How To Tell If Your Dog Just Doesn’t Understand Your Command Or If He’s Being Stubborn


Dear Adam:

I’ve been reading your book and I have a two fold question.

1) What things do you look for in a dog’s noncompliance to a command that would tell you whether he does not understand what you are trying to tell him or he simply does not want to do it?

[ADAM REPLIES:] It really depends on the dog. I usually do enough repetitions to the point where I’m pretty sure that the animal should understand it. Then, I’ll test by not actually helping him… just give the command and a light pop. If you see that it “clicks” for the dog, and he does the command, then repeat a few more times, just so you know it wasn’t a fluke. If he does it three times in a row, then you can be pretty sure that he understands the exercise (at least in that environment)… and you’ll know that non-compliance is the dogs way of thumbing (or pawing) his nose at you.

[RICHARD:}For instance, I will tell the dog not to chew on the blanket with a “No bite”. He will then stop for a moment or two, I will wait for about 30-45 seconds then praise him, but then he will start again. I will then snap the leash, which has the pinch collar, and again tell him no bite. Again he stops and then starts immediately again. I then correct him by snapping the leash harder and saying no bite more firmly and then he will get frustrated and snap at me, not in an effort to bite me but it seems more out of frustration9he will mouth me at times but never press down. He is a 5 month old golden retriever and generally is very sweet so I feel like I am not always communicating well enough to him. But I also know that he understands “no bite” and I am certainly expressing it with a strong tone of voice and body language. I’m not particularly interested in you helping me with this particular example but this type of thing happens frequently, though generally he is obedient. I’m more interested in the abstract concept of assessing a situation and knowing how to remedy it.

[ADAM:] This example you’ve given is different than teaching an exercise, like I mention above. The example you’ve given falls under the category of “avoidance” training. You should not give the dog a warning without a correction for a behavior that he should never do. Also, in this situation it’s very clear that you’re not communicating to him. It’s not that he doesn’t understand, but rather that again, he’s thumbing his nose at you. He doesn’t care what you say. Since you’ve been working with the dog, you know from experience where his sensitivity level is. So, the first time he chews, you need to say “No!” and then give a correction. The correction should be as strong as the third correction you were building up to before. If the dog snaps back at you, this is his way of saying, “Bug off… I’m the alpha dog, and I’M the one who gives the correction.” You’re playing the broom stick game. At this point, you need to give a much firmer correction and should see the dog display submissive body language as a way of submitting and showing you that you’re the top dog. If you watch two dogs scuffle over a new toy you’ll see the same behavior. Once you set him straight, you won’t need to correct him so hard the next time.

[RICHARD:] 1a) Given the former question, how do I know when I am over correcting him and should either redirect him to a different exercise, let him play, or just leave him alone?

[ADAM:] With a 5 months old dog… you’ll know. It will be abundantly obvious. Also, when doing avoidance training, overcorrecting (while not necessary) is not as much of a concern as when doing obedience exercises. Why? Because you don’t care so much if the dog has a good attitude or a bad attitude towards not chewing on your couch. You just don’t want him to do it any more. If the correction is motivational, or if it’s overly motivational, in either case he’ll drop the behavior. It’s only if the correction is less than motivational that the dog will continue to do the behavior, or if you’re missing one of the other two keys to behavior modification that I talk about in the book. Timing and consistency.

[RICHARD:] To expand…I know what I want to the dog to do. I know the dog knows how to do it. But I run him through the drill and he won’t respond. So how many times do I correct him and give him the opportunity to “make the right choice” before I should stop working on that drill and have him do something else?

[ADAM:] That depends. You should only work the dog on a new exercise for 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes less. If you’re 100% sure that the dog knows how to do it, then you’re dealing with a dog who is actually calling the shots. You need to make him do it. If you’re truly working out dominance issues with your dog, I will not quit until I’ve made the dog do it. If you let the dog win and not complete the exercise, then the dog learns that next time, all he needs to do is hold out long enough and you’ll eventually give in. If I’m rehabilitating a stubborn dog like this… I’ll be out there for as long as it takes. Sometimes 45 minutes to an hour if need be. The issue isn’t so much doing the exercise, but rather demonstrating to the dog that I’m more stubborn than he is, and that I always win. Why?

Because I’m the Alpha dog.

[RICHARD:] Thanks for your help.

[ADAM REPLIES: ] Best regards.