Stubbornness and Dogs

We often hear dogs described as "stubborn." These are generally dogs of breeds that tend toward independence or dogs of any breed which will refuse...


We often hear dogs described as “stubborn.” These are generally dogs of breeds that tend toward independence or dogs of any breed which will refuse to comply with “commands.” As the owner of a Chow mix, I know these stereotypes all too well. This weekend I met a beautiful Beagle that was a conformation, obedience, and agility champion. Beagles specifically but hounds in general are very frequently lumped into the “stubborn breeds” category.

I don’t believe that dogs are stubborn. In most cases of dogs I’ve worked with where clients describe their dogs as stubborn, more often than not the real cause for stubbornness is a poisoned cue. In these instances, the dog has learned that sometimes, the signal which elicits behavior is a predictor of reinforcement but other times, it is a predictor of punishment.

Other times, stubbornness may be a reflection of “learned irrelevance.” This happens when the owner frequently repeats cues when the dog is not offering the behavior in response. Name response is one of the most frequent behaviors to fall into the learned irrelevance trap – “Fluffy! Fluffy! Fluffy! Fluffy! Fluffy! Fluffy!” as the dog is running away, chasing after a squirrel. This reminds me of Stewie Griffin on the Family Guy, saying to Lois, “Mom! Mommy! Mommy! Mom! Mom!” until Lois shouts at him in frustration. In the case of squirrel-chasing Fluffy, when she finally returns to the handler she is given a treat. What has Fluffy learned? a) That running away when you hear your name is highly reinforcing (If she returned the tenth time her name was called, all nine of the previous times her name was said were reinforced with a squirrel chase!) and b) you don’t have to listen to your name the first time to receive reinforcement. You can earn reinforcement for not responding at all, or responding on the tenth, twentieth, or forty-seventh time your name is said.

Is Fluffy stubborn, or just doing what works for her? She is not stubborn, she is offering behavior for which she has a strong reinforcement history.

This weekend, we were lucky enough to welcome world-renowned behaviorist Kathy Sdao to our facility for a two-day seminar called “Get SMART About Reinforcement.” This week on the dogster blog, I’ll be sharing many of the new lessons I learned from Kathy with my readers.

Kathy brought up another great point about stubbornness in dogs, that it is often a learned behavior resulting from ineffective luring. Here is an example of how this can occur:

A dog is taught to sit with a food lure. The owner fades the lure within three repetitions of the behavior (which is what I advise to any person using luring – three lures or less then the food is out of the picture or it has the tendency to become part of the cue, creating a “show me the money” dog who only wants to work when there is food in the hand). The behavior is on a hand signal which is then transferred to a verbal cue “sit.” Whenever the owner asks the dog to “sit” and the dog does not offer the behavior, she reaches in her treat bag and pulls out a piece of kibble, again luring the behavior. The dog learns that “if I wait long enough, mom will bring the food out!”

In this case, failure has been reinforced by the appearance of food.

Eventually, the owner tries this maneuver in an environment where kibble will not function as a reinforcer – the dog doesn’t want it. At the dog park, kibble’s not a very exciting “treat.” The owner asks the dog to “sit,” and the dog meanders off to sniff a Beagle’s bum. The owner goes over to her dog and asks for a “sit,” again. This time, the dog chases after a bit. The dog has already been reinforced twice for not responding to the “sit” cue, both times by environmental reinforcers that trump the value of the owner’s kibble.

She chases her dog for three and a half hours and finally catches up to him, exhausted but doggedly determined to get that “sit” behavior. She pulls out her kibble, the dog yawns. She reaches back into her bait pouch and produces a hot dog, again trying to lure the sit behavior. The dog snubs her hot dog, so she brings out the most valuable treat in her repertoire, a slice of steak leftover from last night’s dinner. Finally, Rover sits. She is elated. He has learned that if he holds out long enough, the handler will keep reaching in her treat bag to find a higher valued reinforcer. Not sitting has become an effective way for the dog to train the handler to pull out successively “better stuff.”

The next time she’s at the dog park, the owner starts out with hot dog which Fido again refuses so she automatically pulls out the steak. The dog works for a while, but then decides he doesn’t really want steak anymore and the owner is stumped – what can I use that’s higher value than steak?

You’ll find out tomorrow on the dogster B & T blog!

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