Dealing With "Stubborn" Dogs or What SuperNanny Can Teach Us About Dog Training

“My dog is stubborn.  I’ve tried everything and none of it worked!  I don’t think my dog can be trained.”  Most dog trainers hear some variation of that refrain from novice dog owners every day.  Needless to say, these dogs can be trained.  They’re probably not even especially challenging dogs to train.  Their owners just need to master a couple of key concepts:  consistency and perseverance.   Few human habits play such a critical role in training a well-mannered family pet.  If your dog has a bad habit that you just can’t solve, the odds are overwhelming that one of two things is going on.  Either you have failed to figure out a way to keep the behavior from being rewarding for your dog or you found the right way to fix it and gave up too easily.  I once saw a brilliant illustration of the concept on ABC’s reality show SuperNanny that I often share with my students. 

The basic premise behind the show is that a nanny named Jo Frost goes into families’ homes to help them solve children’s behavior problems.  The first episode that I ever saw involved several kids who pretty much ran wild in their home.  The parents had no control.  They couldn’t even get the 3 youngest kids to go to bed at night, and the family devolved into a constant state of conflict between sleep-deprived parents and kids. 

Jo surmised that the parents’ inconsistent response to misbehavior deserved the lion’s share of the blame for their problems.   Depending on their mood and the context, the parents’ response to kids refusing to go to bed might be pleading, yelling, threatening, arguing, bribing or who knows what.  Each of the techniques – especially the father’s blustery yelling – occasionally worked in the short term, but only made things worse over time (not to mention the damage done to relationships by relying on intimidation).  The kids were really able to push the parents’ buttons, so their responses were often very emotional.  Their ability to get a rise out of their parents, of course, only spurred the children on.  Even worse, the poor exhausted parents frequently just caved in and gave the kids what they wanted when they just couldn’t take it anymore. 

I saw the part of the show where they addressed the kids’ refusal to go to bed.  Jo instructed the parents to simply tell the kids it was time to go to bed.  If they refused, the parents were to pick them up, put them in the bed, and walk away.  If the kids got up, they just quietly put them back in bed:  no yelling, no bribing, no threatening, nothing.  Just put them back to bed.  She emphasized the need to keep their emotions under control and warned them that it would be a long difficult night, and it was. 

When the kids encountered their parents’ quiet insistence, there was a complete meltdown:  yelling, screaming, cussing, breaking things, etc.  The “battle” raged for – if I recall correctly – over 6 hours until the kids just passed out from exhaustion.  The parents looked terrible and I imagine that they were less than impressed with their first stab at implementing the SuperNanny’s plan.  Who wouldn’t want to give up after a night like that?

A funny thing happened, however, on the second night.  It took about half as long to get the kids to go to sleep.  Each night after that became easier until, after about 2 weeks, the kids were generally going to bed when asked – the first time.  The principle was simple, but implementing it was not.  The parents had to persevere through those first brutal nights. 

We see a lot of similar situations in dog training.  Whether we’re teaching a dog to stop jumping on people, raiding the counter for food, getting on the furniture, or barking at everyone that walks by the house – the keys to solving many behavior problems are 1) consistently responding to both misbehavior and good behavior in the same way, 2)maintaining a calm demeanor and 3)sticking to the program.  In speaking to my students, I sometimes refer to those 3 ideas as The SuperNanny Principle to remind them of the story from the show.  Dog training takes patience and repetition.  Despite what you might see on other reality shows – few behavior problems are solved in 10 minutes, and constantly changing your response to try something new is only going to confuse your dog.  Work with a trainer to make sure you’re on the right track, and then give it some time to work.    

I also add one caveat to this advice.  If you’re going to cave, cave immediately.  I want to very clear that I’m not condoning lax enforcement of rules.  Some forms of permissiveness, however, do more harm than others.  I, for example, have a rule in my house that dogs must wait to be invited before getting up on the couch with a person.  If I’m tired and cranky and I decide to ignore it when my dog jumps onto the couch with me, I’ve made a mistake.  I’ve taught him that the couch rule doesn’t always apply.  That makes it more likely that he will break the rule again.  If, however, I tell him to get off the couch and he repeatedly jumps back up, giving up at that point teaches a far worse lesson.  It teaches him that perseverance pays off.  That’s a dangerous lesson to teach your dog when it comes to house manners.    

Jeff Silverman

Training Tracks Canine Learning Station

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