The dreaded “S” word

By Rebecca Mason CPDT-KA, CTDI, M.Ed.

“My dog is so stubborn.” I hear this more than anything else when I ask students about their training goals. But “stubborn” assumes that the dog is doing something just to spite their human—a common misconception. Dogs always have reasons for doing what they do, and it usually has nothing to do with being “stubborn” or “hard-headed.”

Your dog may not respond because he is distracted by something in his environment, or because he wasn’t looking at you when you gave him the cue; he may be tired or not feeling well, or may not be sure of what you want. Often, we assume dogs know the meaning of “come” or “stay” without having systematically taught them these cues. A ten-week-old pup who happily runs up to his owner when he or she says, “Hey puppy!” can easily turn into an eight-month-old who doesn’t respond any longer. Now that the dog has discovered the great big world, coming to someone’s beck and call isn’t as likely. The owner assumes the dog knows “come,” but the dog never fully understood the meaning, and he was never taught to come despite being distracted. Then the dog gets labeled with the dreaded “s” word, but this is a disservice to the dog.

Training a skill is like a staircase.The bottom step is teaching the dog what the cue means, like “come” or “stay,” with no distractions. Then you add distractions gradually, slowly moving up the staircase toward long-term reliability. However, if you add distractions, don’t add distance at the same time or the staircase will crumble. Distance and distractions should be worked on separately before being combined. This is why a dog who can come indoors doesn’t come away from the fence when he’s barking at a dog across the way. Pet owners try to hop from the bottom step of the staircase to the top too quickly. Always set your dog up for success, and remember this starts with reasonable expectations and systematic training, step by step.


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