Tag Archives: dog traits

Close-up of a black Brussels Griffon dog's face to illustrate don't stare at dogs

Don’t stare at dogs

Gazing into each other’s eyes is a great way to connect with your dog. But it has to be your dog. Meeting a strange dog’s eyes can be seen as threatening, intimidating, or even cause for aggression. Unless it’s your dog, just don’t stare at dogs.

Sometimes, it’s not even a good idea to stare at your own dog. One of the exercises we practice in competition Obedience requires the dog to stay for a minute, with you six feet away at the other end of the leash. Some dogs need constant eye contact to maintain the position and reassure them that they’re doing fine. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve trained dogs that would move immediately if you made eye contact. For those dogs, we spend a lot of time looking at the space between their ears. We could see what they were doing, but weren’t looking directly at them.

Stranger danger

That’s one of the ways we developed the technique of looking indirectly at dogs we’re just meeting. It seems contradictory that an animal who considers butt-sniffing the height of polite greetings will take offense if you meet their eyes. But there you have it. 

When meeting a dog for the first time, it’s a good idea to look slightly to the side until they have a chance to get used to you and relax. When we meet dogs who are considered reactive or even aggressive, we try not to look at them at all. Instead, while we chat with their people, we randomly throw treats in front of the dog, never looking directly at them. It’s a good way to defuse the problem before it even happens. 

They started it

Close-up of a black Brussels Griffon dog's face to illustrate don't stare at dogs

It’s kind of funny to us that people can get defensive about iffy encounters they’ve had with dogs. Maybe the dog was staring at you. That doesn’t mean you have to stare back! Ages ago one of our dogs (Whimsy, pictured, a black, smooth Brussels Griffon) was absolutely fascinated by a friend of ours. He would stare at her for as long as she was with us. We would joke about her being “Whimsy TV.”  She’d never done anything negative to him, other than pet him on top of his head, which he loathed. Apparently he decided he had to keep a wary eye on her for the rest of his life. 

Because dogs are all unique, there’s no single good way to train. One of the first exercises in most basic obedience classes is to get the dog to “Watch!” As soon as the dog meets the owner’s eyes, the dog gets a reward. For most dogs, this is a fun game and they learn quickly to stare into their people’s eyes non-stop. They wind up walking almost sideways, trying to maintain eye contact.

But it’s not always the case. Apparently herding dogs, like Shelties, use their stares to get the job done. They intimidate the heck out of whatever they’re herding by staring at them. When we had a Sheltie in class, he was the least confident dog in the house and the other dogs kept him cowed by staring. When the owner tried to teach the dog “Watch!” the poor little guy was terrified. It wasn’t the right match for this team. 

Know your dog

There’s a saying in dog training that you have to “train the dog in front of you.” That translates into accepting your dog for who they are and adapting to your dog’s preferences. If your dog likes meeting your eyes and finds the direct contact reassuring, go right ahead. If, like the little Sheltie, they think it means they’re in trouble, then avoid doing it. 

Funnily enough, the same dogs who avoid eye contact also seem to hate posing for pictures. We’re not sure that dogs recognize a camera lens (or back of a phone) as another eye looking back at them. But we think it’s interesting that they seem to know. 

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Picture of a Boston Terrier lying down to illustrate hard dog soft dog

What is a “hard” dog? Or a “soft” dog?

Dog personalities are described as “hard” or “soft.” It’s often described as something you know when you see it, but hard to describe. Because we’re discussing the differences, the pros, cons, and challenges of each, we did a little search on how others define the traits. What is a hard dog? What about a soft dog?

We were pretty surprised by what we found. As if we were still in the dark ages of dog training, the top results talked about how “hard” dogs are notable for being able to withstand harsh punishment. That’s not it. Not at all. No dog should ever have to endure physical punishment. Both science and common decency have proven positive reinforcement is a more effective (and humane) way to train dogs. 

We wanted to get that out of the way. That’s not what we’re talking about when we define dog personalities as “hard” or “soft.” At the most basic level, the major difference between the two personalities would be confidence. “Hard” dogs tend to be more confident than “soft” dogs. Most dogs probably fall somewhere in the middle, showing characteristics of both.

Interestingly, you’ll find both types of dogs described as “stubborn.” But stubborn isn’t really a dog thing, it’s a people personality trait. If you ask or tell your dog to do something and they don’t, it’s either because they don’t understand what you want, or it’s not sufficiently rewarding to do it.

