The Disobedient Dog

Annoyance, frustration, embarrassment – the feelings that come from that moment when you ask your dog to do something and they ignore you. The world is full of obedience classes and quick fixes for the disobedient canine companion. What actually works? How can you deal with a disobedient dog?

Disobedient or …?

The most important first step when dealing with a dog who doesn’t listen to you is to consider why. Simply labeling a dog as “disobedient” (or “stubborn”) doesn’t bring much clarity to how to resolve the issue. Getting to the root of matter will help you define a concrete path toward the behavior you want. 

You’ll want to consider:

  • What emotions is my dog experiencing?
  • What competing motivations do they have?
  • Have they actually learned this skill, in this environment, and practiced it recently?


Stress can have a highly negative impact on a dog’s behavior and ability to follow cues. They may be completely focused on escaping the situation or just slowed down by added worries about the environment around them. Stress directly affects the ability to access memories, learn new information, and make decisions. Under stress, we all revert to habits and impulses, our dog included. 

Stress can come from a range of sources, including health issues, previous experiences, and individual propensities and sensitivities. 

Ask yourself:

  • Is my dog showing any body language associated with stress?
  • Has my dog had a negative experience in this context in the past?
  • Does my dog seem “happy” right now or like they want to leave?
  • Does my dog have any other issues going on right now, such as allergies, GI upset, or pain?
  • Was there a time in the past when my dog responded to this cue more consistently or quickly? 
  • Was there a time in the past when my dog responded to this cue but now they are offering different behaviors instead, or only a partial response? 

Additional training can help a dog cope in stressful situations but there may need to be other steps and considerations to help them respond confidently and consistently at all times. Like a person with test anxiety, they can study more but they may also need to learn coping and calming strategies.

Small black dog leaning away from leash tension.
Disobedient? Or scared?
Photo Credit: MabelAmber/

If you answered yes to any questions above, contact your vet for a rule out of medical concerns and reach out to a qualified behavior professional who specializes in using positive reinforcement for behavior problems.

…Experiencing Competing Motivations

As much as we might want our dogs to be solely motivated by us, that isn’t the reality of the living beings we share our homes with. Different breeds and different individuals will have different levels of motivation for working with humans versus independent decision making. It’s not a character flaw; in fact, it’s often something that humans have purposely created (think border collies vs beagles). 

Does your dog:

  • Follow their nose rather than your words?
  • Ignore you in favor of running, playing, just grabbing what they want, and more?
  • Only listen under very specific circumstances?

Rather than fight against your dog’s other motivators, look for ways to use them to train. Or at the very least give your dog appropriate outlets for what they want and need so they can be better able to focus on you when the time comes. Need direction on how to do that? Reach out!

…Not Actually Trained

Here’s the big one. Many dogs are not as fully trained as their people think they are. Maybe training was stopped before the dog fully understood what’s expected (have you done anything since that six-week beginning manners class?). Or your dog hasn’t had a chance to learn how to use their skills in new or distracting situations. 

Does this sound familiar?

  • Your dog listens at home but not outside.
  • Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 
  • They respond perfectly but only if you have a treat in your hand.
  • When you think about it, they’ve never really responded to consistently this cue, even though you keep trying.

All of these problems, and more, can be the result of incomplete training. That’s great because it suggests a clear solution! Taking your dog from kindergarten (responds at home with food visible) to PhD level (consistently responds in any environment without having to see the reinforcement first) is a big project and requires consistent work. It’s doable and can be a fun journey. But please don’t blame your dog if you haven’t done the work yet. As always, a skilled professional can help.

What Doesn’t Solve The Problem

Recognizing the role of stress, competing motivations, and level of training will guide you toward specific and actionable steps to reach your goals. Blaming personality traits will not. While it’s true that some dogs are more attuned to working with people and easier to motivate with praise and treats, this doesn’t mean that your dog is “untrainable” due to being stubborn, dominant, or some other label. In the same way one person may learn easily in a traditional classroom and another may need a different approach, all dogs can learn and be trained. 

Tougher punishment also doesn’t address the reasons at the core of disobedience. A stressed dog will become more stressed. A dog motivated by something other than you is not going to be more interested in working with you after you punish them harder. And a dog who doesn’t know what you want? They still don’t know the right answer if all you’ve done is tell them what is wrong.

Better Behavior Through Better Understanding

When you get to the heart of why your dog “disobeys”, you unlock a path forward that will help your dog be their best self. Rather than getting stuck on labels and punishment, you can embrace your dog’s uniqueness and have fun training. 

If your dog has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.