But is it Fun

How to deal with human frustration in dog training

The negative emotion I see the most in dog training is not fear or aggression or anxiety on the dog’s part. It is frustration, both in the dog and his handler.

This frustration can take all the joy out of training.
All of us have had those moments in which we felt we have done everything possible to communicate to our dog what we want. We shaped, we lured, we manipulated the environment and the behavior still has not changed to what we want it to be.
We have probably also encountered frustrated dogs: the ones that just quit working, or start barking frantically or even bite their handler.

Unfortunately one thing seems to always hold true:

When frustration starts, the fun ends.

We as humans are usually able to drastically improve our training skills over time. Human timing, setting criteria and rate of reinforcement gets much better with a bit of practice and consistent work. The tendency to be frustrated however seems to stay the same – I still get as irritated when things don’t work out as I did in my first months of training dogs.

Go to any training class, any trial and you will see that human frustration has nothing to do with how long one has been involved in dog training.

Being able to deal with frustration is not a skill we subconsciously pick up along the way, such as clicking at exactly the right moment or being able to see whether treats or toys would be better suited for training a behavior.

Controlling the own frustration needs to be a conscious decision on the handler’s part.

I do not believe there is anything wrong with being frustrated. Nobody chooses to feel frustrated, just like no one chooses to be cold or hungry. What can be right or wrong is how we deal with it – just like you can either lash out at your partner when you are hungry and irritated, or you can recognize that you are hungry and irritated and they are probably doing nothing wrong, so you choose to eat something to feel better.

When we are frustrated with our dog, chances are we are also not seeing things very clearly. We think that we are in the right and the dog is somehow failing us.
This is most likely not a moment in which productive training is going to happen. I would highly advise to not keep doing what you were doing.
Here are some ideas on how to deal with the situation instead:

Hand the dog over

If you are with friends, this is often the easiest solution. Going on a walk and your dog just doesn’t stop pulling on leash and you are about to lose your patience? Ask your companions to trade dogs for a bit.
Getting frustrated in a training class? Ask your trainer to handle your dog for you and demonstrate.
Your dog will do better with a calm handler and you might feel better seeing that he is actually slowly understanding!

 

Back to basics

Human frustration is based in our own lack of reinforcement. Our reinforcement is the dog doing what we want, and if that does not happen for too long we are not happy. So what is a smart way to reinforce ourselves? Ask the dog for behaviors we know he can do. It can be as easy as sit-stand-down or a retrieve. It will give you and the dog some much needed rewards.

Just quit

Walking away is probably the solution I pick the most often for myself. If I cannot seem to get anywhere in a training session, my dog gets a handful of treats for free and we go for a walk instead.
Nobody can be frustrated on a nice walk – and the emotion the dog will remember from the session is joy over cookies and an adventure, not frustration.

In my home country of Germany there is a child raising program that suggests that every time you become frustrated with your child, you should say nothing and instead walk into the kitchen and eat a piece of chocolate.
This is a wonderful piece of advice. Instead of flipping out and potentially reacting unfairly, the adult removes himself from the situation and makes himself happy. Then he will be able to deal with the child much better!

Try it with your own dogs. When they frustrate you, don’t say anything, don’t do anything; just walk away and have some chocolate. Do something fun for a while and come back to them happy and relaxed and try again.

Be mindful to recognize the beginnings of your own frustration. Frustration does not start when you are already feeling angry. Frustration starts much earlier, when we do the fourth unsuccessful repetition of a behavior, but refuse to make the criteria easier because “the dog should know”.
The earlier you can catch your frustration, the earlier you can do something to not let it get the better of you and become a problem in training.

(More on not getting frustrated here – Slow Down.)

Happy non-frustrated training!

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