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  • Writer's pictureKari Bastyr, MS, CDBC, CPCN

Dog Training: Is Your Dog Stubborn or Just Unmotivated?

A few months ago I was at Home Depot, and walked by an end-cap with a display of shock collar training devices for dogs.  One of them was labeled ‘Stubborn Dog Trainer’.  I did a double take. Could I have read that right?  There are actually training devices marketed for stubborn dogs? Yikes. Maybe stubborn trainers but not stubborn dogs.

That got me thinking. Why do people


What if one day a spaceship beamed you up to Mars.  You get out of the space ship and there are creatures who look nothing like you making noises and gestures you can’t possibly understand. When you don’t understand what they’re asking of you, they repeat themselves, often faster and louder.  Your inability to understand what they want has clearly annoyed them so now they’re physically correcting you for something you don’t know.  In this situation, would you characterize yourself stubborn or completely confused?

As much as we love our dogs, it’s important to remember that coming into our homes is their version of a spaceship dropping us off on Mars. When a dog isn’t clear on a command, it’s on us not them.  For instance, if you are trying to teach your dog to sit, and you say ‘sit’ over and over and over, and your dog doesn’t sit, there might be several reasons why he won’t.

  1. He hasn’t been taught what ‘sit’ means, either by luring, shaping, capturing, etc.

  2. While your intention is for him to sit the first time you say ‘sit’, repeating the command leads him to understand the command for ‘sit’ to be ‘sit sit sit sit sit sit’, so he sits on the 6th ‘sit’.

  3. He doesn’t know the word ‘sit’ is the cue to put his back-end on the ground.

  4. He isn’t being rewarded enough to associate the word ‘sit’ with putting his back-end on the ground.

  5. He is not motivated by the reward.

  6. He is too distracted.

  7. He is fearful or anxious.

  8. He is too afraid to move as he is afraid of being punished for doing it wrong.

Now that we have established that what people label as a stubborn behavior is actually a lack of motivation or our failure to communicate, let’s focus on how we can motivate our dogs more effectively.

The definition of ‘motivation’ is:

mo·ti·va·tion ˌmōdəˈvāSH(ə)n/


“the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way”

When applied to dogs, it means the same thing as it does for humans, and everyone is motivated by something. We have reasons we behave in certain ways. Money, love, food, speed, travel, animals, work, etc. Humans don’t work for free either, and we certainly don’t enjoy working for a boss who is a jerk or a company CEO that doesn’t appreciate what we do.

It’s important to understand what motivates your dog, and especially take in to account the environment your dog is in when you are training.  If you think your dog is being stubborn, try to change the way you are characterizing the situation. Instead, think of how you can positively motivate her to offer up the behavior you want, or how to lure her with a treat.  Treats are a huge motivator for dogs. If you think your dog should work without treats, imagine how hard you would work without a paycheck. Behavior change happens really quickly when there are hot dogs involved, and learning takes place efficiently and successfully when there is a positive reward.

Here are some recommendations to increase your dog’s motivation positively:

  1. Train when there are little to no distractions

  2. Train in little 1-minute intervals to keep your dog wanting more

  3. Train with a very high-value treat like meat roll, freeze dried liver, or cheese

  4. Train when your dog is hungry and before a walk, not after when he’s tired

  5. Train when your dog isn’t afraid of other things going on in his environment

  6. Train using the ‘lure-reward’ method to give your dog a visual cue, along with a verbal cue

  7. Train using realistic expectations

  8. Train without frustration and give your dog time to think things through. They are wonderful problem solvers!

If you can find your dog’s positive motivation and use it when he or she isn’t distracted, scared, or shut down, you’ll find that he isn’t actually being stubborn or spiteful. It really is a training issue, and not a dog issue, and your frustration will decrease immensely. And there will be no need for the ‘Stubborn Dog’ shock collar from Home Depot. If you need help, contact a professional positive reinforcement trainer who can teach you how to communicate with your dog. It’s never too late and your dog will thank you!

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