DWOs: Dogs With Opinions

Does your dog…

  • Sometimes choose not to work if they’re not being paid?
  • Sometimes choose not to work if the pay isn’t good enough?
  • Seem to have their own agenda about what they’d like to do and where they’d like to go?
  • Hear a cue that you’re certain they understand, but then choose not to respond to it?

You might be the owner of a DWO: Dog With Opinions!

DWOs (Dogs With Opinions) are called many names by their guardians. I have heard owners refer to their DWO as stubborn, strong-willed, bull-headed, or “needing a heavy hand.” However, is this really true? Let’s take a deeper look!

Bulldogs: The Original DWOs

I really got my first taste of DWOs when volunteering with a bulldog rescue group. Bulldogs epitomize the DWO stereotype and have a reputation of being difficult to train.

Interestingly, I found this to be untrue in my work with bulldogs. What is true is that heavy-handed, punishment-based techniques do not work on bulldogs very well. I won’t share the link here because I don’t want to add to his publicity, but a well-known celebrity trainer who uses punishment (jabs, kicks, or other unpleasant aversives) to train dogs ran into some significant trouble when he tried to train some bulldogs with these techniques.

English bulldogs were bred for the very inhumane (and fortunately, now illegal) sport of bull-baiting: essentially, they needed to grab onto a bull and hold on tenaciously while the bull went crazy. As you can imagine, these dogs needed to be sturdy, determined, and downright stubborn to succeed at such a task. These same character traits often make it difficult to suppress their behavior through punishment. This celebrity trainer proceeded with jabbing and “tsk-ing” and “correcting” these dogs with very little success: they frankly could care less.

Note: I advise against using punishment-based techniques for ANY dog, for both ethical reasons, and because aversives can have significant negative consequences for the dog and owner. You can read more about why positive training is a better choice for ALL dogs here, here, and here.

English bulldogs DO have a lot of opinions. However, every bulldog I have had the fortune of meeting so far shares the opinion that food is awesome. My bulldog would do anything just for a couple of pieces of dried kibble. So in reality, it is not hard to find something that serves as a motivator for bulldogs! Bulldogs are easy to train using positive reinforcement training. By rewarding desirable behaviors with food and putting those behaviors on cue, it is possible to have a delightfully well-mannered bulldog. Here are a few tips that I found helpful in getting bulldogs to love working for me:

  • Food is not free. I am a huge proponent of NOT free-feeding dogs. Leaving food out all the time can lead to boredom, obesity, and a dog that has little interest in working for you. If the buffet is open 24 hours a day, why get excited about food?
  • Food is earned. Measure out the amount of food your dog should be eating for that day and place it in a bowl where your dog can’t reach. This is the food you will use for training your dog. If you’re unsure how to go about training, take a positive reinforcement-based class or hire a trainer. You will also take food on walks to reward good behavior, and teach other new behaviors using the food. If you don’t use all the food with training, the remainder can be fed to your dog using enrichment or food puzzles (see Canine Enrichment page on Facebook for great ideas).
  • Food should often be a surprise. Don’t fall into the trap of having a dog that only works for you when they see you are wearing your treat pouch. Become a “master of surprise” treats: food in pockets, food in a little cup on the mantle, etc. Keep your dog guessing! Your dog will decide that you are a magical being that can produce surprise treats for good behavior at any time. As a result, your former DWO will now be offering you great behaviors ALL the time because they know that odds are good that they will be rewarded at some point!

In conclusion, bulldogs are NOT stubborn or untrainable dogs, and they do NOT require a heavy hand. You just need to access appropriate motivators to facilitate their learning. If this last sentence made you balk, remember that the same is true for human learning.

Schnauzers: DWO 2.0?

My most mind-boggling DWO experience came when we adopted our miniature schnauzer, Ada, from the animal shelter. Schnauzers have a reputation of being clever but “stubborn,” and indeed, Ada immediately lived up to this reputation.

I started working on recall with Ada on a long-line. She gradually got better and better at coming when called. Finally, when her recalls were looking quite good, I decided to take the plunge and let her spend a bit of time off-leash. I had found a long, huge, fenced-in area. I unsnapped her leash. Ada took off running at approximately the speed of light. I called “Ada, Come!” several times to no avail. I watched her little furry rear disappear into the distance and hoped fervently that there weren’t any holes in the fence. Finally, Ada hit the fence, stopped, and decided to come back. Needless to say, we worked on her recall on leash for quite a bit longer before I opted to unhook her leash again.

Ada had a variety of ways in which she made me blow steam out of my ears. She would not sit or lay down on cold or wet surfaces, only on warm or fuzzy ones that were comfortable for her tush. She had very big opinions about other dogs, and if she felt they were too close or too scary, she would let them know very clearly by lunging or snapping at them. At the vet, she let the staff know that they would not be taking her temperature you-know-where by growling, then snapping, then thrashing like a wild trout on the end of a line. I’m quite sure she would have progressed to biting had I not told the veterinarian to please stop.

