"He's Just Testing" - Is Your Dog Really Being Stubborn? | The Collared Scholar


June 5, 2016Meagan Karnes2 CommentsGeneral Training

He walked with the dog at his side. Together, they were calm, cool, and confident. He was tall. All of 16 years old. But his quiet confidence seemed to radiate down his leash, pouring into his dog with every step he took. The dog, a border collie mix at best guess, sauntered along side of him. Tail low and neutral, ears relaxed, mouth open and panting. 

The morning was cold, and the marine layer was thick. If you didn’t know better, you’d suspect by the grey in the air that rain was approaching. But it was just a little San Diego “June Gloom”, and having grown up on the beaches of Southern California, I was quite familiar with it. Today, we’d be socked in. Today, the sun would not break free of the mist.

At the corner, the boy stopped. The dog sat, and he turned my way, asking me to grade his performance with his gaze, not saying anything, but communicating his question nonetheless. 

“That was awesome!” I coached, and I meant it. And as I spoke, the slightest smile slid across the teenager’s face. The dog’s tail wagged hard in time with his owner’s grin, as if that invisible tether between them was corroborating their emotions and responses. Seeing the two of them together was refreshing and delightful. 

I shifted my glance momentarily to the teenager’s mother, who was brimming with pride at her boy and his perfectly behaved dog as they moved through the training session together. 

Now, it was her turn. 

She grasped the leash tightly in her hand. Her left arm lay loose at her side, and her right hand, the one that held the leash tight, was raised up, almost at neck level, as she prepared for the inevitable correction. She was determined to make this perfect. 

The dog gazed up at her, and as he did, she straightened up as if she were in the military, and I, her drill instructor. With a strong tone, she commanded the dog to heel, and with rigid steps, the two were off.

Initially, the heel didn’t look so bad. The dog walked quietly at the woman’s side as she marched along, left arm swinging loosely and right maintaining its position, remaining tense and rigid as they moved. 

I was surprised the dog didn’t falter. Didn’t seem to miss a beat. The body language was so drastically different between the two handlers that I fully expected the dog to stumble a bit as the woman took the reigns. 

“Good boy,” I thought to myself as the two trudged along. 

The leash was wrapped around her wrist, fingers clenched tight around the red nylon so that its impression would remain imprinted on her skin, even after she let the leash go.

After several steps, she slowed to a stop, asking the dog to sit as she did. With her command, he shrunk and, ever so slowly, moved to take the position. As the dog hesitated, she gave a quick correction, thinking he wasn’t going to comply with her wishes. The dog immediately took the position and gazed up at her, head lowered slightly as he shifted his eyes to meet hers. 

“Goooood,” she coached. And in an instant, the two were off again. 

They marched along, and after a few paces, they stopped again. She asked the dog to sit once more. He gazed up at her questioningly to which she responded by doling out another sharp correction. The dog sat instantly. 

Frustrated, her gaze shifted to me. 

“He’s testing me,” she said, her words were filled with exasperation. 

“No,” was my quiet response. “He’s confused.”

“Why would he be confused? I asked him to sit….he knows what that means. And I’m consistent with my reinforcement, aren’t I?” she pleaded. 

“He’s confused by the corrections. How about we try to focus on the good instead of the bad?”

She was perplexed at my suggestion. She froze momentarily as she processed my words, and at a complete loss, shifted her eyes to mine, directing her frustration straight at me. 

“How ‘bout we try celebrating the successes?” I asked, causing even more confusion in the woman, whose shoulders slumped at my coaching. “Let’s do this…. How about we reward him for a couple of awesome sits….throw a party even. He was struggling and the corrections were shutting him down. He doesn’t need those corrections right now. Let’s get positive.”

She practiced three sits in a row. The first one, the dog slowly complied, gazing at his owner and expecting the correction to strike at any time as he did. 

“Throw him a party!” I shouted from across the street. 

She complied, and the two had a small and quiet celebration. If this was her idea of a party, I’d think she needed to get out more. 

Round 2, the sit was faster. He complied with her wishes just as she asked, and in that moment she beamed with pride. 

Round 3 was even faster. He sat nearly before she could give the command, waiting for his reward and earning his celebration through his compliance. 

Not only was the dog sitting repeatedly, but, believe it or not, the two were actually having fun. The woman’s body began to relax as she played, and her military march turned into a fun and inviting walk where the two simply enjoyed one another.

Next time you think your dog is “testing….”

I hear it all the time…..when dogs fail to comply with their owners’ wishes, dog owners are quick to blame their dog, telling people, “He’s just testing,” or “He’s trying to be alpha.”

