The 3 most important things you need to know about your frustrated dog
Do you have a dog who barks and lunges on lead but seems much better when they’re allowed to run up and greet others? If so, this article will help you make sense of your dog’s behaviour.
If you’ve ever shouted ‘Don’t worry! He’s friendly!’ as other dog guardians struggle to disentangle their dog from yours, this article is most definitely made for you!
Many owners seek advice from dog trainers because their dog is barking and lunging on the lead when they see another dog. There are dogs who can’t cope even if the other dog is more than 300m away. There are also dogs who cope well enough until the other dog is less than a few metres away. Although we might commonly label this behaviour ‘reactivity’, there is much more to it. It’s especially common in what people sometimes call leash frustration or leash aggression or barrier frustration.
If you’ve realised that your dog actually seems to cope better off the lead, then you may be looking at a case of frustration.
For the trainer, the most important task is to identify underlying frustration. Any training you do to help your dog cope better will be more challenging unless you have found ways to help your dog cope with their feelings. Despite the fact it is often easier to let our frustrated dogs run off the lead, in many places this can be dangerous, even illegal.
This post is the fourth in a series in which we unpick the problems that lie beneath barking and lunging. Frustration might not be your dog’s only problem. So far, we have looked at:
You may well need to check back in with these articles to understand your dog’s behaviour better. It is rarely just a simple case of frustration.
Many frustrated dogs also struggle with impulse control. Although these are not the same thing, there are aspects that intersect.
Other frustrated dogs engage in a kind of trial-by-ordeal behaviour. Here, they feel compelled to run up to unfamiliar dogs and interact with them in order to put them to the test. Underlying this kind of behaviour can be anxiety and fearfulness. There may also be a number of other factors that will be explored in future articles. Lack of early experience can certainly play a role in why dogs seem to engage in this kind of behaviour.
In this article, we will take a deeper look at frustration in dogs so we can understand if our dogs are frustrated or not. Once we’ve got a solid understanding of what a frustrated dog looks like, we can then think about the causes of frustration. Only then can we really start a training programme to help our dogs cope better when they can’t get what they want.
Why is it important to deal with frustration first?
If your dog is the kind who shrieks out of windows at the slighest glimpse of another dog, it will be difficult to address this problem if you haven’t given your dog strategies to cope better. You are going to need to expose them to a number of other dogs at a distance. If they are struggling with frustration as well as fear or impulse control issues, this will make it doubly difficult.
If you haven’t helped your dog learn to cope with frustration before you start a reactive dog course, your dog may actually struggle even more as you begin the programme.
This is especially true if you have ever let your dog off the lead because they’re easier off it than on it. If your dog feels the need to meet and greet every single individual dog or strange human, then they’re going to find it even more frustrating if they’re not allowed to do this during the training programme.
It’s vital that your dog doesn’t get to practise this trial-by-ordeal behaviour for many reasons.
It is sometimes dangerous to let your dog run up to or greet every other dog or human. Although most interactions tend to go relatively well, not all will. Although most dog fights tend to end with relatively minor injuries, this isn’t always true. Sadly, a number of dogs die every year because they approach another dog who does not want to engage.
It’s hard to admit that it’s not their ‘aggressive’ dog who has the problem. It’s often our ‘friendly’ dog who does. Worse still, the uncouth manners of other dogs may well be why they’re struggling in the first place.
Loose dogs have even been killed as a result of running up to another dog.
Although greetings are often much better where no leads are involved, no dog should feel the need to greet every single dog they see. While your dog may well benefit from restorative socialisation later in their programme to help them learn better ways to interact with other dogs, at the beginning it will be important for them to be on lead. More ‘socialisation’ is not the answer to problems with frustration.
If your dog can’t be on lead around other dogs, then that is the first skill they need to learn.
Thousands of guardians have taken their lunging, barking dog to the dog park or to doggie daycare hoping their dog will learn better manners or will get over their frustration. This rarely works.
