Frustrated dog behaviour!

We all know dogs can get anxious and excited, but did you know they can also get frustrated? In the olden days frustrated dog behaviour might have been labelled as dominant behaviour. That never really sat well with me, mostly because dominance theory is quite flawed. But, I’ll reserve that discussion for another blog!

Frustrated dog behaviour might not sound very serious, but it shouldn’t be shrugged off. It can be a serious problem as it often hides in the background of other more serious issues. In fact the brain has a whole section set aside to deal with frustration.

Just like anxiety and over excitement, frustration can quickly escalate to aggressive behaviour when mismanaged. This is because the part of the brain associated with frustration is also linked to the rage response, so when frustration is triggered, the rage response is activated.

Frustration is more likely to be misdiagnosed than any other behaviour, it’s also more likely to be shrugged off as “he’s just frustrated”. For this reason, this misunderstood behaviour is also more likely to escalate than any other type of behaviour,. Which given it’s connection to the rage emotion, could be quite dangerous.

Frustration or Dominance?

Once upon a time, a frustrated dog would have been accused of trying to take over the pack. Trainers would have be talking about how he’s trying to turn his owners into submissive and obedient pack members, and trying to control everyone through aggressive and dominant displays. Those trainers would then go on to recommend training schedules that would have had their owners pushing back against it; showing him who’s boss by being ultra controlling! 20 Years ago there was no other way to explain this behaviour. However, I was never really committed to the theory, and the more I have learned about it, the more I realise why that was.

The frustrated dog is far more likely to be over tired and confused than dominant and controlling. Anyone that knows me will know I’m never far away from a book about psychology and behaviour – human or dog, I love them both. They may also know that I have a lot of experience with autistic behaviour and the more I research this the closer it feels to autism, not dominance.

Frustrated dogs aren’t fighting for dominance, they are struggling to function in a chaotic world that constantly puts barriers in their way. They aren’t trying to take over your pack, they are failing to communicate their needs. In a constantly changing and unfathomable world they are merely trying to stay sane and avoid overwhelm.

What does it look like?

Frustration can present itself in different ways. It could be mouthing, a refusal to move, mood swings, or unpredictable behaviours. He might get snappy, try to take your food, grab at his lead or your hands, or just have a general tantrum. He might be destructive – especially towards barriers such as doors, gates and leads. And, in it’s most extreme form, he could show aggression.

Sometimes, it might feel like it’s for no particular reason, or it might come at a random time. If there is a lack of consistency, and he seems to cope well one day, but not the next, or triggers seem to change, then I’ll bet frustration has something to do with it. Frustration can occur at one time, but the result of that frustration may not express itself until later. This makes it hard to diagnose, especially if you focus on the unwanted behaviour. This could be dangerous; an unpredictable dog may be seen as untrainable or unresponsive when the focus is only on solving the unwanted behaviour. A full assessment will reveal it though and make rehabilitation possible again.

The frustrated Teenager

Frustrated dog behaviour particularly effects teenager dogs. Typically dogs become teenagers at around 9-18 months but can be as early as 6 months and as late as 24 months. This is no surprise as they are transitioning from a puppy into an adult. And not just physically, but also emotionally. Their hormones are all over the place, they are getting stronger, testing boundaries, and are becoming more independent. So this understandably leaves them particularly confused and anxious. Coupled with having more physical energy and simultaneously a need for more sleep (yes, you read that right), and being over sensitive to anxiety, this can be a particularly difficult time for dog and owner! It’s no coincidence that this is the age many dogs are given up!

A picture of a Jack Russell dog wrinkling his nose and winking at the camera.
Ease frustrated dog behaviour through a predictable routine and clear rules and boundaries.

Impact on other behaviour

It normal for your dog to feel frustration occasionally. If he’s generally pretty calm and relaxed then he can cope with an occasional moment of frustration. However, frustration can be linked to separation type problems, redirected aggression, tantrums, general disobedience, inconsistent behaviour, anxiety, mood swings, and reactive, or aggressive behaviour.

If your dog has any of those these types of behaviour issues, then it’ll be worth digging deeper to find and relieve hidden frustrations. This might feel counter intuitive, especially as the cause of the frustration may not be directly linked to the unwanted behaviour. For example, a dog that experiences frustration with a slow feeder and inconsistent rules at home might be reactive around other dogs on the walk. Likewise, a dog that experiences frustration with his lead or communication with his peers might have separation anxiety. Only a full assessment will reveal the connection between these seemingly unrelated issues. Until the connection has been made and the frustration managed, the main issues are unlikely to go away in full. Or, if they did, it required an intense amount of effort and caused unnecessary stress to the dog.

Use your words!

Imagine a toddler having a tantrum. They aren’t trying to dictate to you, they are trying to tell you something. Stricter rules and boundaries won’t help a toddler! What he needs is a better way to communicate his needs.

Research shows us that a toddlers overall frustration levels can be massively reduced when they are better able to communicate and feel heard. Teaching toddlers sign language between 6-24 months has proven to be a game changer for many. Not only do their frustration levels drop, but they also benefit from a better relationship with their parents, develop better reasoning skills, are more attentive and considerate to others, they show a greater willingness to learn, and have less frustrated parents. They also read faster and have a greater IQ than their peers.

I’m sure we’ll not see our dogs picking up Lord of the rings anytime soon, but helping our dogs communicate better will benefit our dogs in much the same way it helps our toddlers.

