Is your dog stubborn or just unmotivated?

how to handle a stubborn dog, how to deal with a stubborn dog

Chad Mackin, a popular dog behaviorist, once said, “Stubborn is a good thing. If a dog is doing the wrong thing, they are stubborn. If they are doing the right thing they are ‘committed’ … just get them stubborn on the right thing.” While some breeds are genetically more independent and strong-willed, inconsistent or insufficient training is a major factor leading to stubborn behavior, as the dog doesn't fully understand what is expected of them and thereby is driven to act out of instinct.

Why are some dogs more “stubborn” than others?

Stubborn dogs are like any other dog but with Superman-strong drive and instincts. Many breeds of dogs were bred for specific purposes and have a history of a robust work ethic. Over generations, selective breeding has reinforced traits that made these dogs more effective at their jobs, whether it be hunting, herding, guarding, or retrieving.

Examples of such breeds include Terrier breeds who were bred to hunt vermin, Huskies who were bred to pull sled, Border Collies who were bred to herd and so on. The sense of smell, stamina, and focus of these breeds have been enhanced through selective breeding. Today, regardless of whether these dogs are used as working dogs or not, these highly enhanced traits are baked into their genetics.

These traits come out in the form of “stubbornness” in a variety of situations. Eg, A Jack Russel Terrier wanting to dig despite relentless training efforts is not being stubborn. He is just trying to do what comes most naturally to him.

Is your dog stubborn or just unmotivated? 5 ways to find out

  1. Find out what motivates your dog the most

One of the most common complaints of stubborn dog parents is “my dog is not treat-motivated.” This is mainly because these dogs are driven by something else in that moment. It could be an instinct or an external factor.

A dog excited by an external factor also has a strong intrinsic motivation. Eg – A Border Collie wanting to stalk a small white dog is driven by their instinct to herd. Trying to redirect such a dog with a treat would not work as well.

Instead, attempting to redirect the dog with another toy that provides an outlet to their herding instincts would yield faster results as compared to treat. 

how to deal with a stubborn dog

  1. Observe your dog’s instinctive behaviors in different situations

When attempting to train a Blood Hound to stop sniffing and come back to you on cue, you are competing with your dog’s genetics. Instinctive behaviors are something that your dog would never be able to hide. They will come out in some or the other form in various situations.

Eg – When a Blood Hound starts tracking a scent, their natural instinct is to take off and not stop till they track it down. Hence, training these dogs for recall can be challenging. Similarly, training an Akita for tricks is a challenging undertaking because they were bred to hunt, guard and herd. This powerful breed was unsurpassed in their ability to track large game including deer, elk and black bear. Their job profile never needed them to be people-pleasers.

Observing and understanding your dog’s instinctive behaviors will give you deeper insights into their behaviors and “stubbornness” and help you train them better.

  1. Is your dog getting ample outlets for their natural instincts?

Something to remember about a dog’s instinctive behaviors is that they can never be kicked out of a dog completely. However, they can be channelized better by providing desirable outlets.

A dog that doesn’t get appropriate outlets to harness their instincts will try to find their own outlets, which are usually undesirable. Eg- A Jack Russel that loves to dig may not be completely trained out of it. However, by providing a sand pit or other appropriate outlets, this behavior can be harnessed to more appropriate spots and you may be able to save your backyard in the process.

While training your stubborn dog to not perform certain instinctual behaviors, you must also figure out places and activities that allow your dog to perform these behaviors proactively. Contrary to popular belief, this does not make the behavior worse. 

  1. Take professional help

When training a stubborn dog, it is ideal to rope in a professional who can give you better insights into your dog’s behavior and help you understand their breed better. In-Person, 1:1 sessions can be expensive and have to be scheduled as per strict timelines.

This is where virtual training can help the most. Virtual training with programs like HOMESCHOOL BY LAY LO® are conducted through 1:1 video calls with a certified trainer and can take place in the comforts of your own home.

how to handle a stubborn dog


The trainer may ask to observe your dog's behavior and interaction with you to assess their current training level and temperament and create a personalized training plan tailored to your dog's needs and your goals. You can even send videos of your dog's behavior to help get professional assessments before your calls.

  1. Did you make training too hard, too soon?

Training a stubborn dog is not only a matter of expertise, but also consistency and patience. It is easy to lose patience when your dog refuses to comply for the umpteenth time. It can also be frustrating to see your dog not make any progress in the 3rd or the 4th week of training.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself if you feel like you and your dog aren’t making any progress:

  • Can my dog perform the cue in low distractions?
  • For how long has my dog been practicing this behavior and since how long have I been training him?
  • Are my rewards motivating enough?
  • Does my dog behave the same way with everyone else, or just me?
  • Have I spent enough time practicing the cue with my dog before expecting him to do it in difficult situations?

3 things to keep in mind while dealing with a stubborn dog

  1. Refrain from aversive techniques

The dog training world is divided between advocates of “positive reinforcement only” methods and “balanced methods.” Balanced methods might as well be called aversive methods because they involve use of pain and fear inducing tools such as prong collars and e-collars.

Use of these tools and methods may curb the behaviors on the surface but they are more like putting a band aid on the problem. Use of aversive techniques without addressing the root cause of your “stubborn dog’s” behavior may have disastrous results.

  1. Set your dog up for success

Setting the dog up for success essentially means managing the environment and your dog in a way that sets them up for success. Eg – if you begin your headstrong dog’s recall training in an outdoor environment where he is busy chasing a squirrel, you have already set him up for failure because there is no way he’s going to come back to you, no matter how many times you call him.

Instead, begin recall training at home where there are less distractions and the most exciting reward lies in your hand.

how to deal with a stubborn dog

  1. Work with your dog, not against them

When dealing with a “stubborn dog,” it is crucial to understand what makes them act that way and what motivates them the most. The next step is to empathize and come up with a training plan that enables them to use their strengths.

If your dog has a stubborn streak in them, harness it towards something more desirable.

In Conclusion

It is important to remember that breeds with strong instincts often have a high drive and focus, making them excellent at their specific tasks. This also means that they’d be a delight to train, provided you have the right kind of rewards to motivate them. Understanding your dog’s breed and natural instincts will help you appreciate their natural behaviors which can further enable effective training and engagement strategies.


Author Bio: Siddhika is a certified dog trainer, behaviorist, and professional pet writer. Over the course of her dog training career, she has gained 3 certifications accredited by KCAI (Kennel Club Accredited Instructors) in the field of dog training and behavior, viz - Basic obedience course, Therapy Dog Training Course and Canine Aggression Course. She has the qualifications and experience in the theoretical as well as real-life applications of science-based dog training techniques.

With the expertise to write about a plethora of dog-related topics and a personal interest in dog cognition and behavior, Siddhika is an out-and-out canine nerd.