How to train a stubborn dog

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Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your dog doesn’t do what you ask? Most dog owners have. Lots of people ask me to help them train their ‘stubborn’ dog, but we need to consider what’s really going on here. Because there are often other factors at play. 

In this post we’re going to explore several things that can affect your dog’s ability to perform behaviours. And as you’ll soon find out, we can’t always pin it down to a simple case of stubbornness.

What is a stubborn dog?

Dogs often get labeled as stubborn when they do not perform known behaviours when asked. The word 'known' is a tricky one there. Because our understanding of when we think a dog has learnt a behaviour, and the point in which they truly have learnt it is often misaligned.

Why does this cause training trouble?

If we believe that our dogs should be capable of a task, we expect them to do it. So when they don't succeed, we can become frustrated and even annoyed at our dogs. 

Dogs are excellent at reading our emotions. If you bring negative energy into training, they feel it. And they'll be even less likely to do well.

This also stops training being fun for you and your dog. When this happens, nobody wins, and it can start to have a negative effect on your relationship. 

So let’s take a look at some of the reasons your dog may be struggling.

Does your dog truly know what to do

Dogs are not good at generalising. When they learn a new behaviour they will only understand it in the context they have been taught. 

For example, I often see dogs who believe that when asked to sit it means they must move in front of their owner, face them and then sit.

The most natural way to first introduce the sit behaviour is with your dog in front of you. So dogs often assume that is part of what is required, when we actually want the dog to just sit wherever they are.

Proofing a behaviour means ensuring that your dog has learnt to perform it in lots of different contexts.
This could be different physical locations, such as a variety of rooms, or inside vs. outside. Or it could be a change in position relative to you, such as teaching a sit by your side, as well as in front of you.

Only once your dog has learnt to perform a behaviour in a variety of situations, will they have success in a new scenario that they've never encountered before.

As with humans, not all dogs learn at the same pace as each other. Meaning each will take a different amount of time to proof a behaviour. Until it's proofed, your dog doesn’t truly know a behaviour.

The 3 D’s of difficulty

Difficulty level is another aspect of training that's often accidentally overlooked.

The three main areas we can add difficulty are:


Asking your dog to perform a behaviour for a longer period of time. For example, the longer you ask your dog to wait, the harder it is.


The distance away your dog is from you can also affect the difficulty. For example, they may be able to sit when right next to you, but struggle if you're a few feet away.


Adding in distractions will make it harder for your dog. This could be as simple as a change in environment with new sights and smells, or more obvious distractions such as another dog.

When training you don’t want to jump up in difficulty too quickly. And as a rule, only work on one of the D’s at a time. So if you want to build up the length of your dog’s wait, don’t try this outside when they've been training indoors up until then. Hold off until they've mastered the first.

Your dog’s bucket

If you're not familiar with this idea, imagine your dog has a bucket with a small hole in the bottom for liquid to escape. 

During the day, as your dog experiences anything exciting or scary, water gets added to their bucket. If water gets added to the bucket faster than it can drain from the bottom, the overall level rises.

As the water level gets closer to the top, your dog will start to struggle to concentrate. Which means they'll struggle to perform behaviours accurately. 

If your dog’s bucket overflows, they're completely over threshold and will have a hard time doing anything that you ask of them.

This is when we often see negative behaviours such as barking or lunging, but could also cause your dog to completely shut down depending on their personality.

Being aware of your dog's bucket level and giving them opportunities to calm down and empty their bucket is vital for consistent training success. 

If you'd like to learn more about your dog's bucket, this blog post might interest you: Your dog’s bucket and how it affects training
So next time your dog doesn’t do what you want, ask yourself are they really being stubborn or are they struggling?

Have you taken the time to ensure that the behaviour is fully proofed? 

Is the difficulty level too high?

Or is their bucket level affecting their ability to succeed?

When we are able to identify why our dogs are struggling, we can adapt training accordingly leading to more successes!

Want to learn more?

Then check out this online course: Understanding your dog's mind. In it you'll learn all about factors which affect your dog's training success and how you can set them up to succeed!
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