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

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No room for mechanics

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner

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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.

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.

It’s Not Training

A carefully planned learning pathway, paced to suit that particular learner for their life ahead.

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At the heart of learner-centred education, the teacher acts as a guide whose role is to elicit rather than to impart, and learners quickly become empowered and equipped to transfer their knowledge and skills to new scenarios.

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

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or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

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