I can tell you with certainty, this isn’t the case. Lack of compliance typically either signals a lack of understanding or that competing motivators are winning your dog’s attention. It’s a training issue – an issue of comprehension. And for that reason, it isn’t fair to blame your dog.

Just because he listens to someone else…

One of the most challenging ideas to wrap our heads around is the fact that dogs can listen beautifully to some handlers while completely blowing off others. In this case, the dog listened to the son. The two had a clear, calm, and uncomplicated relationship, and the dog understood his actions and commands well.

When it came time for the boy’s mom to handle the leash, the dog became confused. Her actions, tone, and reinforcement were different, and as a result, his comprehension began to slip. When corrections were applied to a confused dog, that dog became frustrated – not understanding the corrections he was receiving, causing him to shut down and freeze in place, not wanting to make a move because he was unsure about what would result in a correction. 

We all move differently. We all speak with different inflections. We carry ourselves differently and we all have different reinforcement histories with our dogs. Because they don’t speak English, and because they rely on body language heavily for communication, it’s no wonder we often find them responding better to some handlers than others.

Dogs are incredible creatures. They pick up on nuances in our voice and body language that we may not even be aware of. They track reinforcement history like nobody’s business, and they use that information to shape their own behavior and frame their perceptions.

Just because your dog listens to commands one person gives doesn’t mean he will listen to everyone. And that doesn’t mean he’s testing. More often than not, that lack of compliance tells us that we are behaving differently, using subtle cues with our body language or changing up the way we reinforce ever so slightly, which results in a lack of comprehension and a bit of confusion in our pup. 

So instead of getting frustrated when your dog “fails to listen”, take a look at your own behavior and ask yourself if your pup could be confused. And be understanding. If you are creating confusion, it isn’t fair to correct your pup repeatedly. If, with each correction, your pup seems “more stubborn” than before, he’s likely getting confused, and your corrections are stressing him out.

Here are some guidelines the next time your dog is being stubborn

  1. Check out your reinforcement – Have you been consistent and clear? Have you spent time working with your dog to motivate him to comply, and have you done so in this particular context? Changes in context and environment can have a huge impact on your dog’s comprehension, so if you haven’t taken time to work in a similar setting, it’s time to take things back to basics.
  2. If you are correcting, are your actions having the desired result? If you choose to correct your dog, ask yourself this question….. “Is it working?” This is important. Now I’m not talking about in-the-moment results, I’m talking about his pattern of response later down the road. If you correct and your dog immediately sits, that’s great….but what happens next time you ask? Does he instantly comply, or does he become even more “stubborn”? If he seems more contrary on each repetition, it’s likely that your corrections are ineffective, confusing and doing more harm than good. If you find this to be the case, remove the punishment and go back to motivating your dog – re-establish the command through positive reinforcement, and spend some time there for a bit to clear up any confusion and to undo any stress you may have inadvertently introduced. 
  3. Motivate your dog – You’re going to get more flies with honey, that’s no surprise. But here’s the thing, although it is absolutely possible to cause damage through use of motivational training, just like you can cause damage through use of aversives, giving your dog a few extra treats is far safer than opting to over punish non compliance. If your dog is getting obstinate, I’ll challenge you to take away the punishment entirely, and shift into reinforcing your behaviors positively. When my dog fails to take a position, at times, I’ll revert so far back as to lure him into it, motivating him to want to take the position as opposed to punishing him for not taking it. I’m not permissive. I just know I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes in my body language and reinforcement – so for that, more often than not, I give my dog the benefit of the doubt.

The dog in the story was inadvertently corrected for sitting. Because he was slow to sit, as he was taking the position, his owner applied a correction. The dog was already hesitant with the change in body language and tone his owner took with him, following the calm, cool demeanor he received from the woman’s son just minutes before. He struggled to reconcile the two, and then, he was corrected for taking a behavior that was asked of him. After the initial correction, he became even more hesitant to sit, not understanding why had been corrected the first time. With repetitions of the same questionable communication, the dog eventually shut down, the owner deeming him “obstinate” while the dog was simply confused.

At the end of the day, rarely would I say that dogs “test us”. They may test our patience, but I promise, that isn’t their intention. Using such anthropomorphic terms to suggest that our dogs are plotting against us oftentimes gets us into trouble when it comes to how we approach our training sessions. Rather than our dog intentionally scheming to provoke frustration, it’s a bit more likely that our communication is simply off. 

So next time you think your dog is being stubborn, take a look at your own actions. They just might be to blame. And work harder to motivate your dog to comply with your wishes. Throw some parties! Encourage your dog, and celebrate his successes. Not only will comprehension skyrocket, but you just might find yourself having a bit of fun as you do!

Chelsey Montgomery