Understanding Barrier Frustration in Dogs
What is Barrier Frustration?
What is barrier frustration in dogs? Imagine for a moment a child in a shopping cart. Mom is in the toy aisle, when the child sees a toy that is really attractive. The toy seems to be within arm's reach, so the child extends the arm. Yet, he is unable to grab the toy that so strongly attracts him. Being so close, but yet, unable to get the toy creates frustration in the child, and within seconds, he starts a temper tantrum. He cries, screams and grabs the attention of everybody in the store. This cliche' is very common: how many kids have you heard crying in stores because they wanted something and couldn't get it?
In a similar fashion, dogs develop frustration when something holds them back from interacting with a certain stimuli in the environment. What holds a dog back? Most likely a leash, a fence, a tether, a baby gate, being in a car, an x-pen or any kind of barrier. When frustration builds up along with excitement and agitation, the dog develops an outburst similar to the one seen in the child at the supermarket. Barking and lunging are the two most likely outcomes.
This reaction is often confused for aggression, but there are some ways to distinguish it from other forms of aggression. We will take a look at some signs of barrier frustration and effective ways to diffuse this form of frustration, so your dog can learn better coping strategies.
Is my Dog Developing Barrier Frustration?
Determining if your dog develops barrier frustration really takes a close observation on your dog's behavior. The best way is to hire a reputable dog trainer or applied animal behaviorist so to assess your dog's behavior and determine if you are ultimately dealing with barrier frustration. Because this behavior shares similar behaviors seen in other dog behavioral problems, it is imperative to seek help before trying anything on your own. Following are some indicators of barrier frustration and the typical profile of a dog that suffers from this behavioral problem. You know you own a dog with barrier frustration when:
- Your dog is normally a very friendly fellow, that looks forward to meeting and greeting people and other dogs. Surprisingly, these types of dogs top the list as candidates for barrier frustration. Why? Simply because these dogs are happy, eager beings that want to interact. It is almost as if these dogs were saying "“Woohoo! I love other dogs so turn me loose to meet them!” according to certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant Christine Hibbard.
- Your dog is eager to meet other people or dogs but is a bit in conflict due to a component of fear and anxiety. So when your dog feels trapped due to the leash with nowhere to retreat, he becomes frustrated and resorts to an aggressive display.
- Your dog develops barrier frustration in determinate situations. There has to be a barrier of some sort at play. Gates, leashes, tethers, windows you name it, anything that prevents your dog from being free. This means that when your dog is off leash/free to interact, he acts as a normal dog.
Keep your dog safe in the car
Treatment for Barrier Frustration
So there you have it: a dog that develops frustration when certain barriers prevent him from interacting with his environment in the way he desires. Often, these behaviors are seen in dogs that have a history of living at large, leash-free and allowed to wander around. Other times, they develop when the dog is deprived from regular social interactions with people or other dogs. This is often seen in animals that have been left in their yard all day with little stimulation in their life. Once they are out in the real world, things are too exciting to cope with!
So how do you treat a dog with barrier frustration? The solution may sound very easy: just remove the barrier! Yet, this will not help. First of all, because there are leash laws to abide to and living in a litigious society you certainly do not want to deal with problems derived from some incident due to your dog's unruly behavior and your neglect. Second, allowing your dog to interact freely with every dog he sees does not teach him any form of impulse control. After all, you won't buy your child every toy he sees at the supermarket just to make him shut up! Rather, you try to teach him more appropriate manners and coping skills. "Mommy can't buy you the toy now, but when we go home, we can play a fun game!"
A good way to help your dog with this problem, is to enroll in a "Reactive Rover" class. Many trainers organize these classes where reactive dogs with barrier frustration are taught new coping skills along with other dogs with similar problems. These classes offer safe, remedial socialization, both on and off-leash if safety permits. The structured setting and systematic training approaches of these classes conducted under the supervision and guidance of a trainer, offer the ideal solution to the problem.
An alternative, is to try systematic desensitization under your dog's threshold levels so to help him better cope with the frustration since the trigger will be made less salient. However, you will also need to train a default operant behavior to replace the barking and lunging. You may, therefore, teach your dog to look at you, do a default sit or perform any other behavior that is incompatible with the barking and lunging. You can read more about this method by reading my hub on "differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors". A good place to start practicing this is with your dog by a pet store parking lot at a distance from other dogs where your dog is capable of responding to your cues. Happy training!
Disclaimer: this article is not be used as a substitute for professional behavior advise. Only a dog trainer/behavior consultant can assess and diagnose your dog so to provide the most appropriate behavior modification program.
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