All that happens is they get better at their trial-by-ordeal behaviours. They also get worse at handling frustration when they don’t get to rush up to ‘say hi!’
Help your dog learn to tolerate frustration first and you may find many of your problems disappear.
Ignore this common cause of barking and lunging at your peril. Ignore it and find that your dog can’t cope with any kind of training programme. Their behaviour will get worse.
What is frustration?
Frustration can be described as an emotional reaction that happens after our expectations are violated.
This has several components.
The first is that it is a negative emotional state. Frustration does not feel good.
The second is that it is built on previous learning. The dog has to have the expectation that they might get to greet other dogs. Without that expectation, they are unlikely to be frustrated.
Unfortunately, guardians can inadvertently worsen this problem by creating experiences where the boundaries are unclear. Sometimes the dog is allowed off lead to rush up to unfamiliar dogs; other times, the dog is kept on lead. The dog is unlikely to understand why they’re sometimes allowed to greet some dogs. This can be frustrating.
Frustration can also be a by-product of having our desires thwarted. This explains why our dogs may bark and lunge much less. It also explains why they rush to engage with the other dog. It can be very easy for this negative emotion to spill over into aggression and fights. Sometimes, it can even result in redirected aggression if our dogs bite us for trying to restrain them.
It is not uncommon for frustrated dogs to whip round and bite their guardians, for example. If we reach out to them to touch them when they aren’t expecting it, we may find that we become the target of those emotions.
What is frustration tolerance?
We aren’t born knowing how to cope with disappointment or having our needs thwarted. Learning to tolerate inconvenience is a skill we acquire through early development. It is also a taught skill. When we see toddlers having tantrums in supermarkets, often this is rooted in the same emotions that fuel our dog’s barking and lunging. Both behaviours are rooted in a desire that cannot or will not be met.
Unfortunately, some guardians misunderstand this developmental process. They expect it to just happen. They think that dogs just learn how to cope when their needs are not met.
Other dogs need help and support as they learn to tolerate life’s unmet expectations.
How do we teach dogs to cope with frustration?
This can involve helping them disengage from things they want but can’t have. Some guardians will find that programmes to help their dog refocus on them instead of the other dog can help. Just as we might do something else to deliberately take our own mind off things we can’t have, we may need to help our dogs learn this skill too.
We may also need to help dogs understand the parameters more clearly. We don’t want to deprive them completely of meeting other dogs. At the same time, we also can’t let them keep practising barking, lunging or charging up to other dogs for a quick trial by ordeal. Some dogs will benefit from learning when they are permitted to engage and when they are expected to disengage. That may also involve restorative socialisation.
Restorative socialisation is a skilful, mindful and careful staged situation in which more skilled dogs can kindly and supportively help dogs learn better dog skills. It is not simply a case of throwing dogs in at the deep end and sending them to a dog park with a large number of other dogs who also engage in regular trials by ordeal. In situations like these, younger or less experienced dogs can learn the signs of disengagement. Many dogs struggle with this and it is therefore something that needs to be handled by experienced professionals who have a long history of successful restorative socialisation in adult dogs.
Some dogs will need guardians to recognise when they’re handling frustration well, rewarding that with interaction. Other dogs will need a little coaching and structured support.
Teaching dogs to tolerate frustration is not just about dog-dog situations. Many dogs benefit from learning other strategies to cope with frustration. There are several ways you can help your dog learn ways to cope when they don’t get what they want.
You may also find things like free work help your dog become more robust and resilient.
But shouldn’t we just meet dogs’ needs?
Some people will say that simply meeting the dog’s needs will put an end to frustration in the kindest way. The problem with this is that other individuals have a right not to engage with your dog. Whether it is a person who is afraid of dogs, or a dog who just wants to be left alone, they have needs too.
Others say that teaching animals to tolerate frustration is to expect them to meet our human needs and our human expectations. Of course, this can be true. However, like all animals, dogs will experience times when their needs cannot be met. It is unkind of us to expect them to be able to cope with this without teaching.
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