“He knows sit!” Rolo’s mum assured me. “He does it perfectly at home, we practise every day.”
“It’s okay, Rolo,” I said. “I get performance anxiety too.”
“He’s just stubborn,” she replied with a disappointed shrug.
We were at the dog park. My dog Flower was off running with her friends, and Rolo the retriever puppy was sniffing around near his mum and I, clearly a little uncomfortable.
Going to the dog park as a professional dog trainer is a bit of a rollercoaster. Once people find out that you’re a dog trainer, you end up spending most of your time answering questions and having conversations about training and behaviour conundrums.
A lot of them feature some variation on the statement Rolo’s mum made: that their dog is stubborn, or doesn’t care, or doesn’t listen, or knows they can “get away with it”. Some people talk about how their dog doesn’t respect them, or tries to dominate them.
Throughout this process of meeting stubborn dogs and their confused, frustrated, exhausted owners, I’ve noticed some patterns. Namely, that there’s a pretty big communication breakdown going on in those relationships – and they’re falling apart as a result.
So, let’s talk about what’s really going on here. Hear me out:
You don’t have a stubborn dog
That’s not to say that your dog isn’t doing some pretty annoying things – they are! It’s incredibly frustrating to put all that effort into training, and walk away from puppy class with the valedictorian, only to have them give you the finger, get a tattoo, take up smoking, and ride off into the sunset on their motorbike a month later.
But this is a classic example of humans projecting their feelings onto their dogs. We do that a lot.
So, you don’t have a stubborn dog. Let me tell you what you do have.
You have a smart dog
“A smart dog??” I can hear you saying. “Surely if he was smart he’d know what sit means?”
Yeah, I don’t blame you for being confused. We think of “smart” as never getting anything wrong.
But having a smart dog really means that your dog notices a lot, and they work extra hard to see patterns, and try to interpret them.
However, that hyper-attentive nature sometimes undermines their efforts, because if our training isn’t clear and well-timed, smart dogs see inconsistencies. And what we think we’re saying when we say “sit” actually ends up being gobbledygook to smart dogs.
Smart dogs don’t just notice the word “sit” when we train them to put their butt on the ground. They notice how we hold our bodies, what the environment looks like, what clothes we’re wearing, how we’re breathing, our tone of voice… everything.
When we’re not clear, smart dogs see no pattern to identify. They often don’t generalise things well, and they need their manager – us – to be clear, concise, and actively helpful. These are not “set it and forget it” dogs.
How do you train a smart dog?
With consistent, small, fast steps. These dogs can pick things up really quickly if we’re clear with them, and once they’re in learning mode, they like to keep moving.
These dogs are hungry for knowledge. They’re complete nerds, and teacher’s pets (ha! See what I did there? I’m hilarious) to boot. They want to do well.
When we train smart dogs, we need to be active members of the team. Smart dogs look to their handlers and their environment all the time for clues that they’re on the right track, and they’re always tweaking things and making adjustments based on what they see happening around them. To train them, we need to be informative and helpful.
Factor in your environment and what’s going on around you. Have you only ever practised this cue in your living room with the two of you, and now you’re in the backyard trying to show off to a bunch of friends? Your smart dog will get confused by big changes like that. Being confused is, like, the most frustrating thing EVER to a nerd like them.
So when your smart dog looks at you like they have no idea what you’re asking, tell them! Show them, help them. Split your training tasks up into their smallest components and train those. Not because your dog can’t understand big ideas, but because they’re smart enough to not make assumptions.
You have a skilled worker
You know how we talk about super-talented people as being “born for it”, like it’s their destiny? Well, this might be a bit of a romantic idea for people, but dogs literally were born for it.
Most dog breeds were designed for specific jobs, and your dog is gunning for employee of the month, every month.
