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Stubborn puppy refusing to walk

The essentials

  • There are a variety of reasons your dog may not be learning — How quickly your dog learns behaviors is influenced by the rewards you use, your environment, your timing, and more.
  • Dog training is not one size fits all — Not all dogs find the same rewards motivating. If treats aren’t working for your dog, see if toys, petting, or verbal praise are more effective.
  • It’s not all about the breed — Just because a breed is known to be independent or tricky to train doesn’t automatically mean your dog can’t learn.

Do you find yourself trying (and failing) to teach your dog new tricks? Do you feel like your dog doesn’t listen to you no matter what you do? When you’re frustrated and can’t seem to get through to your dog, it’s common to feel like your dog’s just being stubborn.

There are a variety of reasons why your pup may not be learning what you’re trying to teach. Believe it or not, stubbornness is rarely the problem — your dog is not purposefully choosing not to learn. Instead, think of your dog as a child who may or may not speak the same language as you.

Most of the time when training is a challenge, it’s because we haven’t found a way to communicate with our dogs in a way that they understand. While there are common methods that work for most dogs, it’s important to remember that each dog is an individual, and that impacts how fast they learn and what motivates them.

1. Consistency is key 

One of the most common challenges that prevent a dog from learning is that we’re not communicating clearly enough. Dogs learn through associations.

For example, say your dog loves to greet people on the street by jumping on them. You want to teach your pup to greet people while holding a ‘sit’ instead. In order for your dog to learn this expectation, you (and anyone else who walks your dog) would need to make sure that they are only allowed to greet people when they offer the desired behavior.

A common mistake is when one person in the family sticks to the training plan (e.g. working with the dog to hold a sit before greeting), while others still allow the jumping behavior.  This sends mixed messages to the dog about what’s expected of them, and will prevent you from progressing in your training.

The same holds true when using cues. For your dog to understand what you’re asking, everyone should use the same v signals and marker (a clicker, saying ‘yes’ or ‘okay’, etc.) when asking for something.

For example, asking your dog to sit by raising your palm up in front of them and saying, “sit”,” in a firm but friendly voice. Once the dog achieves the sit, you mark the correct behavior by immediately  saying, “yes!” in a friendly voice and give them a treat.

To ensure success, make sure everyone handling the dog is training the behavior in the same way. This will help your dog learn what’s being asked of them and they’ll be able to offer it quicker and more consistently.

2. Find the right reward

Just like some people prefer chocolate and others prefer salty snacks, each dog has their own favorites, too! To maximize training potential, one of the first things you’ll want to do is to determine a hierarchy of motivators for your dog.

For some pups, there will never be anything as wonderful as the thrill of chasing a ball that’s been thrown. For others, they will go to the end of the earth for a tiny piece of cheese. Generally speaking, most reinforcers fall into one of the following categories: food, toys, petting, praise, or space.

Once you’ve figured out what motivates your dog the most, you can then break that down even further. If your dog is food-motivated, figure out what treats they like and what treats they LOVE. For most dogs, the stinkier the better! If toys are their jam, determine if a squeaky toy or a game of tug or fetch makes the difference.

You’ll reserve your highest reinforcers for harder tricks and situations.

3. Limit distractions

When you start training on something new, do so in a place where other stimuli are limited, like in your home when the kids aren’t around or in your own backyard.

Once your pup understands what you’re asking of them and can consistently offer the desired behavior, work your way up to more distracting environments.

If you find that you’ve accidentally selected a harder environment and your dog is over threshold — they won’t take treats, are barking and lunging, or are having trouble focusing on you — no problem! Increase distance from the distractions (e.g. if you’re in a park, move further away from the other dogs and people) or remove your dog from the situation entirely and start over in a better environment.

4. Keep it positive 

Many old training schools of thought encourage using punishment to teach dogs to behave. However, as the training field has developed, many studies have shown that such methods can actually do more harm than good.

