As a dog owner, dog trainer, and human being, I see and experience my fair share of frustrations. When working with clients, I often see frustrated dogs who don’t understand what their owners want and frustrated owners who don’t understand why their dog won’t perform a skill. So, why do we (humans and dogs) experience frustration, and how can we avoid all of the stress associated with it?
Let’s start by thinking of ourselves. Think vividly of the last time you were frustrated. For me, I was trying to edit a video for YouTube. The video wouldn’t load, then there was a glitch with the sound, and then my app froze. The program finally crashed and I lost over an hour of the progress. “UGHHH!” An animalistic noise came out of my mouth and I stomped my foot on the ground throwing my phone onto the couch, like a five-year-old. I got up and I started cleaning the house for a change of activity.
Now, think of the last time your dog was frustrated. I have been working on incorporating all my dogs in group training sessions instead of separating them, to improve their patience and make it easier to do frequent sessions throughout the day. So instead of putting Lucy, my 8-year-old Alaskan Malamute, behind a baby gate with a Kong while I work the other dog, she now settles on a mat while I train my younger Malamute, Lennon. This is HARD, especially for a dog who struggles with impulse control and is emphatic about learning. While I was working Lennon nearby, Lucy vocalized, wiggled, broke her settle, mouthed on my hand and plopped back down on the bed with a woof all within a couple minutes of starting Lennon’s session.
We both experienced similar responses to frustration.
When we dig deeper and unpack frustration in our dogs (and ourselves), we find a variety of voluntary and involuntary behaviors. Some of these voluntary behaviors can include vocalizations and mouthing (hopefully only in our dogs and not us, hah). We can also see displacement behaviors (normal behaviors but ones that are out of context) like sniffing, scratching, and grooming. In humans this could be checking Facebook, turning on the television, or cleaning (like I did after my video crash). And we can see involuntary behaviors such as elevated heart rate, increased respiration rate, and even dilated pupils. So, knowing what frustration feels like to us, we should not be so quick to label our dog’s frustration as naughty behavior.
So why do we experience frustration? When you, or your dog, are doing something that used to work in the past and suddenly it doesn’t work, we become frustrated. Our expectations were not met. We didn’t get the reinforcement that we expected. If we look back at my own recent frustrating experience, the app that normally works seamlessly and integrates sound as recorded, suddenly stopped working and all of my attempted fixes (which also normally work) were ineffective! The reinforcement of finishing and uploading the video was blocked. When we look back at my training set up with Lucy, I can conclude that she was frustrated by not being able to work with me and by not receiving reinforcement for the skill she was performing, settle. Her ability to “play the game” and earn the click/treat was blocked in more than one way.
Identifying frustration in our dog is important. It helps us learn how to treat them with kindness, empathy, and make desired behaviors stronger. It not only lets us know that our training plan needs some changes. It is also a sign that a behavior is going through extinction, which means that a behavior is weakening or decreasing in frequency. So, when we see frustration, some behavior is decreasing in strength. And unfortunately, it may not be the behavior you think it is! And if we ignore frustration, we could lose a behavior altogether (one that we likely have spent a lot of time building) or we could create new undesirable behaviors.
So, when your dog is showing signs of frustration… what do we do? How do we get the frustration behaviors out and get into more reinforcement? Let’s go back to our example with Lucy and her mat.
Option one is to change nothing. I could continue to provide random reinforcement to Lucy on her mat as I work with Lennon. This would mean that I am giving treats to her while she settles, and vocalizes, and mouths. Here there is a high likelihood those frustration behaviors (barking, wiggling, jumping up, mouthing) will get looped into the behavior we are working on (settle). So, in the future when I ask her to settle, she may no longer lie down in a calm relaxed manner on a bed, but now she may now incorporate wiggles, bounces and vocalizations.
Option two is to only pay Lucy for settling without displaying any frustration behaviors. So, if I ask her to settle and she remains quiet and still, then she gets paid. And if I ask her to settle and she barks, then I withhold her treat. While it may seem logical that I would want to reward the desirable behavior and ignore the undesirable behaviors, in reality, I am now significantly reducing how much reinforcement Lucy receives for her settle. By further blocking her access to the reinforcement, I will only increase her frustration (and mine as I watch this behavior!). So, we will see even MORE frustration behaviors like barking, mouthing, and jumping up and I drive my settle on a mat behavior further into extinction. And if I continue training this way, then I may lose her settle on a mat behavior altogether.
The best option is to take a break from the current training session and rework the training plan to reinforce the desired behavior without all of the frustration components. While ending a training session isn’t the easiest thing to do in the moment, it will yield the best results. I need to identify what reinforcement the dog is wanting and currently lacking (and remember it may NOT always be what you think it is). Then, I need change the setup of my session or my reinforcement schedule so the dog gets the reinforcement they desire in some manner. So, with Lucy, I can increase the rate of reinforcement from the start, so she earns the reward for settle at a high enough rate to prevent her from expressing frustration. Then she no longer becomes frustrated so I can reward quality settle without the frustration behaviors.
Lucy also desires to “play the game” with me. She would prefer to be working with me rather than watching me work. I can ask her to settle and keep the duration short, so that she is able to remain quiet and relaxed on her mat while I work Lennon. I can then release her from the mat and allow her to train with me. So, in this circumstance she gains access to her desired reinforcer (training with me) after she completes another behavior (settle on a mat).
In my example, if I have already been practicing settle on a mat and I have seen the frustration behaviors for a while, it is possible those behaviors are already looped in. If this is the case, I need to go back and find where in her shaping plan she is able to do the behavior without any frustrations. This could mean rebuilding the entire behavior from the ground up so that there are no vocalizations rehearsed.
Experiencing frustration is not fun and often leaves us with residual stress. So, we should have empathy for our dogs when they experience frustration, especially when it is the result of our training plan. But by taking a quick break to reassess the behavior in play and the reinforcement that our dog desires, we can evaluate how to better set up training sessions so our dogs get the reinforcement they need. So, in my human example I can update my iOS, so that the video app works, so that I can finish my video. And for Lucy, I can increase the rate of reinforcement, shorten the duration and provide a different reinforcer, or rework the settle so that she can maintain the behavior without frustration. When feeling frustrated or seeing frustration with your dog, I encourage you to take a break and reflect on your training sessions so that you can help set yourself and your dog up for success.