Check out Bunny, the talking dog!

If you fancy trying this out with your dog, you can buy a starter set of four buttons on Amazon. Let me know how you get on!

How amazing would it be if our dogs could confidentially tell us what they need and feel, knowing we have understood. We all feel the frustration of trying to communicate with people that don’t speak our language. And we all know the relief when a translator shows up and you know the message got through! It’s no different for dogs.

How can we ease frustration?

It’s important to realise that, to some degree, frustration is normal. We experience it every time our expectations aren’t met, we struggle to solve a puzzle, or experience an unexpected change in routine. Frustration is an inevitable part of life. However, when it disrupts a dogs expectations and routine too much it can become overwhelming. When that happens, it will become a problem for you both.

Make a Predictable Routine

So, we can see that he needs a solid routine. The more predictable his day is, the more relaxed he will be. In this day and age, a routine is not so easy for us to stick to, but it’ll be of huge benefit to your dog if you can schedule the key parts of his day. For example; play time, feeding time (specifically I mean eating time, not the time you serve the food, don’t leave him to graze when he feels like it), walks, naps, and anything else you do with your dog could be included. Having a routine of your own will really help too. If he knows exactly what’s coming up, who will provide it, and how long he has to wait for it, he’ll be much happier.

Check out these blogs on sleep and feeding for more info on how to integrate these into your routine.

If a routine is hard for you, linking activities can help. For example, if you do random shifts you could go with: get up, go to the garden, have breakfast, feed dog, go to work. It can all happen at random times, but once the sequence starts, he knows what’s coming next.

Even small tasks need to have predictable results. If we change the rules too quickly or too much, we can easily frustrate our dogs. Read more about Reward Prediction Errors to see how that works.

Consistent Rules and Boundaries

We also know he needs clear boundaries and rules. This will help him know exactly what to expect from you in each situation.

Extendable leads are terrible for consistency because the rules change so much. In order to gain freedom your dog has to pull on the lead, when he does that, the lead get’s longer – but only sometimes. Sometimes, you have to keep the lead short, but not always. Imagine how frustrating that would be for your dog. Sometimes the lead get’s longer when you pull on it and sometimes it doesn’t. So you can see, it’s not much of a treat to change the rules, even if you think he will thank you for that extra freedom now. All it does is frustrate him when he can’t do the same as before.

In fact, any time the rules change you will inadvertently cause frustration. Sometimes getting a treat for a recall, sometimes going on the sofa, sometimes being ignored at the front door, sometimes chasing him to put his lead on… you get the idea.

Remove Common Frustraters

Removing common frustraters is the next step. We’ve talked about extendable leads already, but what about slow feeders and puzzle toys? These are designed to make it hard for your dog to access his food – that’s the point. These are a great toy to challenge him at play time, but not so great at meal times. Imagine having to work for every single mouthful of your own dinner. There are other ways to slow your dog down that will be far more fun, and less frustrating.

Leads, even short ones, can cause frustration. Imagine wanting to play with your friends in the park, investigate a sniff, or even tell another dog that you are afraid of him, but being held back by a lead! Obviously it’s not always appropriate to remove the lead, but sometimes it is. A good recall will lead to a much more relaxed walk for you both. Your dog will be able to investigate normally, meet his friends, run and play, and communicate with his own kind effectively. Having the opportunity to do that will eliminate many common frustraters in his life, and all due to a good recall!

Improve your recall with my 30 day recall programme
picture of a collie type dog laying beside a selection of dog toys. He has a dummy, spikey ball, a frog chew, a soft pig, a frisbee and a bone to choose from. He has chosen the frog chew and is biting it!
Giving your dog choices over his afternoon snack or which toy to play with can help relieve frustrated dog behaviour.

Offer choices

You don’t have to let your dog dictate your whole day, but offering choices can really help. Many things won’t matter to you such as what snack he gets after his walk, or which toy you play with! Why not offer a choice of two and let him pick the one he fancies most. You could also offer a choice of walks; a short walk round the block, a long walk to the park, or a trip in the car, for example.

To introduce this, first spend a week or so setting up the rule. So, if you go round the block, always turn left when you head our your front door. If you go to the park, always turn right. And if it’s a trip in the car, head for the car. After enough repetitions he’ll know what to expect from each action. Then just stand still by your front door and wait until he makes a move – then just follow! Or what about offering a choice when you get to a forked path in the forest, or at the beach?

Consider Neutering!

Everyone has their opinion of neutering, and I respect that. But, just like us, being entire means your dog will occasionally (or regularly) have urges! If those urges cannot be fulfilled then he will get frustrated. The need to breed is primal and cannot be ignored, it is as important to him as eating and breathing. Neutering simply relieves him of these urges, and frustrations. There are other ways to relieve those urges, of course, but there are wider implications to those, and that must be considered!

Don’t reward it!

And most importantly, do not reward or encourage frustrated behaviour. There are lots of reasons for it to exist, but that doesn’t mean he should be encouraged. Make changes to his routine and offer choices when he is relaxed by way pf prevention. But, once he’s in full tantrum, that is not the time to negotiate.

If you try to stop it, or talk him out of it, or entertain it at all, he’ll feel like he’s getting something out of it. So, once he’s in a tantrum, just keep him safe, ignore it, and wait for the moment to pass. Once, he’s calmed down you can identify where the frustration came from and consider a better plan for managing it or preventing it next time.

Are you struggling with frustrated dog behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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