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Frustration in Dog Training

Frustration - none of us are immune to it. In fact, feeling frustrated can be like a self-fulfilling prophecy:

1. Experience a situation or results that differ from expectations.

2. Feel disappointment, anger, and frustration because of the difference between where you are and where you want to be.

3. Do nothing or the wrong things to address the frustration.

4. Repeat.

I have seen numerous students as well as other dog trainers become frustrated with their dogs when faced with training problems. And to be fair, it's a pretty human thing to do.

Because I'm also human, guess what, I too experience frustration from time to time. The other day I was doing some agility training with my own dog and she knocked the same bar twice in a row.

I felt a flare of frustration and was sure it was warranted. As the bar clattered down for the second time, I turned to my coach and asked, "Am I right to be frustrated with her?".

To which he replied, "Is frustration ever helpful in training?".

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Yes, if you can recognize what's driving the frustration and address it productively.

So why do we get frustrated with our dogs during training?

Frustration happens when we bring in expectations that our dog knows how to do something but isn't doing it on purpose.

Sometimes people say it's spite or stubbornness.

They might also label the dog willful or obstinate.

Most dogs or puppies I have met who have been labelled spiteful/stubborn/willful are none of those things.

So what's really doing on? Here are the most common reasons our dogs are getting it wrong and suggestions on how to avoid pitfalls of frustration.

You've asked your JK Level Dog a PhD Level Question

When I am first teaching dogs new skills I think of them as kindergarten kids: they have a very basic level of understanding. It's not the time to ask them to perform calculus when they're only getting the grasp of counting up to 10.

Dogs and puppies are no different. If my dog has just learned to settle on a bed at home, with no distractions, they are probably not going to understand how to stay in their bed at a busy agility trial. This is something we need to work to! And just like kids, we increase their level of understanding in stages to help them be successful. Before you assume your dog didn't do XYZ because they simply didn't want to, think carefully about their prior learning experience. Remember, dogs don't generalize well, why is why it's common for known skills to be rusty in novel environments until they have more experience performing them there.

Our Cues Weren't Clear

Cues (or commands) are what we to use to ask our dogs to perform a behaviour.Unfortunately for our dogs, we're often inconsistent in how we are asking our dogs for behaviours.

For example, I'll hear people yell "down, down!" at their dog when the dog is jumping up on a counter but then become frustrated when their dog doesn't lie down when asked to "down". We aren't being clear on what "down" really means - get off the counter? Or lie down? We can't have both!

Another common example is lifting our hand as we ask for a sit. While there is nothing wrong with using hand cues to ask for a behaviour, if we do our hand cue at the same time we say "sit", our dog is likely just going to watch our hands as that is the easiest thing for them to understand.

When we ask them to sit without the hand signal, we think they are being disobedient, when likely they never understood the verbal "sit" in the first place

We Are Tired/Upset/Impatient/Distracted

If I start a training session with my dog, especially if I'm training something new, I need to go into the training session with the right mindset. If I feel tired or I'm just not in a good frame of mind, chances are my training session will mirror this. I'll lose patience with my dog and tend to get frustrated more easily. Not an attitude that is conducive to learning!

We all have bad days, but if you can't check those feelings at the training room door, skip training - do something calming that both you and your dog will enjoy instead.

Dogs Aren't Robots

I think it's easy to forget that dogs are animals and, like us, they're capable of having off days as well.

Dogs are susceptible to sickness, exhaustion, fatigue, and distractions just as we are. In my original example, when my dog knocked bars, it's totally possible she was just tired. Running and jumping is hard work! Or she might have just been too excited to think about lifting her legs carefully. Either way, it's highly unlikely she did it on purpose. It's much more likely that mentally or physically she should couldn't maintain her training criteria in that session. It happens- and really, people are no different. You can't perform at 100% of your game everyday.

When training isn't going to plan, there is no shame in giving the dog a break and coming back to it.

In those moments when the dog is just not getting it or things just aren't clicking, give them a break! Dogs aren't robots and they're going to have days where they just won't perform at their very best. Those are the days you're better off switching gears, abandoning your training plan (instead of trying to repeat failure over and over to produce success- a common training error!) and just enjoying some time letting your dog be a dog and loved pet.

Frustration: What Is It Good For?

In a training session- very little! If you're the kind of person that is more likely to get angry and impatient, training while frustrated is not a great strategy. On the other hand, if you're someone who can look at what's happening objectively, without becoming emotional, frustration can be a useful tool to help you critically analyze why there is a difference between where you are and where you want to be- and how to close that training gap. In both cases, taking a break to think and recharge is usually the most productive option.

If you need help finding ways to work through issues with your dog, without getting frustrated, contact us.

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