After seeing their dogs make progress during training, clients sometimes confess to me with a sense of relief that they previously thought their dog was dumb. Typically, they had equated their dogs' behavior problems and lack of responsiveness to obedience commands as deficiencies in their dogs. It is understandable; if a human just stared at you when you told him to sit down, or if he repeatedly peed on your floor despite multiple corrections, you might come to a similar conclusion.
I have found during my training career that almost any dog can learn to do almost anything when trained with patience, proper drive development and thoughtful training methods. If your dog seems particularly difficult to train, there probably are factors slowing his progress and making him seem less intelligent than he really is.
• Lack of Early Human Interaction. If dogs have not been taught that humans are relevant – that our words and actions have meaning – they may seem oblivious. The act of training teaches dogs that humans are significant and that looking to us for direction and guidance is a good thing. For this reason, I often describe formal obedience training as providing an interface between us and our dogs – a method of establishing our benevolent leadership and communicating our instructions.
• Old Age. The old proverb, “You can't teach an old dog new tricks,” is incorrect. However, it touches on an important point. As dogs get older, they may become less motivated to perform, have lower energy levels, and even become “set in their ways.” This often makes them seem stubborn or incapable of learning. Training older dogs often requires shorter training sessions and more patience.
• Breed Tendencies. Within any breed, there may be a wide range of temperaments and talents among individuals, but some breeds are more likely to excel at certain things. For example, a Labrador Retriever may be more friendly towards strangers and a natural fetcher, whereas a Chow Chow may be a better choice for a dog to guard your house. But a Chow Chow could be taught to retrieve a duck from a pond, and a Labrador Retriever could be trained as a protection dog. However, if you try to train your dog for jobs that do not capitalize on its natural tendencies, you likely will encounter a lack of drive that comes across as intractability.
• Profitable Misbehavior. Dogs do what works. If jumping on you when you come home makes you look at, speak to, or touch your dog, it is getting him the attention he is begging for – even if you are scolding him and pushing him off of you. This characteristic of dogs can make them seem unwilling or unable to accept correction, but the fault usually is with the owner for inadvertently feeding the behavior. Such problems require a more thoughtful training approach – one that does not allow the unwanted behavior to be profitable and teaches an alternate behavior that is.
• Unfulfilled Needs. Most behavior problems exist because they fulfill dogs' needs. Dogs need to bark, chew, play, exercise, and interact with other members of their social group. If constructive ways to fulfill these needs are not provided, dogs will fulfill them in ways that come naturally to them. They will bark obnoxiously, chew your table legs, dig holes in your back yard and have a raucous demeanor in the home. Dogs with unfulfilled needs often seem like juvenile delinquents. However, they are just being dogs and are fixable once their needs are being met in an appropriate way.
So, no, your dog is not dumb. But if he seems that way, take a step back and consider his background, age and breeding. Always ask yourself how a “bad” behavior is rewarding for your dog, and ensure his needs are being fulfilled in constructive ways. Then your dog happily will show you how smart he really is.
About the writer: Thomas Aaron is a certified dog training instructor and the owner of FetchMasters, LLC in Denver, Colorado. He is a strong advocate of positive reinforcement training, believing it provides the most humane path to a well-trained dog and nurtures an appropriate and strong bond between people and their dogs. He has trained hunting hounds since childhood and currently specializes in off-leash obedience training, behavior modification and positive gun dog training. FetchMasters.com