Aversive training may stop a behavior in the short term, but what it’s actually doing is repressing the behavior while increasing your dog’s anxiety. This fear is not only associated with the behavior and training tool but also with YOU, the person delivering the punishment. Not only will it degrade your relationship with your dog, but may also lead to an exaggerated version of the behavior when the punishment is removed, often showing up as aggression.

Focus on rewarding your dog when they offer the right behavior, rather than punishing them when they do something you don’t like.

5. Break it down

When you first start training your pup, it’s easy to jump into using a verbal cue and hand gesture and expecting your dog to offer the behavior. If you do this and your dog stares at you blankly, don’t worry, you’re in the majority!

Break down the behavior into a series of steps and reward tiny increments of the behavior you’re looking to achieve.

For example, when teaching a ‘sit’ command, your dog may not offer a full ‘sit’ from the start. This is the time to focus on shaping the behavior, or breaking the behavior down into smaller steps and rewarding your dog as they achieve each piece. To shape the ‘sit’  behavior,  hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and slowly guide their head back. As their hind end goes down slightly, you’d mark by saying, “yes,” or with your clicker, and give them a treat. Each time you’d wait for them to put their hind end closer to the ground before marking and rewarding, ultimately working up to a full ‘sit’.

6. Keep it short, sweet, and easy 

When training your pup, you want to keep your sessions fun and positive. A common misconception is that when you’re training your dog, you do it for a few hours at a time. In reality, multiple 10–15 minute sessions throughout the day are far more effective.

This is for a few reasons:

  1. You’ll be stopping when your dog is successful, rather than overtired and frustrated that they’re not getting it.
  2. This will help your dog remember the training session as positive and something they’d be happy to do again.
  3. The excitement of the training game and rewards won’t wear off and your dog will be left wanting more.

These ensure that the next time you’re training your dog, they’ll be ready and eager to jump right in!

7. Timing matters 

One of the common mistakes that occurs with training happens when the handler goes to mark the behavior with a ‘yes’ or using a clicker. Think of your marker as taking a photo. You want to mark immediately after the desired behavior so that it’s clear to your dog exactly what they did that you are rewarding them for.

For example, when teaching a ‘sit’, you’d want to mark as soon as your dog’s rear touches the ground. When learning this behavior, many excitable dogs jump up immediately following the sit. If you mark just a second too late, you end up capturing the jumping up instead — which is the last thing you want your dog to think they’re being rewarded for!

Clear timing helps your dog know exactly what behavior you’re rewarding for and want to see more of.

8. Practice makes permanent 

Think of training as you would learning to play an instrument. If you want to get better at it, you practice daily. But if your practice sessions become sloppy and incorrect, that’s what you’ll learn — not to play the sonata perfectly. The same is true for your dog.

We know that life gets busy and it’s easy for training your dog to get put on the backburner or train until you’re both frustrated and tired that they’re not getting it. Instead, prioritize short and accurate training sessions throughout the day. This will make sure your dog is learning exactly what you want them to, and they’ll learn it faster without mixed messaging.

Common mistakes with specific cues

If you’re struggling with teaching your dog specific behaviors, you’re not alone. There are a variety of mistakes that pet parents commonly make when teaching behaviors. The good news is that many are easily fixed with a few tweaks to your training plan.


This is one of the first behaviors a pet parent teaches their dog, and can be a helpful foundation for many other behaviors. This also means that there are some very common mistakes that prevent your dog from learning the behavior.

  • Does your dog actually know the word ‘sit’? Many dogs learn ‘sit’ quickly, but they don’t know a hand cue or word automatically. Remember that you need to start by teaching your dog what you’re asking. Once your dog can offer it consistently, you’ll be able to use the verbal or hand cue and expect them to do what you’re asking.
  • Timing of your marker. Your dog will learn that whatever behavior immediately precedes your marker gets them the reward. With teaching sit, this is commonly the jump up before or after the actual offering of the sit. Be careful of your timing as whatever your dog thinks will get them the reward is what they’ll offer more and more!


Teaching your dog to return to you when called is a valuable skill and can be lifesaving. However, it can be difficult for your dog to learn if you don’t effectively set up the training session.