Does your beagle constantly blow you off to stick his nose to the ground and run off? Does your husky not give a crap about recall when you’re out in the world? Maybe your border collie is a perfect angel until they see another dog running – or cars, or bicycles – and then it’s like you don’t even exist as they tear off chasing things, or bark and lunge on leash like a maniac?
Congrats, you have, like, the special shiny pro edition of a dog.
Your dog isn’t just a dog: they’re a tool. (amirite?! I’m a comedic genius, I should take this show on the road)
They’re a well-oiled, efficient piece of hardware that’s worth their weight in gold, in their world. This is what their parents did, and their grandparents, and their grandparents’ parents. This is their legacy, and you and your little bag of liver treats can’t compete with an actual legend, right?
It’s like this is a fantasy novel, and they’re the heroes discovering their magical gift, and railing against the evil forces (that’s us) trying to make them be someone they’re not.
At least we get a role in the book, I guess.
How do you train a skilled worker?
It seems like us trainers are always asking you to wave slimy bits of chicken in your dog’s face, right?
Well, good news! Your skilled worker comes pre-programmed with a very effective inbuilt reward system, free of charge.
Training a skilled worker is a balancing act. Just like any other manager of skilled employees, your job is to support your dog to do what they love to do, and to do it well – and also to teach them that they have to master the basics to be good at their job.
Behavioural enrichment is integral to keeping your skilled worker happy and at the top of their game. Which is the only acceptable place for them to be, in their opinion. This allows them to practise their skill in a way that works for both of you, and doesn’t damage your relationship.
Want to stop with the slimy chicken pieces? Activate that reward system!
Give your dog’s skill some structure, and use the distraction as the reward:
If your dog loves to hunt, and desperately wants to chase squirrels, getting him to do even the easiest task possible – like eye contact, or a hand touch – and then letting him chase the squirrels, will help you leverage his special gift and all that sweet, sweet dopamine it gives him. Suddenly, the game becomes “do what my human says and then I get to hunt squirrels” instead of “pull my human desperately because she’s going to drag me away soon and then I’ll never get the squirrels!”
Signs that your smart, skilled worker is malfunctioning
Does any of this sound familiar? Your dog is…
- Sniffing the ground
- Looking around
- Being hyper
- Ignoring you
- Pulling at the leash or running off
These behaviours are all normal in the right context.
But if they happen every time you take Shiloh to the park to do some training, they’re indicators she might be confused and conflicted.
She doesn’t understand what’s being asked of her. We’ve leveled up too fast, and the amount of distraction she has to deal with is too much. She wants the treats. She wants to be good. But she’s torn.
Either she doesn’t recognise what we’re asking of her because the learning environment is too different, or she’s being pulled by the mysterious voices of her ancestors telling her to go do what she was born to do. Maybe even both.
If you see these symptoms, your especially-designed little machine is starting to have a meltdown. It’s probably time to give them the afternoon off.
Take a step back, and ask yourself what about the task was too difficult for your dog. Come back together tomorrow, and give your pup a pep talk:
“Listen, Sparky, I know yesterday felt a little tense. But today, we’re going to try again, because I’ve thought about it, and I think I know how to help you. Let’s grab some treats, and give this another shot together, okay?”
Raising a good dog can be hard, and sometimes it can feel impossible.
But that’s all human junk.
That’s society. That’s expectations and deadlines. That’s shame, and guilt, and fear.
And what dog training really is, is magic.
This is you, and your dog, building something incredible. You’re two creatures who – all things considered – shouldn’t even have a relationship. And yet here you are, learning to trust each other and work together.
Good training is all curiosity, and “let’s give it a try! Whaddya say, Fido?”
And if it doesn’t work? If Fido doesn’t get it, or gives in to his natural instincts and forgets about you for a minute?
Well, then there’s always the next minute. And the minute after that. And all the minutes you’ll wish you had back when that plucky little guy is an old friend, and you’re facing his golden years together.
So drink it in, see your friend for who they are, and help them live out their legend.