It doesn't mean they're being willful or stupid or (shudder) "dominant." It (sometimes -- more on this later) means that whatever you want them to do is not intrinsically fun for them, and whatever you're offering in exchange for the not-intrinsically-fun activity is just not good enough to be worth it. Put simply, they're not sufficiently motivated to play along.
I made this clip while practicing cavaletti with Dog Mob the other day. It's not a particularly good cavaletti clip, but it is a good illustration of a decidedly unmotivated dog.
Crookytail does not like practicing cavaletti. He doesn't especially care for most formal sports exercises, in fact. Like a lot of dogs, he just doesn't see the point. Dog sports involve a lot of really arbitrary and inefficient activities; it's not for nothing that people often say titles demonstrate that your dog loves you enough to do a bunch of really stupid stuff for your sake.
Crookytail believes, quite reasonably, that if the goal is for him to go to the mat, it is faster and more sensible to go around the cavaletti poles than high-step over them. He is a forgiving dog, and I think he feels uncomfortable expressing this too forcefully, but it's pretty clear he thinks I'm nuts for insisting that he take the annoying inefficient route of going over the poles instead of around them.
So, by the time I made this clip, he had just tuned out. The exercise appeared pointless to him and he didn't have enough motivation to do it, so he wasn't about to go through the hassle. (Pongu, on the other hand, is more willing to humor me -- but Pongu has been working with me for longer, so for him, the work itself and the reward of interacting with me is sufficient motivation to run the poles.)
Whenever a dog refuses to do an exercise, I find it helpful to rule out a few possible reasons for the refusal.
(1) Confusion -- does the dog understand the exercise? Perhaps my request is unclear, and the dog just isn't sure what he's supposed to do with all those poles.
In this case I know there's no confusion because Crookytail has been working cavaletti for weeks and knows what the goal of the exercise is. But often this is the first stumbling block, and indicates that I need to go back and break the exercise down into smaller, simpler pieces -- perhaps just one pole on the ground in front of the mat.
(2) Ability -- is the dog capable of the exercise? Perhaps I'm asking for more than the dog is physically able to give. Some dogs will actually strain to the point of injuring themselves in an effort to comply with their humans' requests, so it's vital to keep a close watch on our dogs for signs of injury or illness and never ask for more than they can do.
Here, I know that the height and spacing of the poles makes the exercise difficult but not impossible. The first pole is 8" high, the second one is 1/2" high and deliberately crooked, and the last one is 4" high. The poles are placed at intervals that discourage jumping (which would probably be more fun) and encourage careful high-stepping (much less fun). There's very little physical strain involved here, but the pole setup does require a fair amount of concentration to navigate, and that can be tedious for the dog.
(3) Stress and Distraction -- is the environment one that the dog is able to work within, or is there too much going on for the dog to focus? If the dog is too stressed or distracted, it's not a good teaching environment. It may be a good proofing environment, but if the dog isn't at that level yet or is being asked to learn a novel behavior, practicing in a high-distraction environment is just setting your partner up for failure.
In this clip, however, we're practicing in our boring old living room where we always practice. Nothing else is competing for his attention, and it's not a new behavior anyway; Crooky is thoroughly familiar with these poles. Stress and distraction are not in play.
So after considering and ruling out those factors, it becomes clear that this is purely a question of motivation. Crookytail is just not interested in playing the game: it's boring to him, and the payoff for sludging through that boredom is not good enough to get him moving.
Fair enough. I have to do a lot of things at my job that I think are boring, and I probably wouldn't do them without a paycheck. It doesn't mean I don't love my boss or coworkers (I do; they're awesome) or that I don't find the work generally rewarding (I do; it's important!)... but I'm honestly not that stoked about filling out proofs of service or formatting cover pages, and the only reason I bother is because I'm getting paid.
Same deal for Crooky. Therefore, as a trainer, there are two things I can do to help my dog succeed: (1) break the exercise down into smaller pieces, so he doesn't have to endure quite as much boredom (make it one or two poles instead of three, and make them straighter and lower instead of presenting him with such a tanglefoot maze); and (2) improve the payoff.
Instead of using the same bland soft treats that he's been getting all day, I might switch to higher-octane stuff: tiny bits of leftover bacon or his favorite cheese. I could give him more effusive praise and neck scratches instead of a murmured "good." If Crooky were more into toys than food, I might give him a ball toss or quick game of Tag or Tug after every run. I could even ask him to do one of his favorite tricks, like Spin, which not only acts as a motivator for the cavaletti poles, but reinforces a behavior he already knows and makes that one more enjoyable too. The more motivators you have, the better and more varied your rewards can be. Getting the same thing every time quickly becomes boring and predictable; most dogs prefer a little surprise now and then.
The subject of building motivation (or "drive," as it's sometimes called) is a much bigger one than this blog post can cover. Entire books -- and very good ones! -- have been written on that topic. But it's important to be able to recognize, and respect, when that's the issue you're facing.
Crookytail's lack of motivation in this clip is not an indication that he's untrainable or doesn't love me or is in any way a Bad Dog. It's just his way of telling me that he is not into this particular game right now, and I'd better make it more fun if I want him to keep playing. And that's fine. I can respect that -- and, just as importantly, I can use it to find a reward that does work for him, and to re-configure the exercise in a way that's more enjoyable for him.