Frustration is a powerful emotion.  We can let it cause us to do things we regret and over time, those actions can build tension into relationships and cause resentment.  This is troublesome enough in our relationships with people, but how does it creep into your relationship with your dog(s)?  Frustration is defined as the “feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something.” Frustration can creep in via many paths to be sure. The one that I see most in my clients is asking too much far (far!) too soon of their dog. Often, they end up creating a scenario where first the dog takes a loss on getting the reinforcer they are working so hard for, and then also tolerating the possible outburst of frustration enacted on them by their person. When I watch this play out in classes or sessions, I am looking at it from a bird’s eye point of view. I can see why the dog made the choice they did, and as a person who trains her own dog, I  can empathize with my client’s frustration.  The hard truth is that it is always the trainer’s responsibility to set the dog up for success as a learner.  He is only working with the information given to him by his trainer and his response is his sole communication about how effective their training plan is for him. 

Frustration in dogs can take on many forms: from barking and biting, to laying down (what Jonny does) or just plain walking away. Frustration in trainers takes many forms too.  In its darkest moments, it can take form when a trainer chooses to hit, slap or yank a dog around. More mild and less obvious when a trainer chooses to keep going: to be unrelenting and ask again and again for something the learn has shown themselves to be incapable of.  The insidiousness of these actions is that they feel good to us.  It’s why we punish in the first place: it is self-satisfying (and reinforcing!) in the moment.  It feels good to vent, yell or hit. Later, you may regret it and try to make amends but the damage is done: your dog (or kid or spouse) will remember.  And because it feels so good to vent you will probably do it again – they know this too.  It is the harder and more learned choice to own your responsibility in the matter and walk away. Or, if you can muster the courage, to play with your dog instead! Just let it go, laugh and remember this training business is meant to be fun for both of you. Come back to the training table later after you have taken the information from your learner to heart and make the necessary changes to your training plan.

Let me share a personal experience: A friend was visiting one day from California.  She is also a dog trainer, so what do we do when hanging out: Train dogs.  Jonny was there and so we went to town.  The trouble was that I had no clear plan and was not really in a clear training mind space – I was just goofing off with a friend.  I should have never entered into a training session this cavalierly – this was my first mistake.  We were playing around with teaching Jonny to put his back feet on a step.  A simple enough task and he’s a savvy dog it’ll be easy – Right?  Well his answer was apparent quickly: it was not easy for him. Yes, he is a savvy dog but even they can be pushed too far.  I was attempting repeatedly to get the behavior I wanted with no luck and I was getting frustrated.  My tone was changing, I was getting more deeper and deeper into my conviction that he would do this thing.  Turns out he was getting frustrated too – probably because he was confused as to what I wanted, he kept failing and was probably beginning to feel unsafe with his owner. Finally, Jonny looked at me and ceremoniously walked over and sat down in heel position next to my friend.  I was horrified.  It was the first time he had ever left a session.  I took a step toward him and he leaned on her and looked up.  I recognized this and it hurt – deeply. It was frustration – with me!  And I almost broke down in tears.  I had broken my dog, he was very clearly a frustrated learner. I had done this to him in my egotistical perspective of thinking it would be easy for us.  What did I do, then?  I pocketed my clicker and picked up a nearby toy and I apologized like the fool I was.  We played until he was clearly happy.  We worked in some very simple sits and hand targets (known safe cues) and connected again.  And he is it turns out a savvy dog: He quickly forgave me and I have never pushed him into that place again, and never will, I hope.  I broke something in our relationship that day, but I was acutely aware that I was at fault. 

When you find yourself or your dog getting frustrated stop training immediately.  Play with some toys and come back later, days if you need it.  Training should be fun and safe for both parties. 

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