“She’s stubborn. She doesn’t obey my commands.”
When I hear someone talking about their dog like this, I know just what to expect when I visit them.
There will be a lot of shouting, in an increasingly stern and abrupt voice. There will be finger-wagging, the owner will bend over the dog and stare at him. And the dog will either fly around getting more and more excited (read “stressed”) or shut down completely and opt out. The owner will think his dog is complying, but this is what’s known as Learned Helplessness - “I can’t do anything about this so I’ll give up”. There will be much frustration all round.
This has come about not because the owner is nasty or domineering, but because of how they think they need to act with their dog.
Old sins have long shadows!
They seem to have got the idea that you have to be firm, authoritarian, dominant - whatever you like to call it - with a dog. While they accept that this is not going to work with people, they blindly accept that this is what you do with dogs. It’s true that dogs - all animals - had a hard time in the past, and still do in many cultures. They were regarded as second-class beings - some people even believe they don’t feel pain as we do.
These people should open their eyes and look around them! Have they not seen Guide Dogs leading their blind owners safely past street hazards? Assistance Dogs opening washing machines and putting the clothes into a basket? Have they not seen a dog telling his deaf owner that there’s someone at the door? (Yes, mine tell me that there’s someone at the door, but because they’re anxious about the invasion, not because they’ve been trained to quietly indicate to me!)
Then what about the astonishing displays of Dancing with Dogs, where the dog learns an extended routine of actions to perform in harmony with its owner? Here’s a superb example.
If you see the enthusiasm and joy expressed in that video (do watch it, it's not long and you'll be enchanted), and in the dogs who excel at Agility and Flyball, you’ll realise that this can’t come from being nagged or punished. It’s pure enjoyment, harnessed.
Even the police - who used to claim they had to be hard on their dogs to be confident that they’d protect them - are now finding that working with the dog rather than against him is infinitely more successful and rewarding for both dog and officer.
We don’t treat children, spouses, or employees like this any more, so why do it to our dogs?
Lazy habits and popular tv
There has been so much change in the way we live over the last century. But it seems that animal care and education lag behind the general trend - by a good number of years.
Doing things a certain way, unquestioningly, because that’s how our parents did it, is not going to move us forward. That thinking would have kept us in caves! We have to take the learning available to us and implement it in our lives. So we must question what we are told to do. This is one of the valuable aspects of the teenage years - question, reject, question, reject. Of course you have to replace what you’ve rejected with something better!
And this would mean being picky about what you watch on television. Just because it’s printed in the paper or broadcast on the screen does not mean it’s right! There are plenty of people making good money from programmes indicating that a sharp, quick, fix is what’s needed to solve all dog behaviour problems. If you still think that beating a child for a minor transgression is ok, then you probably believe this twaddle.
But most of the people I work with are good, kind, people, who wouldn’t dream of abusing their children. Yet somehow they have allowed this dissonant belief - that animals are different and need to be abused to be acceptable - to take root in their heads.
I recently saw video of one of those tv personality, non-qualified, self-styled “dog trainers” giving a course on teamwork in the workplace. He used his unpleasant practices on their dogs - leaning over them and shouting, sneering, jabbing them, yanking their lead - to demonstrate. I was appalled that the owners were accepting all this! Suppose they were to go back to their office and shout at their staff, belittle them, jab them in the ribs, pull and push them around?! I feel sure this is not something they would countenance - and if they did they’d soon be advertising for more staff! - yet they swallowed all this because this guy had given himself a funny title and been on television.
People seem to lose their critical faculties when dealing with their dogs!
Dogs are not “stubborn”
Dogs are simple souls who try to please. They have fears and anxieties just as we do. They do what works.
Your puppy who sits down on the pavement and refuses to move is not being stubborn.
She’s just afraid.
If you’re not sure whether you’re heading into a swamp or a quicksand, sitting still and pondering is a good survival tactic. And if you’ve only been on the planet a few weeks, sitting still and waiting for Mum to guide you is also a good move.
So if you find yourself describing your little puppy as “stubborn”, “obstinate”, “wilful”, and the rest, try substituting the words “fearful”, “anxious”, “eight weeks old” into what you just said and see if that fits better. You’ll surely treat the situation differently once you look at it differently.
Working with someone is so much more pleasant - and effective - than imposing your will on them. Giving the dog a choice (heavily loading the odds in your favour!) will get the result you want without all the expenditure of effort involved in shouting, repeating yourself, and trying to sound masterful.
Dogs do not arrive with us with a perfect grasp of English, or any understanding of our wavy arm gestures. Before you can expect her to respond to what you’re saying, you need to teach your dog what it is you want. Then you can concentrate on the good things your dog does, and ignore the rest.
What you focus on is what you get.
If you tell a child he’s a cheat and a liar, that’s what he’ll be.
Turn your focus to what you do want, rather than what you don’t want.
Catch your dog doing something you do like - and be very excited about it! Once I’d understood this, life with my dogs became a breeze. Most things I don’t appreciate are ignored - no point in stressing about something that is over.
So if shouting “commands” at your dog is not working, try treating your dog as you would a shy two-year-old, and quietly ask her for what you want. You may be astonished at the response you get!
P.S. You’ll have worked it out by now: those three words are “stubborn”, “obey”, and “command”. Banish them from your vocabulary!