  • Too much freedom. One of the most common mistakes when teaching your dog recall is to start with your dog off-leash. This can quickly become a game of ‘catch me’, which is a lot of fun for your dog, but not much fun for you. Instead, have your dog on a long leash, and guide them back to you as you’re using the word ‘come’. You’ll work up to practicing off-leash once they understand what you’re asking of them.
  • Too many distractions. When teaching your dog recall, be mindful of your environment. You want your dog to want to interact with and return to you, and the more that’s going on around them, the more you have to compete for their attention. Your end goal will be to have a strong recall despite other stimuli, but keep it easy to start off with. This will help your dog learn the behavior faster.
  • The reinforcer isn’t strong enough. As we mentioned, with recall you want your dog to WANT to return to you. Choose a reward that they really like to help them overcome their interest in whatever else is going on around them.


Teaching a ‘stay’ cue requires a lot of patience, both on the part of the dog and the handler. That’s why you want to avoid a few common pitfalls to ensure success.

  • Too much too soon. When teaching your dog to stay, start with only one step away and then mark, and return to reward them. Slowly work your way up to farther distances. If you go too far too soon and your dog pops out of their stay, take a few steps back and make it easier again. Your dog will learn faster if they consistently succeed, and you’ll feel better about the work you’re doing.
  • Teaching a separate cue. Many people think that to get your dog to stay, you need to teach them a ‘stay’ cue. In fact, it can be easier for your dog if you teach the expectation that when you ask for a ‘sit’, ‘down’, or ‘place’, that they are to remain there until they are ‘freed’. So instead of asking your dog to sit, stay, and reminding them to stay, you would ask them to sit, and remind them to sit until you’re ready to ‘free’ them.

Additional resources

Whether you’re looking to teach your dog the basics or fun new tricks, you’re far from alone in your creative problem solving to find what works for your pup. There are many videos and articles online that can guide you in teaching specific behaviors, and some are better than others. Here are a few that we recommend:

Many pet parents struggle with finding the best way to get through to their dog, and jump to the conclusion that their dog is just being stubborn or difficult. Training your dog is all about learning to open the line of communication between you and your dog. Since each dog is different, with different motivators, fears, and behavior quirks, training is not one size fits all.

Contacting a local dog trainer can help you figure out what works best for you and your dog, but be mindful of what trainer you select; choose one that is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) and focuses on positive reinforcement or rewards-based training, as trainers who use punishment-based tactics can do more harm than good.

Frequently asked questions

Advice on training a smart and stubborn dog?

When training a dog who is smart and you feel is being ‘stubborn’, make sure you’re using rewards that your dog is strongly motivated by and keeping your training sessions short and consistent. If you’re struggling, reach out to a local trainer to help you identify why you’re struggling and how to get through to your pup.

How to discipline a stubborn dog?

When your dog doesn’t listen to you, it’s  easy to assume that your dog is just being stubborn. However, in these instances, it’s far more likely that either your dog doesn’t understand what you’re asking of them, they’re overtired, or you’ve accidentally reinforced the wrong behavior. Try taking a break and then starting off easier to make sure you’re marking in the right spot and allowing them an opportunity to succeed consistently.

What’s the best way to approach recall training with a stubborn dog?

When first starting out with recall training, do so in a low-distraction environment and with high value rewards. It can also be helpful to have your dog on a long leash when practicing, to help guide them back to you and show them what you want from them.

How do you discipline a dog that won’t listen?

Rather than punishing your dog for doing something wrong or not doing what you want, focus on rewarding them when they do things RIGHT. Disciplining or punishing your dog can degrade your dog’s trust in you, increase anxiety and fear, and make matters worse in the long run.

How to let a dog know you’re mad?

Expressing your anger towards your dog can actually be counterproductive to your training goals. Not only will it likely make your dog cower and become fearful, but it will take the fun out of the training, making them less likely to want to do it next time around. Instead, focus on rewarding your dog when they do things you like, and removing your attention when they do things you don’t.