How to train a stubborn dog is a question that many dog owners and all trainers face. In fact, when dealing with dogs that refuse to listen, we often label them “dumb,” “stubborn,” or untrainable. Of course, the most common issues include how to train a dog to come when called or potty training a stubborn dog. Some people may also be concerned with how to train a stubborn “alpha” dog.
So when it comes to training a stubborn dog, we will refer to several points made by expert dog trainers and behaviorists, including Stephan Lindsay’s Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Adaptation and Learning. Also, when struggling with issues like dogs who stubbornly pull on the leash in walks, it’s worth investing in a harness that naturally discourages pulling.
If you want to learn how to potty train even the most stubborn dog, see our article on how to punish a dog for pooping in the house. And if you are desperate for help, see our discussion on sending a dog away for training.
So, What makes a dog stubborn?
A dog is considered stubborn if it refuses to do (or not do) something despite an owner’s repeated commands, begging, bribing, shouting, or other techniques to compel the dog to do as they are told. The problem is identifying the cause of this stubbornness rather than focusing on the idea of stubbornness itself.
Why is it so essential to know why a dog is stubborn? Because calling our dogs “stubborn” can be a common excuse to give up on them. It can also be a common reason owners become fed up and frustrated with the dog, causing conflict.
For instance, if a dog does not come when called, we can always blame its “stubborn” nature and leave it at that. We may also decide the dog is deliberately wilful and turn to more extreme punishments to eliminate the stubbornness.
So this is key; if somebody feels the need to use punishment to rid a dog of stubbornness, they usually lack the skill to train effectively. But remember that punishment is not the same as an effective correction.
Stubbornness in dogs is also a great way to avoid looking at what’s wrong in our communication with our dogs.
In this way, I rarely find that dogs are nearly as stubborn as an owner who refuses to make the necessary changes needed to change their dogs behavior. In other words, as challenging as Huskies can be, none of them are stubborn as some of their owners.
But assuming pet parents really want to change a behavior in their dog, let’s look at it from the dog’s perspective. First, we will identify the major reasons most dogs are stubborn and then deal with how we address each issue.
Stubborn dogs just don’t find you interesting
The most common reason for stubbornness in a dog is simply that they are not as engaged with their owner as they are with something else in their environment. Dogs operate on reward, and if something else is just far more rewarding at any given moment than you are, then they’re going to ignore you..
One of the funniest examples of this is in videos of dogs throwing tantrums when they leave the dog park. Like this one:
While the Husky in this video belongs to one of the most notoriously stubborn breeds, this behavior can appear in any dog breed. And while it is entertaining to watch, it perfectly illustrates why most dogs refuse to listen. Nothing the owner of that Husky has at that moment is anywhere near as interesting as playing in the dog park. So the Husky stubbornly refuses to leave.
You will see the same behavior when a dog is chasing a squirrel and refuses to come when called.
You counter this stubbornness by building a dog’s engagement with you, which we will discuss below.
They have a negative association
Stubborn dogs are often just dogs avoiding something they don’t like or that causes them stress or anxiety. Examples include:
- A dog refuses to crate because they’ve always been forced into the crate, and they think it is a punishment
- A dog hates baths because it has always been something they’ve been forced into since puppyhood, flooding their senses.
- A dog will not come when called because they were once punished when they did come back to the owner.
Regardless of the scenario, stubborn behavior is often really avoidant behavior in dogs. In other words, the dog is not stubborn as much as they are trying to avoid something they have a negative association with.
They are not properly trained
Another common reason for stubbornness is just that a dog has not been properly trained. A typical example is a dog that learned to sit, in the kitchen, for a treat. Dogs are not good at generalizing commands, so they really don’t know that a command in one situation means the same thing in different situations. So they will completely ignore you when you ask them to sit at the dog park, and you forget your treats.
Not teaching a command in every possible situation is one reason that dogs don’t follow commands and seem stubborn.
Another example of a gap in training is when the owner accidentally makes the command word optional or completely desensitizes a dog to it. An example is letting a dog off leash and calling them back repeatedly before a dog has learned a proper recall. Hearing their owner repeatedly calling them while they do as they please means that the recall command loses all power over the dog. Now it’s just white noise.
These are just some examples of how, even if a pet parent has tried to train their dogs, training is often incomplete and can lead to dogs ignoring their owners. People may label insufficient or ineffective training as stubbornness in a dog.
Here we begin to get to the heart of the issue. Only some dogs are motivated to do something to just please their owner. Shiba Inus notoriously couldn’t care less about praise from their owner. Other dogs don’t have a food drive, or a will to work for food. No matter how tasty the treat is in front of them, they will ignore it completely if they have something better to do.
Some dogs, like the Malinois or Border Collie, have a high prey drive or ball drive (they love to chase something), and you can use this as a reward to train them. But if you toss a ball for the average Bullmastiff, they may barely glance at it.
Some dogs really want to please you, but physically they can’t. You will see this in the English or Neapolitan Mastiff, who genuinely thrive on praise, but their giant bodies make it too hard to do as much as they’d like to for you.
