The Frustrated Fido


I regularly hear positive reinforcement naysayers argue that training with rewards makes for a demanding dog. They prefer to correct the pooch for mistakes he makes, to avoid that becomes food dependent. Correction trainers and yours truly usually don’t have anything in common, but in that case, they actually have a point.

Behaviorally, when a reinforcement that followed an action routinely in the past doesn’t manifest any longer, an organism becomes frustrated. Frustration needs a release and the expressions dogs choose people seldom like. It is a universal law that one is forced to do something if the rules change, which is either to try the known behavior harder, or to try a new behavior.

If you’re stopped behind a car at a red traffic light, and then the light turns green, you expect the car ahead of you to start driving because that is what you learned normally happens. If the car doesn’t move, likely you will do something: honk the horn, yell, swear, snap at your partner sitting beside you or try to drive around stopped vehicle. If you are a nice, you might leave your own to check if the person in front of you needs help, and if you have extreme road rage you might stab him.

Which action you take depends on your personality, what kind of a day you’re having, and how important it is that you get to your destination fast.

Dogs learn easily and quickly that a specific event leads to a predictable outcome, especially if the outcome matters to them. Once learned, they anticipate and expect it. The expectation happens regardless if we intentionally reward during purposeful training, or if we inadvertently reward, for example always play ball at the same park or grab the leash to go for a walk at a certain time.

Sequences of routine events that are important to the dog lead to one who connects the dots and knows what comes next. And if what should come next is not forthcoming, the dog becomes frustrated just like we are at the green light, or when the chocolate bar doesn’t pop out of the vending machine after we put the coin in, or when our employer doesn’t pay us.

We humans have a bigger and better cerebral cortex, which means that our rational brain can overrule the frustrations we feel. We know that we can complain to the manager and get the coin back, know that we’ll eventually get to our destination even if the car in front doesn’t move right away, and know that we can sue the employer for the money that is due to us.

The dog just reacts. Not because he is bad or dominant, but because he has no rational options. The problem is that dogs’ frustration behaviors annoy people, and as is the case with humans, the intensity of a dog’s outburst depends on his personality, pre-existing stress level and how important the expected consequence, the reward, is for him. Most dogs paw, whine or bark – behaviors often described as bratty ones, and some dogs can be quite persistently turn it up a few notches.

Some dog mount when the rules change – their blanket or bed.

A few even aggress - hard-stare, growl and warn. Once, I got bitten in the hand when I did not release a treat right away. Not my dog, but an impatient little client. Thankfully, that extreme frustration burst is rare.

So, should the concern that our beloved pooch could behave badly stop us from choosing positive reinforcement training? Absolutely not! Even if I run the risk that my dog might become a tad demanding at times, I’d prefer it to one who is happy when I stop interacting with him, because when I leave the coercion stops.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be either/or. Rewards and pushy dog or corrections and one who seeks to avoid me. You can have both: train purely positively and have a polite and patient dog.

For example, varying the type of rewards lowers the expectation for a specific one, and raises the dog’s attention to you at the same time. A dog who anticipates what comes next goes through the motions. One who knows you are full of wonderful surprises stays glued on you.

And, teach your dog an off-switch command. Mine is a verbal “all-done” combined with a hand signal that looks something like slicing the air in front of my chest. You still need to reward good behavior, but the “all-done” gives the dog important information that nothing else will happen for now and that eliminates frustration a busy dog – who insists with high-pitched staccato barks that you should throw the ball just one more time – feels.

Creatively rewarding and informing is using our human intelligence we feel so chauvinistic about, and ends the canine temper tantrumming.

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