Frustrated With How Your Dog’s Training is Going? We Can Help!
How to manage your frustration in dog training.
Some people grit their teeth or hold their breath. Others clench their fists or rattle off a string of expletives that would make Pacino blush. When the frustration of daily life comes to a boil, people respond in myriad ways.
Dog training comes with many opportunities for human frustration. You wanted a dog. You didn’t realize that “dog” was potentially code for “eats everything in sight, jumps on the kids, barks like a jackhammer, and if given the chance, leads you on a wild goose chase around the neighborhood as your recall word falls on deaf ears.”
Training a dog, regardless of the method used, is bound to bring about moments of frustration. Addressing unwanted behavior can take time, and today’s modern family often finds spare time to be in limited supply. In the midst of juggling busy personal and professional lives, it’s easy to suddenly find yourself at the end of your rope when it comes to dog training.
The problem with frustration is that, when left unchecked, it can lead to an emotional outburst. Ever lash out with harsh words directed at your kids or spouse after a particularly challenging day at work? We are only human. It happens. In dog training, these emotional outbursts often manifest in strong verbal reprimands, leash pops, and other physical corrections.
Interacting with your dog in an angry or physically forceful way carries the substantial risk of damaging the dog-owner relationship. It can also create an anxious dog, or one who “shuts down” when uncertain what to do. In extreme cases it can become abusive. Additionally, there’s a dirty little secret about losing one’s temper and responding to the dog in a vindictive manner: behaving this way can be rewarding.
How can something as unpleasant as yelling at or jerking the dog’s leash be rewarding? After all, very few of us feel good about losing our temper and resorting to violence (no matter how mild). But even a moment of lashing out (verbally or physically) serves to vent our frustration, and worse, it can alter the dog’s behavior. Pain or fear may temporarily suppress the dog’s unwanted behavior. In the moment, this can feel like a “win” for the handler . . . but this sort of emotional outburst on the part of the handler generally doesn’t result in a lasting behavior change in the dog.
How to Get Past Frustration
It’s infinitely easier to teach a dog what you want as opposed to what you don’t. That’s why positive reinforcement training can be so effective. It’s built on a foundation of recognizing and rewarding correct behavior – not waiting for the dog to make a mistake. It’s proactive, not reactive.
I freely admit to having moments of frustration while training. Despite the years of effort I have put into building strong, trusting, positive reinforcement-based relationships with my dogs, I still sometimes find myself gritting my teeth when things aren’t going as I’d hoped and my dog can’t seem to correctly perform a behavior we’ve spent generous amounts of time training.
The trick lies in learning to manage the frustration in ways that don’t involve taking it out on the dog. The following strategies can prove helpful:
Relax and remember to breathe. Sounds easy enough, but frustration and stress can inhibit our breathing, which affects our body language – something our dogs are keenly aware of. By concentrating on slow, deep breathing, you take in more oxygen, and the shoulders, neck, and upper chest muscles are used less in the breathing process. This helps relax your body posture, which sends a different picture to your dog.
Pay attention to your dog’s behavior. Dogs often respond to stress with one of many fine-tuned signals. Yawning, lip licking, sniffing the ground, and averting their gaze are behaviors dogs use with each other to reduce stress and defuse potential conflict. If you notice your dog engaging in these behaviors during training, take note. He may be aware of your rising stress level even before you are. These signals can be a sign your dog is attempting to self-soothe in the presence of a stressed handler.
It’s okay to stop. When things aren’t going well, sometimes the best thing to do is call it quits for the day. People often feel the need to end on success, and keep training as things start falling apart. According to legendary animal trainer Bob Bailey, whether or not you end a training session on success does not affect the animal’s ability to successfully learn the task at hand.
“Ending a training session on a ‘high note’ is of little significance in itself,” says Bailey. “This assumes that the session more or less randomly ends with a success or a failure.” However, he cautions against creating training scenarios where the dog consistently fails and then shuts down – a poor precedent for the dog.
Remember how patient and forgiving your dog is of you. That’s advice from professional trainer BK Grice of Muncie, Indiana. “Take some time to just hang out with your dog. Break off training and share an ice cream together. Remember that there may be other dogs in your life, but there will only be one Rex or Lassie. When you’ve calmed down, look at what you were doing and see if you can make some changes.
Take notes. In her book, Tales of Two Species: Essays on Loving and Living with Dogs, Patricia McConnell talks about the importance of being patient, and recognizing that training takes time. In an example of teaching impulse control to dogs, she writes, “It takes growing humans about 20 years to learn to control their emotions … so be patient with your dogs, and think in terms of months and years when training, not days and weeks.”
In an age when popular media aims to convince dog owners that behavior dramatically changes in the course of an hour, this reminder is a refreshing dose of eye-opening honesty that should be considered.
Feeling like your dog’s behavior is not improving can be a major source of frustration for people. Often, he is getting better, but owners who are deeply embroiled within a training program might have difficulty recognizing the incremental changes.
“I often get clients who call me to talk about how they aren’t progressing in their training programs. Then I go out and find a dog who is so much improved, it’s amazing,” says Louise Kerr of Elite Pet Care & Education in New South Wales, Australia. “Clients often cannot see the small changes.”
Learning to recognize and appreciate the “baby steps” along the way to complete problem solving can be a valuable tool in reducing human frustration. Organized trainers routinely keep training logs and journals that document results of each training session. Analyzing the data offers concrete information about a dog’s rate of progress, and helps trainers fine-tune training programs when necessary.
