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Truly Stubborn or Simply Sentient?

Updated: Apr 12

So many times when speaking with people about their companion, we hear the descriptor, “stubborn” to describe them. While we know where this sentiment stems from and absolutely sympathize with the frustration, our goal is to help people to start examining that assigned trait and what it really means. While it seems harmless, chalking up their behavior to stubbornness can get in the way of progress towards the goals we have for our animals if we take it to heart. 

So first, let’s take a look at the definition of the word stubborn. 




  • having or showing dogged determination not to change one's attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.

The problem with this definition, even when used in humans, is that oftentimes the person labeling the behavior as stubborn is doing so because of their own perception (you should do this thing because I think you should) and the labeled party simply has a different reasoning (I don’t want to do this thing for my own reasons that feel equally valid to me). Basically, it can be just a difference of perspective.

Let’s look at a silly but simple example: I am driving with a friend who tells me I should take a specific route to get to our destination. They believe it to be less congested on their route, therefore quicker. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? From their perspective, their reasoning is sound. If I say no to this request, and keep driving the way I choose to, they could call me stubborn because, by definition, I didn’t change my behavior in the face of good reasoning. But what if I chose to go a different way because I needed to run an errand and my way would allow me to do so easily? That changes everything, doesn’t it? I can tell my friend and they will (hopefully) change their stance based on this new information because it makes sense to do so. 

We’re humans, so we can communicate clearly with one another, but what if in that scenario I didn’t tell my friend about the errand, and just told them I wasn’t going to go their way? They would likely stand by their label of stubborn, but stubbornness has nothing to do with my reasoning, they just don’t understand my reasoning. Communication can make all of the difference.

Welcome to the world of animals and humans, where animals cannot tell us (in our language) their reasoning for choosing to do or not do something. Instead of exploring why this discrepancy may be happening, we have a tendency to explain it away with a trait that doesn’t serve either party and leaves us frustrated. 

In the case of animals, stubbornness as a reasoning for behaving or not behaving how we deem appropriate is never a factor. If our animal isn’t behaving in a certain way that aligns with what we would like them to do, they have a reason for choosing an alternate action that feels 100% necessary or more valid to them, whether we agree with it or not. It’s not just to get under our skin. So let’s talk briefly about some of the reasons things aren’t going our way that might actually be getting in the way of synchronicity.

  1. The behavior you’re asking for isn’t proofed yet. Some animals are better at generalizing than others, but if I had a nickel for every time I watched an animal fail to do a new skill because too much had changed in the environment or criteria too quickly, I would be on a year-long vacation somewhere tropical. Animals need time and patience from us while getting plenty of practice with different locations and distraction levels, all while ensuring difficulty is increased at the learner’s pace. If you learn a new instrument, it’s going to take time and approximations before you’re ready to play in front of a large crowd and there are many steps and layers of skill building to get you there. 

  2. You’re dealing with competing reinforcers. Believe it or not, pleasing you isn’t always going to be your companion’s priority. That also doesn’t mean they don’t love you, it just means they are sentient beings with wants and needs of their own. That’s to be expected. Not doing everything my friends or family want to do 100% of the time doesn’t mean I don’t care about them. So your dog wants to run away from you when they get a hold of a fun new “toy” (aka your shoes). You try to offer something you’ve deemed an actual toy that’s appropriate, and your pup couldn’t care less. Well, what you think is the most exciting thing isn’t always going to align with what your dog thinks. Those shoes are probably much more novel and therefore exciting. Maybe the texture feels particularly good on their teeth or your smell increases the value a lot. They may indeed be playing keep away because they really want the shoes, but it’s because they can’t fathom why these items aren’t toys. They don’t have the same use for shoes that we do, nor are they familiar with the concept of money. Bottom line is, you won't always be the most exciting thing in the room, which is why management is so important until you build strong skills, reinforcement history, and habits. 

  3. Your companion is having big feelings. If your animal is behaving in a way you don’t appreciate, it may be because they’re struggling emotionally with overstimulation, stress, anxiety, or fear. It’s often futile to treat an emotional hurdle with obedience because if your animal is over their stress threshold, their learning center slows or shuts down. Just try getting me to focus on anything while someone holds a tarantula too close to me! Getting to the root of that motivation and changing the coping skills and emotional responses, instead of suppressing the behavior, is going to be key here. 

As you can see by the few examples I’ve given here, motivations for behavior can be complex, which is why writing off undesirable behavior by mislabeling it can be such a disservice to true behavior change. Here at Homeward Bound, we want to help guardians better understand their furry or feathered friends more deeply, which leads to much better outcomes and a vastly improved quality of life for everyone involved. If you have ever thought your companion was stubborn and aren’t sure what factors are impacting their behavior, reach out and learn more!

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