As a professional dog trainer I try not to label the dogs I work with. I observe the dog’s behavior and then try to help the owner understand why their dog may be misbehaving (or not performing as they want) in a particular situation. My clients often label their dog as “Alpha,” “Dominant,” or “Stubborn” when, in reality, they simply don’t understand their dog’s behavior.
Dominant is defined by Merriam-Webster as “commanding, controlling, or prevailing over all others.” The definition of “Alpha” is “socially dominant especially in a group of animals.” These adjectives do not explain why a dog steals food from counters, pulls when on leash, or barks when the world passes by their home. Dogs are not trying to “control” the counter tops or “prevail” over the sidewalk. They may be trying to control access to their territory but a truly “dominant” dog would control access to everyone, their owner included. These terms are incorrectly used to label a dog, a sad remnant of pack theory that started in the 1970’s. Today’s family dogs are not pack animals. They are social beings that live in the moment, trying hard to co-exist in a human world that doesn’t understand their communication method.
Stubborn is an adjective that owners use frequently. The definition, “unreasonably or perversely unyielding,” applies in the human’s mind. It is the key word “unreasonably” that we must focus on. What is unreasonable to us is often very reasonable to the dog.
When a dog fails to perform on cue we must look at what we are asking him to do, and the context in which he must perform it. Let’s look at the behavior of sitting on cue. Dogs typically learn this behavior in the home with minimal distractions, when facing the owner, and using a food lure held over the head. There are at least four important reference points for the dog, at home, facing the owner, the presence of a food lure, and the body language cue of the hand going over his head. Change any one of these contexts and to the dog it is a different behavior. Just because a dog learns to sit on cue doesn’t mean he can do so on your side, in public, or when he is stressed.
A dog is always evaluating the world around him. If a dog does not feel safe he will not perform a “stay.” The “flight” response he possesses is strong, ingrained in his DNA. If a dog is aroused he may not sit unless you have helped him learn to be calm through many training sessions with distractions. Even if a dog has a solid training foundation for recalls, and has been rewarded at a high rate of reinforcement, he still may not come if chasing squirrels is highly reinforcing to him! He is not stubborn. He is simply being a dog!
Dogs are not robots. It is important for us to remember that a dog’s behavior works for the dog. Since we choose to add a dog to our life why can’t we accept that they have needs that might make being “obedient” difficult? Train for what you might need. Reward behaviors you like. Manage so that your dog’s “bad” choices are limited. Then you won’t have to label your dog, unless you want to call him “perfect!”