Styles of record-keeping are as varied as the trainers using them. Sometimes I keep track of how many times we practiced something and how often my dog was correct. Other times I jot notes about what issues I discovered during the training session, which directs my focus for the next session.
Even something as simple as a happy or sad face drawn on the calendar – denoting an overall “good” or “bad” day in training – can prove helpful. When working to modify problem behavior, it’s easy to forget where you started. A quick glance at the ratio of happy to sad faces on the calendar can provide the confidence boost you need to keep pushing forward with what feels like a slow-moving or stalled training program.
The Magic of Management
Many of the routine problems clients ask trainers about can be prevented with management: not letting the dog practice the unwanted behavior in the first place. If your dog is reactive to people and dogs walking past his territory, he shouldn’t have unsupervised access to the front room of the home, where he perches atop the sofa, ready to sound the alarm at the first sign of passersby. Nor should he be unsupervised in the backyard where he launches himself at the fence. Of course, you need to spend time teaching an alternative behavior, but if you aren’t prepared to actively train, the next best thing is to prevent what you don’t want.
“When possible, don’t let the dog make the mistake in the first place,” says trainer Gail Rhyno of Prince Edward Island, Canada. “I didn’t get this right away, and looking back, I likely could’ve prevented a few behaviors from becoming problems in the first place. Much of my frustration appears when I’m not training – when I’m tired and I don’t have a plan. The unwanted behavior would happen and I wouldn’t have a response ready and the frustration wells up; I’d feel like all the work I’d done the days before was wasted.”
As an example, Rhyno says, “With my little dog – who’s on high alert all the time – I make sure I’m ready, or I don’t put her in the situation to make mistakes. I don’t have to take her out into the yard every time I go. I don’t have to go to the places in town that I know are full of things that will set her off. I can put her on-leash in the house so that when guests enter, she doesn’t have the chance to jump of them. Things like this have really helped me get around myself. I can’t train all the time; I get tired of it, so in order to not get tired and frustrated, I have to find a way to not let my little pooch make the mistakes in the first place.”
It’s Not Personal – But You Do Need to Own It
It’s sometimes hard to not internalize your dog’s misbehavior and take his noncompliance as a personal affront. Factor in any perfectionist tendencies, you may have and it can be a real test in emotional self-control to keep from feeling like your dog is purposely pawing his nose at you when things aren’t going as planned – especially when training in a group. You’re being watched. The heat is on. “Please, for the love of dog, will you stop jumping around and just sit?!”
Emotions are tricky. We know on a logical level that noncompliance isn’t personal, but this can be tough to remember in heat of the moment. One of the greatest gifts I’ve gained in training dogs – especially my own, where the emotional involvement can intensify my perfectionist tendencies – is the ability to accept my training mistakes, recover, and move on. It’s easy to blame the dog. “He knows this,” or “He knows better,” or even, “He did it right yesterday at the park.” It’s harder to look at how our own actions likely contributed to the dog’s inability to perform to your expectations or hopes.
It’s easy to underestimate how a simple location change can affect a dog’s ability to perform correctly. Clients who primarily practice behaviors with their dog at home and during dog class often report that their dog struggles when asked to work in new, unfamiliar surroundings. This is a normal part of the training process, and why I encourage my clients to not believe their dog “knows” something until they’ve had training success in several different locations away from home. Be aware that certain environments will be more challenging than others, and gradually raise your expectations at a level that is fair and appropriate for your dog.
It’s also important to look at how your behavior might affect your dog. If you primarily lure your dog into positions like sit and down by using treats, you might believe your dog “knows” down, only to be surprised by his inability to perform correctly in the absence of the treat. Sudden behavior changes on your part – such as switching from treat to hand signal, or even changing how you present a hand signal – can reduce the dog’s ability to be correct, which can lead to frustration. Make changes like this to your training program gradually.
Finally, don’t forget that dogs can get frustrated, too. My Golden Retriever reserves a specifically pitched bark for when I suspect he feels that I’ve failed to provide clear direction while running agility. More often than not, he’s right and my body cues were incorrect. “Dang it, woman!” he seems to say. “Where exactly do you want me to go?”
We’re Only Human
Do I still get frustrated? Of course. I’m only human. I’ve been known to call my dog a creative “pet name” or two, or rattle off something to the effect of, “It’s a good thing you’re cute,” as I re-set an obedience jump bar that he just knocked down – again. My secret? I deliver my monologue in a happy, upbeat voice, and often while delivering a stream of treats or tugging with a toy. I release the necessary steam and hope my dog is none the wiser. I’m far from perfect, but this trick often helps me keep my emotions in check so I’m not as apt to unfairly direct frustration toward my dog.
I often think about something an agility judge once said during a pre-run briefing. I don’t remember her name, but her words will stay with me for as long as I choose to share my life with dogs. “Run every run like it’s your dog’s last,” she said. Powerful words. Our dogs are never with us long enough. I want to fill my memory bank with joyful interactions, not frustration-filled memories that potentially led me to treat my dog with less than the respect and compassion he deserved.
After all, as an anonymous author is widely quoted, “He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion.”
Stephanie Colman has been training dogs in Los Angeles for 10 years. She actively competes in obedience and agility with her Golden Retriever, Quiz and enjoys spoiling her retired Whippet, Zoie.