I want you to think for a moment of something that frustrates you. Maybe it’s a co-worker, or being stuck in traffic. It could be a vending machine that doesn’t work or a bus that’s late. It can even be your kids or spouses — and probably frequently is!
Since you’re here, I’m guessing that it’s also your dog sometimes.
But what is frustration? Simply, it’s the feeling that comes when we are blocked from fulfilling a need, whether it’s a goal of arriving somewhere on time or communicating something with another person. Our dogs can experience the same feeling of frustration, too, and we are often the cause of theirs — but that’s where most of the similarity ends.
A lot of human frustration revolves around time and knowledge, but the first of those two doesn’t matter at all to our dogs, at least not in the sense it does to us. A dog may get frustrated if you don’t walk her at the usual time, but that has more to do with her immediate needs to explore and pee not being met than with her looking at the clock and seeing that you’re ten minutes late.
One minute or ten or a hundred are too abstract for a dog to understand. All they know is that something was supposed to happen but it didn’t yet.
A dog will definitely get frustrated if they don’t know what you want — in other words, if they don’t have knowledge about something, in this case your desires. This is the single biggest frustration that our dogs suffer. It is also our single biggest blind spot. A lot of the time, our dog’s misbehavior happens entirely because we are frustrating them, but we try to figure out how to blame the dog for it.
Does your dog bark constantly at every tiny noise or at nothing at all? Is he destructive, clawing his way through furniture or walls or eating your clothes or shoes? Is she hyperactive, flying around the house in a non-stop whirlwind that exhausts you just watching?
All of these behaviors can be caused by frustration — and this is where dogs and humans can be somewhat similar. Think of how you react to frustration. If you’re sitting in traffic, what do you do? A lot of people shout and curse. And whether it’s traffic or not, what does your body do when you’re frustrated? It probably tenses up. In some cases, this can actually cause physical symptoms, like back pain, or even injuries.
Your dog’s barking can offer them the same outlet that you calling a bad driver names does, and your dog’s tension can cause them physical problems as well. The big difference is that you know, deep down, that insulting the parentage of the person who cut you off has absolutely nothing to do with traffic suddenly clearing up. Your dog, not so much — so we have to be very careful about how we help a dog deal with their frustration.
There’s the interesting catch. Relieve their frustration immediately, and they may perceive it as a reward. Distract your dog from barking with a cookie, your dog is going to learn pretty quickly that “barking = treat” and you’re going to end up reinforcing exactly the behavior you don’t want.
In order to deal with a dog’s frustration, you need to distract them from it first, then redirect them toward another activity. You can use a sound, like “Tsch,” if your dog is at a low energy level, and a tap or touch if their energy level is high. The goal here is to get them to forget their frustration by focusing on you. Once they’ve done that, then use your energy to bring them to a calm, submissive state. Only then, reward them for giving up the frustration.
Now wouldn’t it be great if it were that easy to do this for ourselves, especially when traffic isn’t moving and we’re running late? Actually, we can — if we remember to think like our dogs and not be overly concerned with clocks or schedules, and if we also remember an important trait we require in order to have balanced relationships: Patience.
There’s something magical in that concept. Not only will it help you eliminate your dog’s frustration, but it will help you overcome yours — and that’s a win all the way around.
Stay calm, and be patient!