Hard dog defined

Picture of a Boston Terrier lying down to illustrate hard dog soft dog

By most measures, Fran’s Boston Terrier Simon could be considered a “hard” dog. He has a temper and he can lash out if he’s thwarted. He also wants to be part of everything that goes on. The other part of that personality is that he’s quick on the uptake, learns new things quickly, and loves playing training games. Most of the time, as in this picture, Simon shows us “soft” eyes and is a pleasure to have around.

He’s also moody. When he’s in one of his moods, Simon’s eyes get hard and he’s looking for a reason to go after one of the other dogs. If you’ve never had a dog with “hard eyes,” you may not know what we’re talking about. When we see it, we’ve learned to lower the stress level and change his focus. 

One of the terrific aspects of having a “hard” dog is they don’t shut down when they don’t understand. They’ll keep trying until they get the answer. This is probably the most glaring difference between “hard” and “soft” dogs.

Soft dog features

Soft dogs tend to be more timid and less confident. These are the dogs that will hide behind their person in unfamiliar situations. They’re also the ones who need encouragement to try new things. In their own way, soft dogs can be exhausting. It’s tough always being a cheerleader.

One of the best parts of the soft dog personality is they tend to be sweet and cuddly. Interestingly, there’s a Chocolate Lab in Hope’s beginner class who pretends to be a hard dog, barking and jumping for attention. But he’s actually a softie and quite uncertain. This guy isn’t sure what to do, so acts in a way that always gets his owner’s attention. He’s looking for someone to tell him what to do, and he’s getting it. Building up his confidence, without catering to his insecurities, is the goal. 

Training solves most problems

Both “hard” and “soft” dogs’ personalities mellow somewhere in the middle when they know what’s expected of them and how to act. Regardless of where your dog comes in on the scale, just recognizing why they’re acting the way they are can make life easier. Most dogs are somewhere in the middle, sometimes showing all the confidence in the world. And other times they’re unsure and need reassurance. Just as people, dogs’ personalities are complex. 

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Picture of a brindle French Bulldog sitting in the sun to illustrate Your Dog's Not Stubborn

Dogs Are Not Stubborn

When people describe their dogs, almost all will include the word “stubborn” in their dog’s story. We hear it all the time. But when we ask for an example, most people will tell us a story where the dog is either uncertain, or unmotivated. Your dog’s not stubborn. It’s really not a dog thing. 

If your dog isn’t doing what you want them to do when you want them to do it, that’s not stubborn. Your dog is telling you either they don’t understand what you want, or you haven’t given them a good reason to do it.

The most rewarding thing

Dogs always do the thing that’s most rewarding to them. The tricky part for people is figuring out what that is. Because you don’t get to decide how valuable anything is to your dog. Just like people, dogs have their own opinions, tastes, and preferences.

Picture of a brindle French Bulldog sitting in the sun to illustrate Dogs Aren't Stubborn

Two of our dogs scour the yard searching for rabbit poop to consume. We hate that. It’s completely disgusting. But to get them to stop, we have to offer something better. Fortunately, Chicken Heart Treats are better than bunny pellets. So when we know there’s a rabbit spending time in our yard, our treat pouches are full of high-value treats. There are times when our usual Cheerios and Kibble mix won’t do.

That’s an instance where the fix is pretty easy. Could we have said our dogs were being “stubborn” about not coming inside? Or “stubbornly” doing something we’ve told them not to? Sure. But they’re not actually being stubborn. They’re being dogs.

Just don’t get it

The other situation we hear about is when the dog either “ignores” a command, or disengages and walks away. Most people describe these as being stubborn.

But it’s not. Both of those are clear indicators that your dog doesn’t understand what it’s supposed to do. And it happens to everybody. You think your dog knows something, but they’re either not sure, or the situation is different.

We see this most often in our beginner classes. People think their dogs know something, like “Sit!”, and yet when they’re asked to do it, they don’t. 

One of the quirks in the way dogs think is that they don’t generalize. That means they can’t easily transition learning to different circumstances. People are wired to generalize. For example – when a person learns how to use a fork, they can use any fork. No matter what it looks like, what it’s made of, or where they are. Dogs can’t naturally do that. If you teach your dog to “Sit!” in the kitchen, with a treat in your hand, standing in front of the dog, that’s how your dog knows sit. To have your dog broaden their understanding of “Sit!” you have to teach it in other places, standing beside the dog, without a treat, etc. Dogs can be taught to generalize, but it’s not part of their default settings. 

Dogs are not stubborn

Putting a label like “stubborn” on your dog colors how you treat them. And what you expect from them. 

Try looking at the situation from your dog’s perspective and see how it changes things. If your dog is doing something they find incredibly fun, what can you do to make your choice more attractive? If your dog isn’t doing something you ask, take a couple of minutes and a handful of treats to reinforce the behavior you want. 

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