Every breed, and every individual dog, has a different motivation or “drive.” You may find your dog stubborn and disinterested if you try to train a dog with a low food drive with treats. But if you pick a ball with the same dog, you may find they’re suddenly willing to do your taxes. Understanding your dog and finding their motivation is key to overcoming any stubbornness.
They have a medical problem
Finally, dogs can be seen as stubborn if they have an underlying medical issue. Dogs with arthritis or hip dysplasia may be slow to move or respond to commands due to pain. Many dogs are deaf or have developed hearing loss and may not respond to commands. This is a common reason people may think a dog is stupid or stubborn if they don’t realize the dog can’t hear them.
Other disorders, like doggy dementia in older dogs or even hypothyroidism, can lead to behavior changes, making dogs suddenly seem stubborn or unmanageable.
Behavior issues like aggression, reactivity, or anxiety are more common reasons people may see a dog as stubborn. But in these cases, dogs are simply experiencing high arousal (intense feelings of fear or aggression). Dogs in a high state of arousal cannot learn or obey commands. Imagine trying to perform neurosurgery while having a panic attack.
Are some dogs untrainable?
There is no untrainable dog, but many dogs may be outside the ability of the average dog owner or even the average dog trainer to train. In rare cases, individual dogs may have such severe behavior issues that only the most experienced and competent trainers can successfully work with them. Breed plays a role in how trainable a dog is, but we will discuss dog breeds that are difficult to train below.
But before we consider the idea that a dog is untrainable, we need to understand what causes a conflict between owners and so-called “stubborn” or “untrainable” dogs. To illustrate, we will refer to Awesome Dog Handler Dude on TikTok.
Most issues start with a misunderstanding. Let’s say your dog is stubborn about going on walks and refuses to move when you put the harness on. Your dog may believe the harness is something bad and feel restricted. This is a misunderstanding.
We may then try to tell the dog it’s fine by forcing them to walk, pulling, yanking, or pleading. Suppose we can’t effectively communicate to the dog that the harness is a good thing. In that case, we have miscommunicated with our dog. When there is both misunderstanding and miscommunication over an issue with our dog, now we have a conflict.
Enough conflict between a dog and their owner may make a dog seem untrainable. Still, the reality is, so long as your dog has a healthy body and a functioning brain, they’re trainable. Some are just harder than others. If we resolve the problem of misunderstanding and miscommunication, we solve the conflict. So every dog is trainable.
So how do we train a stubborn dog?
How to train a stubborn dog
1. Check your dog for medical issues
If your dog has pain or some other underlying problem, you must identify the issue before continuing. Take your dog for a full medical check-up to see if anything is causing them pain or discomfort or affecting their brain and behavior.
2. Identify the triggers and situations in which the dog is stubborn
Stubborn is a very broad term. Most dogs are stubborn in one area but extremely biddable in others. Take the case of the dog who refuses to come when called at the dog park. More than likely, at home, without distraction, the same dog is happy to come to you for dinner. So, stubbornness is situational.
So in what area specifically is your dog stubborn? Do they refuse to come when they are called? Do they ignore you when they’re in the dog park? Do they keep barking even after you tell them to stop? Identifying exactly where you are having a miscommunication or conflict with your dog is the first step to resolving stubbornness.
3. Understand & controlling what motivates your dog
Since we can’t verbally explain to our dogs that running into the road is dangerous, we must understand how to motivate them to listen to commands like “wait” or “stay”. Identify if your dog is driven by food, toys, or praise, and then become the sole vessel for that resource.
This means that you no longer feed your dog in a bowl. Instead, you carry your dog’s food with you (or their ball or anything else that motivates them). Feed your dog only for good behavior.
This is called hand feeding. Similarly, if your dog loves to play fetch or tug, you now carry those items with you at all times and use them to reward your desired behavior.
Don’t leave food or toys lying around because the motivating factor does not come from you. This gives your dog less reason to focus on you or listen to you.
4. Teach your dog to engage with you
Engagement is key. If you take your dog to a park, ideally, you want them to look at you at all times rather than be distracted by other people, strange scents, or animals. This means learning to become the most exciting thing in the world to your dog no matter where you are.
Remember that you want your dog to develop so much engagement with you that you are always more important than anything else. So building engagement means starting in a quiet area and gradually adding distractions to teach your dog to focus on you and to look to you for guidance on how to behave.
5. Go back to the basics and generalize your commands
If your dog does not come when called, stop giving them the option to fail. Go back to teaching the recall at home with no distractions. Use a new command word that they haven’t learned to ignore. Make the activity of coming when called as exciting and as rewarding as possible.
This means that whenever your dog comes to you, you must act like they just cured cancer. Never give a lukewarm, distracted pat while staring at your phone. Be present with your dog and meet them with enthusiasm. And remember no more free feeding. So carry their dinner in a treat bag so that they earn it by coming when called. The same goes for toys.
Do not take your dog anywhere off leash while retraining the recall. One mishap where they fail to return can set you back to square one. Once your dog’s recall has become solid at home, start going to different places and adding new distractions so that they learn that recall is mandatory in every situation. Start in quiet areas and gradually build up to places with more distractions.
Training stubborn dogs is really about identifying the cause of stubbornness. Once you know why your dog is stubborn, it’s important to identify what motivates your dog, build engagement with it, and go back to basics to fix the gaps in their training.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.
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