I was initially perplexed at how to handle her. She was very clever, and caught on to training quickly. However, she had very strong opinions about what was OK and not OK, what she wanted to do and what she didn’t feel like doing. If she didn’t think that a certain cue or a behavior was a good idea, she simply wouldn’t do it. What was I to do with this kind of canine?

Decoding DWOs

First of all, is your dog confused?

I will say that 90% of the time a person in class tells me that their dog is being “stubborn,” the dog is actually not following the cue because they are confused about what to do. A dog can’t follow your directions if they don’t understand them. Remember that dogs don’t understand any spoken human languages, so we have to train them to do behaviors and ask for them in a way that our dogs can understand. Before jumping to the conclusion that your dog is stubborn, ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you truly taught your dog how to do this behavior? Sometimes I see people ask their dog to “Leave It,” “Down,” or “Stay” when they have not actually gone through the process of training the dog to do so. No wonder their dog is confused! People will sometimes say, “They get it, they understand!” but maybe the dog just guessed right a few times, and they don’t REALLY get it. Ask your dog to do the behavior you are asking for five times in a row, in a variety of locations and settings. Did they get it right 4 or 5 times out of five? Excellent, your dog knows this behavior! Did they get it correct 3 or fewer times? Your dog is not yet fluent in this behavior, and what you are labeling as being “stubborn” is actually more likely to be confusion.
  • Have you helped your dog generalize the behavior? Dogs’ brains learn in weirdly specific ways. For instance, if your dog learns to sit in your living room at home, and then you ask them to sit at the park, they may initially struggle NOT because they are stubborn, but because their dog brain does not understand that “Sit” means you put your bum on the floor wherever you are at, not just in the living room! We must acknowledge that dogs’ brains work differently than ours, and have an understanding of their brains to communicate with them effectively. You can anticipate having to help support your dog learn “Sit” in a variety of places and contexts. In fact, you may have to do a bit of “re-training” at each location. Eventually, the lightbulb will go on in your dog’s head, and they will understand that “Sit” means put your bum down whenever and wherever you are asked. At this point, it is OK to start raising your expectations!

I would recommend getting the help of a qualified positive reinforcement trainer before writing your dog off as “stubborn” and throwing in the towel! Oftentimes small changes to your training protocol can make a big difference in helping your dog succeed. Give your dog the benefit of the doubt, and be a benevolent teacher: maybe they’re not acting up! Maybe they’re trying, they just need more help.

Secondly, what is your reinforcement history with your dog?

It’s time for us to get beyond the Disney image of our dogs living to please us, waiting with baited breath for us to give them a command to do. Most dogs don’t work this way. They may follow your instructions if there are no competing distractions, but if your dog does not have a reinforcement history, they will not continue to work without pay in a distracting environment with competing motivators.

  • By reinforcement, I mean something your dog finds rewarding that increases a given behavior. For instance: I call my dog to come. She comes, and I immediately give her a treat. If my dog likes treats and finds them motivating, I have just reinforced her behavior of coming when called. She is more likely to come when called in the future.
  • By reinforcement history, I mean what is the pattern in terms of what behaviors I reinforce, and how often? For instance, if I reward my dog 100% of the time after she comes when I call her, there is a strong reinforcement history for coming when called, and my dog has a high likelihood of coming when I call her. However, if I just praise my dog for coming some of the time, or maybe forget to say anything sometimes when she comes, this is a weak reinforcement history. My dog is therefore less likely to come when I call her.

Many times when I work with a client who says, “My dog knows what ‘Come’ means, she just ignores me!” the issue is with reinforcement history. Maybe the dog DOES know what the cue means, but the dog is not really motivated to perform due to a weak reinforcement history. Rebuilding a new cue with a strong reinforcement history can resolve the problem.

Thirdly, what is your relationship with your dog?

  • Dogs are more likely to respond to a cue if they have a positive relationship with the person giving the cue. Positive relationships can take some time to build. They don’t happen overnight.
  • Reinforcement history is part of building a positive relationship: a dog who discovers that their human is a benevolent leader who pays them for their work is likely to be an eager worker, happy to respond to cues.
  • Having clear and consistent expectations for your dog is very helpful for building a trusting relationship.
  • Most owners know that their dog needs food, water, shelter, and veterinary care. However, properly meeting your dog’s needs for exercise and enrichment (through training, exploration, sniffing outside, puzzles, games, etc.) is also key to having a loving relationship with your dog.
  • Techniques that use threats, coercion, pain, or fear to force a dog to comply damage relationships with the owner. While the owner may see a temporary decrease in an undesired behavior since it has been suppressed by fear, these types of techniques frequently have fall-out in the long term. 

Sometimes when dog guardians describe their dog as being “disobedient” for not coming when called or pulling on leash, they brought the dog home very recently. While building a positive relationship is not a “cure” for behavior issues, it certainly will help your training go farther.

DWO Conclusions: Dogs, not Doormats

What I’ve come to understand about dogs is that they require motivation to learn, just like humans. While certain breeds of dogs have high levels of drive and find a task intrinsically motivating (think a border collie herding sheep), the vast majority of dogs require other forms of payment or rewards to motivate them to work. For most dogs, praise alone is not sufficient in the long term, particularly in distracting environments. Instead, reinforcers like food, supercharged toys, etc. can be powerful motivators.

