And Why Can’t He Refuse?

by | Feb 6, 2023

“Don’t want to. Don’t care.”

 He’s not a teenager anymore, but boy does he sure act like one at times.


(Of course, I’m sure he’d say the same thing about me: “doesn’t listen,” “knows what she wants and relentlessly pursues it,” “head like a sieve”…we’re not going to talk about my counter-surfing at this point).


But he’s a dog who has a very strong idea of what earns rewards, what rewards he wants, and what has helped him acquire those rewards in the past.

Don’t we all? And isn’t this how we learn?

Most often, his “prefer not to, thanks very much” arises out of that learning history: either a strong history of rewards that exerts an equally strong influence over his choices, or a gap in his learning that I’ve overlooked in making a request of him. And it’s absolutely his right to refuse. And the onus is entirely on me to ensure the foundational learning is in place before asking anything of him.

This is most certainly not stubbornness.

Still for him, and for all dogs, I bristle at the insistence that a dog will assent to any request we make if they understand what we’re asking and if the rewards we offer are of sufficient value.

There is as great a risk in perceiving our dogs as creatures who may wilfully refuse as there is in perceiving them as creatures who can be trained to do anything. Neither of them is respectful either of who they are or of the learning process itself. And these positions aren’t as far apart as they might appear on first glance.

I appreciate that the claim that dogs don’t wilfully refuse our request grows out of a resistance towards traditional training methods that treat a dog’s learning like a battle of wills. But the suggestion that dogs can be moulded into doing whatever it is that we desire if our training and our rewards are of sufficient quality is equally coercive. Both perspectives arise from a tendency to desire that our dogs’ lives and decisions be ultimately within our control, however seemingly benevolent the underlying intention.

Instead, we can, and perhaps should ask questions about what we seek to teach them and why, whether it is in line with who they are and what they have already learned. We can think about designing and engineering their learning to set them up for success.

If we view learning as an opportunity rather than an imperative, then it becomes dialogic: a way of engaging with, connecting with each other, of conversing, and exchanging knowledge. In this, we open ourselves up to the wonderful potential of filling our own learning gaps: of understanding the why behind what we might perceive as error or refusal…and perhaps of being humble enough to recognise that like all of the most successful partnerships, we can negotiate and compromise with our dogs while helping them develop the skills to move through our human-oriented world. Much as they do for us in theirs.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

More Reading

Chasm Opening Up

The gulf in approaches to living with dogs; the persistence of a focus on compliance and obedience, even if differently packaged. This blogpost argues for learning to be underpinned by connection, mutual reward, and a focus on lifeskills. It proposes some methods for developing connection and learning from our dogs.

Shaping By Rewards

Using the example of Zip’s protectiveness of valuable food resources, this essay demonstrates the ways in which careful examination of what an individual finds rewarding can shape the learning by addressing needs.

Can’t Not Learn

Since learning is always happening, how do we take responsibility for it, and how should we assess what learning is happening?

What is a Trainer?

Opening with a consideration of the multivalence of the term “trainer,” this post explores different approaches to the engineering of learning from sports to life skills. It thinks more broadly about the development of skills as a way to address seeming “behaviour issues,” and reflects on the fact that by building the process of engineering learning on rewards and connection the gulf of understanding between the two species involved can be bridged.

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Key Reading

In praise of naughty dogs

.. a desire for solutions to problems that weren’t problems until someone else outside of the relationship suggested they were.

The Answers Await Discovery

The idea that we’re responsible for our dogs’ learning might well seem strange when we consider how we conceptualise “training:”

Construction or suppression

Looking at the way the behaviour is carried out is the most important element, and that is the product of all the considerations.

Normal is always changing

What was normal in training 20 or 40 years ago is not the same today. There are folk persistently maintaining the normal of 1976, but fortunately there are enough folk with a deeper understanding of the processes that have moved normal forwards.

The Experienced Dog

Knowing your dog has receive sufficient preparation does not mean every eventuality, but a range of different conditions so that when the unexpected happens they will draw on their skills and solve the issue.

Not Today and Not for My Sheepdogs

Standard protocols of extinction, impulse control, counterconditioning are quickly grabbed off the shelf as satisfactory solutions. These solutions are unlikely to help your collie, your sheepdog as the focus is heavily on suppression of who they are and why they live.

The choice of lure

Luring teaches trainers essential skills. We learn how to use suggestion and guidance to shape behaviours. We learn how to explain dynamic movement in the cues from our hands. In combination with reinforcement, luring has without doubt, been one of the skills I value most as a trainer.

Ethos: A Personal Trust Pilot

Experience changes our ethos. There are many pathways that will broaden our choices.

A Road to Nowhere

When familiarity is stripped away we seek recognisable signposts that will take us back to comfort and security. This is survival instinct. It is worth listening to as it keeps us alive.

The Cost of Cherrypicking

When we admit that the ideas we’re sharing are derived from the work of others, we demonstrate our own commitment to learning

Top Training

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.

Stop doing that ….

Can we teach an effective Cease That Behaviour? Absolutely. We can teach that positively, without harm, and we should teach them the skills of stopping that and doing this instead.

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.

Reasons to use a clicker

The concept of “being a clicker trainer” is always going to lead to argument and misunderstanding because it cannot exist alongside the science and technology. It is a “fakery” of our time. The clicker itself is a simple tool that when used in conjunction with technology provides clarity and understanding in teaching.

Going Shopping

This is a joint travelling adventure. It completely resets the learning and can easily extend the reinforcement process.


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