussing what constitutes normal behavior, I mean behavior for the dog as a species, not what we as a human believe should be “normal” behavior for our dog. As much as we might want to, we cannot dictate what is normal or abnormal for a species.

In our classes, I ask students to list what behaviors they dislike in their dog. The list almost always includes: barking, begging, chasing, chewing, not coming when called  digging, eating “yuck,” getting on furniture or in the trash, growling, guarding things, humping, jumping on people, not listening, play biting, pulling on the leash, rolling in “yuck,” sniffing butts, stealing, being stubborn, and going to the bathroom inside. After reviewing the list, students learn almost everything they have listed is normal behavior for a dog.

One of the easiest ways to create behavior problems in any animal is to deny them the opportunity to express normal behaviors. Caged animals in a zoo that pace back and forth are exhibiting stereotypical behavior caused by stress because they are not able to do what they would normally do. So even though we find some of our dog’s typical behaviors undesirable, we need to find ways to allow them to express these behaviors so as not to compromise their mental and emotional well-being.

Ensure your pet is free to express normal behavior for their species

Some questions you can ask yourself to assess if you are adequately meeting your dog’s behavioral needs are listed below.

  • Do your dogs have an adequate and safe space in which to run, explore and express normal behaviors? Do you provide your dog with an opportunity to do so on a regular basis? Dogs like and need to sniff and explore. You can do this in your yard, home or on a walk. When you take your dog for a walk do you allow them adequate time to sniff, or do you expect your dog to heel by your side during the entire walk? Walking the dog is very overrated as physical stimulation but can be great for mental stimulation if you allow time for exploration and sniffing.
  • Is the environment in which your dog lives suitably enriched so that it stimulates your dogs mind? Mental stimulation is one of the things people often neglect, yet is very easy to provide. Instead of always feeding your dog in a bowl, feed them in a Kong or several Kong toys that you hide throughout your home. Having to search to find their food and then work to get it out of a Kong is great mental stimulation. Walking a different route every day also provides for mental stimulation as do training sessions.
  • Does your dog receive sufficient interaction with family members to establish a bond and to provide ongoing emotional enrichment? Most of us get a dog to be a companion. It is vital that we provide companionship to the dog and not just expect them to be there for us when we want company from them. Like any relationship, both dog and person need to contribute to that partnership. Are you always there for your dog when you come home from a disaster of a day? Some would argue that dog’s offer “unconditional love,” and therefore our role in the relationship does not matter. Really? The idea that a dog offers “unconditional love” is a beautiful myth but believing it is our greatest disservice to dogs because it sets them up to fail and allows us to presume that they will always be okay with whatever we do. Dog’s want and need more from us than our love when it is convenient for us to offer it. Take time to cuddle, to play, and whatever else you and your dog enjoy doing together.
  • Does your dog have canine friends? No matter how wonderful our bond is with our dog, from their perspective, we will never be another dog. Having appropriate doggie friends is just as important for our dog’s social life as having human friends is important to us. However, it is essential to make sure that your dog’s friends are well-matched so that they do enjoy one another’s company. Dogs do not automatically like all other dogs.
  • Do you allow your dog to decline to participate in events they find stressful? Dogs will often tell us with their body language, their normal way of communicating when they are uncomfortable. Are you able to read your dog and when you see these signs do you respect them? Just because we want our dog to be a therapy dog and they can pass the test, is it okay to use them in that role if they do not enjoy it? ( FMI )

Next month we will complete this series by examining Freedom from Fear and Distress.

To read other articles in this series visit the Downeast Dog News website at or visit Don’s blog at

Helping Your Dog Thrive – Brambell’s Five Freedoms – Part 1, Freedom from Hunger and Thirst

Helping Your Dog Thrive – Brambell’s Five Freedoms – Part 2, Freedom from Discomfort

Helping Your Dog Thrive – Brambell’s Five Freedoms – Part 3, Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease

Helping Your Dog Thrive – Brambell’s Five Freedoms – Part 4, The Freedom to Express Normal Behavior

Helping Your Dog Thrive – Brambell’s Five Freedoms – Part 5, The Freedom from Fear and Distress


Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( ) in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at Don also writes about pets at his blog: He is committed to pet care and pet training that is free of pain, force, and fear. The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.

©12APR18, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved
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