I also came to understand that like humans, dogs have thoughts and emotions. While they undoubtedly experience these thoughts and feelings differently than us, since their brains are not the same, science tells us that dogs have thoughts and competing motivators.

Why is it surprising then, that sometimes a dog may make a choice to go their own way rather than please us?

Why is it so offensive that a dog may perform some sort of “What’s in it for me?” analysis?

Surely we humans do the same sorts of things on a daily basis, when we choose whether to report to work or play hooky, when we choose whether to volunteer to sleep in, etc.

Why was I so worried about my Dog With Opinions, Ada? Why was I bothered by the fact that she didn’t want to sit on cold, wet pavement when told? After all, I didn’t enjoy a cold toilet seat in the middle of the night if I got up to go to the bathroom, so was it any small wonder that Ada didn’t want to put her bum on the wet ground? Why was it so important for me to force my exacting expectations of obedience on her, requiring her to perform a certain cue a certain way immediately when requested? I had no plans on competing in obedience with her, so why was it important?

I realized that our expectations about dogs as a society had conditioned me into thinking that good dogs immediately do what is asked, and good dog owners and trainers have dogs that are obedient. If my dog decided not to comply, she must be a bad dog, or I must be a lousy trainer.

Side note: I did not know it at the time, but I know now that many trainers actually have very spicy dogs who have many opinions. This is not because they are crummy trainers, but because they enjoy a good challenge!

However, the more I thought about this, the more it became apparent to me that these were some really toxic expectations.

Why did I get a dog, I asked myself?

I got a dog to be my sidekick. Sure, I did want a dog who was well-mannered in public and could accompany me to many places. But what was clear, upon further reflection, was that I adopted a dog to be a canine companion, not a doormat. I realized that I could still have a wonderful sidekick while still allowing Ada to have some choices in her everyday life. My goal of having a dog with a personality and a dog with manners were not mutually exclusive. I could have both! And both Ada and I would be happier for it.

In the end, I realized I wanted Ada to sit or lay down outside so I could place her in a stay if needed while I moved about. The simple solution was to teach her the cue “Wait:” basically a stay while standing in place. Ada was happy because she didn’t have to put her bum on the cold ground, and I was happy because I had a dog who would stay put when asked very obediently. All it took was a little understanding, empathy, and creativity.

In conclusion, if you are wanting and expecting a perfectly obedient being that immediately executes your ever command: maybe you should get a robot, not a dog. And if this last sentence has you cringing, perhaps you should take a good, hard look at yourself in the mirror, and ask yourself why control and obedience are such important issues for you. If your primary motivation in getting a dog is having a being that you can control, I think that perhaps you have some soul-searching to do about your own motivations.

The DWOs in my life have taught me many valuable lessons. Stop trying to control everything: what’s the point? You’ll drive yourself crazy. Try to look at unexpected bumps in the road from multiple perspectives. Smile and laugh a little. Have a sense of humor. Don’t take things so seriously. And have fun.

I’ll take my spicy schnauzer any day.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to provide professional dog training advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this website is to promote understanding and knowledge of various pet-related topics. 

Thank you Pexels.com for the free photos!

3 thoughts on “DWOs: Dogs With Opinions

  1. Sharon says:

    This is a great post! I also have a DWO called Ada, she is a rescue whose breeding is most likely german shepherd, amstaff and ridgeback. I have owned pure shepherds and an amstaff (or pitbull), before but I have never owned a dog as independent as Ada, right from the start she displayed a really surprising level of independence, she has not been difficult to teach commands, in fact rather the opposite, like most shepherds her ability to learn is quite heightened but her willingness to obey at all times is nothing like what I have experienced with shepherds. I have learnt to be super attuned to her body language in order to anticipate when she will go her own way and act accordingly and I absolutely love working with her because she demands more of me. I am prepared for the fact that she will on occasion totally embarrass me but I am also really proud of what we have achieved. She seems to have a classic ridgeback temperament, in that she is aloof and independent by nature, with a very strong prey drive. The strong prey drive has meant that I have had to work incredibly hard to perfect recall in the park with her but we seem to have reached a level of reliability I can trust but it has taken a lot of work and high value rewards in training have been crucial. There is nothing better than a dog who demands a lot of you, when you achieve a true partnership it is magical. I have hopes of training Ada to an exceptional standard but I know that is going to take time and there will be days where she will want to go her own way, because that is the case I have had to become incredibly in-tuned to her body language, every little twitch of an ear or adjustment in tail lets me know what she is thinking and I can anticipate and act accordingly. She has demanded more of me in regards to training than any of my previous dogs and I absolutely love that, she is the dog I needed at the moment.
    Great post and great advice.


    • Jen Gumas says:

      Hi Sharon, thank you so much for sharing about your Ada! It really resonates with me where you talk about how when we have a dog that demands a lot of us, it is even more magical and rewarding when we achieve training milestones. DWOs are often the dogs that teach us the most! Thanks for reading and sharing, and I’m glad you liked the post.

      Liked by 1 person

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