“He knows what I want but he just refuses to do it!”
Okay, well, what exactly is going on?
“When we are out for a walk and he does his business, I ask him to sit and he just completely refuses. All I want is for him to sit while I pick up but he is just so stubborn he refuses to do it!”
If I asked you to sit your naked tush in the snow, would you do it?
“Huh…… I never thought of it like that.”
Sometimes we as handlers need to stop and think about what we are asking our dogs. There is often a very rational reason for a dog to not comply with our cues and it has nothing to do with stubbornness. It could be that it’s a matter of generalizations not being done well–the cue is not really known in all situations. Many times, I discover through questioning, that the behavior has not been rewarded and reinforced very heavily to build up reliable behavior. It could also be that there are factors making the dog uncomfortable. Either way, the dog is not necessarily deliberately “sticking it to the man” when he refuses a cue.
One of the biggest reasons for a dog’s noncompliance is simply the behavior has not been generalized. The dog often knows the behavior in all the rooms of the house, the back yard, the training facility, maybe the pet store and maybe the dog park…but ask the dog to sit at the beach, a friend’s house, a new store, etc and the dog struggles. This is an easy fix, bust out the cheese (or other reward) and work with a high reward ratio in the new environment to solidify the behavior. The more you generalize behaviors the easier it will become for the dog to more naturally generalize. I very specifically taught Rio to sit/down/come in probably 20 different environments… new behaviors I teach him don’t require that type of work for them to be reliable–generalizing has become easier for him and he’s better at it since I did so much work with it in the beginning.
Another common problem is that the behavior does not have a strong enough reward history to be able to survive long droughts without rewards. I don’t frequent casinos but I do go to arcades to play games occasionally–in fact just this past weekend I went to Dave and Busters to eat and play. It had been about 4 months since the last time I was there but the last time I won a “jackpot” on a video slot-machine-like game. I only played it once and won 200 points. During my game play this past weekend, I went back to that game (since it had been really reinforcing) but this time I played it 3 times with small winnings (smaller than the average winnings for another game I like) and walked away. Although I had gotten the jackpot once, I did not have a long enough history of reinforcement to keep the behavior strong (playing the game) through long droughts of time with little to no reinforcement. On the other hand, they have a game that I have played since I was a kid. Now this is a game that frequently doesn’t pay out big, but I’ve had enough jack-pots through my youth that I always play the game a few times–this game has a long history of reinforcement that sustains the behavior (me playing) even though it’s been years since I got a jackpot.
So, what the heck does that have to do with dog training? Well, it’s important to have a long and strong history of reinforcement before you ask for a behavior without food. Just because your dog can “sit” a few times with out food doesn’t mean it’s good to stop giving food all together. Using a variable, ratio-based method, with random jackpots to wean off rewards slowly builds up a strong reward history that eventually enables long periods of time between rewards before the behavior degrades (sloppy “sits,” slow “sits,” or failure to sit).
Lastly, though certainly not least, is that if a dog has had plenty of opportunities to generalize a behavior, has a very strong history of reinforcement for the behavior but still is not complying there is a good chance there is an environmental or physical factor to the non-compliance. This connects to the snow example given earlier… the dog was not being stubborn, he simply didn’t want to sit in the snow. The solution to the problem was maneuvering so he could sit on the sidewalk if there was no snow OR building a stand-stay behavior for when there was snow everywhere. My biggest suggestion for people who are having very specific problems with non-compliance is to look around. What in that situation may be causing their dog stress or discomfort? Dogs will often shut down if they don’t feel comfortable in a space–maybe a scary noise, strange shadows, odd floor texture, strange dog, kids screaming, or any number of things can make a dog feel insecure enough to shut down. Another thing to consider is physical pain/discomfort–is the pavement hot, the floor slippery, snow too cold, salt on the ground, could the cold weather cause joint discomfort, or overexertion cause muscle soreness? Any number of these things could cause a dog enough physical pain/discomfort to refuse a behavior.
I like to take Shayne to outdoor cafes with me frequently–she’s trained to just lay down next to me, under my chair, or under the table and she’s great people rarely notice her! Well, I worked on that behavior in my house with and outside at the park Rio and it was going quite nicely so I took him out instead of Shayne. I could not, for the life of me, get him to stay in a down position. He does downs all the time outside so it wasn’t a generalization issue. I was really getting frustrated and then I stopped, took a breath, and thought about it…. then it hit me. Rio is a very skinny boy, he has very little fat, is very bony, and no plush fur–asking him to lay down on the hard concrete for an extended amount of time was probably painful. Next time out I brought him a small soft mat and the problem was solved.
Most dogs aren’t out there to “stick it to the man” through willful disobedience. Chances are one (or more) of these things is causing the compliance problems. So, before jumping to conclusions that your dog is being a stubborn jerk-face, think about these things… you may be shocked to discover that there is a legitimate and rational reason behind their behavior.