Yesterday I called my lurcher to me when he was about ten metres away. He looked at me. He shifted his eyebrows in a dance. Then he went to sniff a blade of grass. If that isn’t the definition of “stubbornness”, I wouldn’t know what is.
But it actually made me smile. And here’s why.
When I went to adopt Beanie, I had glorious visions in my head of a dog whose tail would casually wag when the wind blew, when people walked past us on a walk, when we made eye contact on a lazy Sunday, when we visited the dog park for glorious frolics with other dogs whose tail also wagged for nothing at all. He’d just be a dog with joie de vivre.
But I got a dog whose tail remained droopy, wagging only when he saw himself in the mirror and, three years on, still only wagging tentatively and selectively through the day.
For a very long time, Beanie had no opinions about the world except “I cannot live without you” and “I love dogs”. So much so that when I started clicker training him, rewarding absolutely anything that he would offer me, he would still only do something that he was sure I wanted him to do. Beanie was off lead far quicker than I might have envisaged letting loose a sighthound — he simply walked right in my footsteps, not one step left or right.
So the fact that he actually had an opinion yesterday to go sniff a blade of grass over returning to me is a glorious sign of his independence. He wasn’t scared to tell me that he had a mind of his own and I couldn’t be happier.
The stubborn dog
I spend a lot of my time with “stubborn” dogs. Dogs who walk the other way when you call them. Dogs who refuse to come back in after a night time pootle in the garden. Dogs who leap and tug at their lead despite “knowing” that they have to calm down if they want to go for a walk. Dogs who scream and bite when you just want to lift their paw.
I love those dogs because it tells me that they feel comfortable enough to voice their opinion. I am not intimidating them into submission. They are taking the control I offer them and telling me that something else is more worthwhile.
I would rather have a dog who tells me what he thinks than a dog who doesn’t dare voice an opinion. I would rather give the dog the choice and find that he takes me up on my offer because doing what I would like adds value to his already rich life.
I don’t want a well-behaved dog. I want a dog who loves having me around and has plenty of opinions he would like to share with me. I don’t want a dog who hears an “or else” in my voice with a threat of violence, sexily wrapped in a little electronic button that I can use to remind him of my power over him. I want a dog who tells me that I’m not worth his attention because when I am, it’s that much more special to me.
A “stubborn” dog is really just one of two things:
- A dog who doesn’t understand what I want — did I actually teach what I thought I taught? Does my dog even remember what I taught?
- A dog who has something better to do than listen to me — am I being scary? Why should he give up eating that rabbit poo and come to me instead?
So every time a dog says no, be happy because he feels confident enough to tell you what he thinks and that you now have the choice to listen to him. Then think about why he is saying no. Think about what’s in it for him if he does what you’re asking him to do and think about how you can make it worth his while. Every dog who refuses to listen to you is making you a better teacher. How boring would it be to live with someone you can never disagree with?
Your dog has a voice. Giving him the ability to use it makes you a better person.