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Dealing With Frustration in Dog Training (podcast notes)

Frustration is an incredibly powerful motivator of behavior. If you think back to the last time you had to open a plastic package quickly without a knife, or dropped something just out of reach, or felt trapped by bad traffic, you can see how powerful the upper limits of frustration can be.

Like all emotions, frustration runs on a continuum from minor (wanting desert but denying it because you're on a diet) to major (stuck in traffic and late for an important appointment). At the bottom half of the continuum, frustration actually serves as a motivator. The desire to attain something just out of reach may make us try harder to reach it. This is the crux of reward-based training.

Maggie and I discussed a training method called Shaping, or Freeshaping, which is a unique method that allows the learner (dogs) to make choices, and we mark and reward success. By creating a set up with easy wins that get progressively harder, but pays well, we can create a system that empowers our dogs to problem solve and cope with minor frustrations.

This is a video of my older border collie, Ketchum who has never done free shaping before doing it for the first time (the goal was for her to stick her nose in the green candle holder) - I start off with my criteria being any orientation towards the object. As you can see, she knows I have treats and so she defaults to sit ( a known behavior).

We discussed free shaping in the context that if used properly, it can help inoculate our dogs to frustration by teaching them that there is a solution if they take the time to find it.

We also discussed how clarity can help our dogs avoid frustration. Constantly changing rules causes frustration, because the goal posts keep moving - we never know if we're winning or losing. By creating very clear rules to the game we can help our dogs understand when certain behaviors are welcome, and when they are not.

Small doses of frustration lead to problem solving, whereas, constant frustration without the tools to solve the underlying problem can lead to long-term problems.

Frustration, as Maggie and I both discussed in the podcast can lead to aggression. According to Jaak Panksepp, frustration lies within the RAGE part of the Emotional System. This means that excessive or cumulative frustration can lead our dogs to exhibit signs of aggression. In the examples Maggie and I gave, her own dog bit her when she refused to let him bite her neighbor (he's a lot of dog, and he came to her with a bite history), and Tagg takes out her aggression by targeting a sheep and gripping (biting) when her frustration gets too high.

When we are working with our dogs and we see frustration building, that tells us that perhaps we have set too difficult a challenge, and before stepping back we should give our dogs a place to release their frustration by playing tug (biting), or some other activity that will ensure that the built up emotion does not pollute the remainder of our training session.

Signs that your dog is experiencing frustration can include: mouthing, biting, barking, spinning, whining, leash pulling, and more. We go a long way towards alleviating these behaviors if we ensure that our dog's mental and physical needs are met, and then teaching them how to respond to minor amounts of frustration in their lives.

Discussed in the podcast:

The book, When Pigs Fly, by Jane Killon

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