Frustration in dogs: Could a new toy be the answer?

Frustration is a growing problem for our pet dogs. All our dogs suffer with frustration to some degree; it’s kind of inevitable when we don’t speak the same language. But when it gets out of hand, it can be a very destructive problem. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most aggressive behaviour started out as frustration. So, it shouldn’t be under estimated. Here’s a little more insight into frustration in dogs, and a few new ways we can help!

Constantly changing needs

Our own needs are constantly changing throughout the day. We can get hungry, playful, bored, tired, thirsty, hot, sore, or anything else, at any time. It’s easy for us to address those needs, mostly we just get what we need and get on with our day. When our dogs have needs that aren’t met they are not always so lucky.

Toddlers have the same problem. Long before they learn how to talk they develop specific needs. For many toddlers, not being able to communicate how they feel leads to tantrums. The same happens to our dogs. Except when a dog has a “tantrum” it often results in difficult behaviours like lunging, barking, chewing, mouthing, peeing, barking, and even aggressive behaviours.

What’s the problem?

Frustration comes as a result of two things: not being able to get what we need, or not knowing what to expect.

If you are at work at 11am and you are hungry, imagine not knowing when lunch time will be, or if there will be decent food available. That’s quite a different feeling to knowing that lunch is always at 12noon and they always make your sandwich how you like it. In the second scenario you relax and get on with your work. In the first instance you might get distracted, maybe even anxious. You might start asking people about when they think lunch time will be. Or you might watch your boss obsessively for clues. You might even try to guess based on past experience, and then as each prediction passes, the anxious feeling increases.

The situation is much worse for our dogs. They are completely at our mercy. They can’t speak when they have a need, or tell us when something is wrong – not in the same way anyway. Humans are pretty inconsistent too, so it can be hard for them to know what to expect.

black dog being offered a donut. The dog doesn't appear to want it
When we don’t know what they want, we see frustration in dogs

In itself, this might not cause a tantrum, but it could contribute to one later. Frustration builds up throughout the day, and only once the level has reached a certain limit, will the dog react. This could mean that a dog appears to massively overreact to something small like being held back by a lead, or having a stolen tissue taken away from him. But actually, he’s been filling up with frustrations all day. It’s just the straw that broke the camels back!

Typical behaviours

Almost any behaviour problem can result from frustration, even reactive behaviour, stealing, and separation anxiety, but the most obvious one is extreme mouthing. This looks and feels most like a tantrum but is often miss-described as dominant behaviour. It could be mouthing at leads, clothes and doorframes, and it could also be pouncing and biting at people faces and hands. These attacks are scary, and often you’ll feel powerless when the dog is in full flow. Only once the frustration has drained away will the dog settle and it will be like as if nothing happened.

How can we help?

We can see that when we know how to ask, and what to expect, frustration is low. So here are a few ways to help address both those:

First…

Remove barriers: Dogs that suffer with frustration will be sensitive to anything that feels like a barrier. These barriers will contribute the the build up so removing these is a good first step. In particular, they will hate being confined to a crate, and they won’t like their slow feeder. They will also hate being lead walked, and especially won’t like being told which way to go on their walks. Dogs with frustration need to learn a recall so they can explore freely, and without the lead barrier. Just think that every time the lead tightens, more frustration is added to the pot.

Also check out Why I hate slow feeders, snuffle mats, and enrichment feeders for dogs!

Anticipate: Meet the dogs needs in advance. If you can anticipate your dogs needs and make sure he is content than he will never have to ask or want for anything. This might include taking him to the toilet every two hours instead of waiting for him to ask. Making sure the water bowl is frequently refreshed. Allowing plenty of exploration and play on walks rather than waiting for him to bring you a toy at home, or steal your oven gloves. This is not always easy, as needs can’t always be anticipated, and they might vary from day to day. When this is the case, a good routine will help…

Routine: A set routine makes sure needs are met at predictable times. If your dog trusts he will get fed at 8am and 5pm and he starts getting hungry a bit early, he’ll relax knowing he doesn’t have long to wait. If it’s a bit hit or miss, then he might start begging for food at any time. The same goes for walks and playtime.

Then…

Play with me toy: Buying a new toy, and teaching your dog to use it to ask for play, is a good way of reducing play frustration. If your dog frequently steals your glasses or phone this will help you. Start by buying your dog a brand new toy that he will like. Place it on the floor and from now on, every time he touches it, get up and interact with him. Do it every single time and he will soon realise that it’s the best way to get your attention and play time. If your dog needs more than just a play with me cue, then maybe you need a set of buttons…

Bunny’s Buttons: Bunny is an Old English Sheepdog X who has learned to communicate with her owner using a system of around 100 buttons. She can make simple sentences with them and is able to tell her owner how she feels and what she needs. There are tons of videos on YouTube of her and they are well worth a look. Of course, you don’t need your dog to form sentences. But, training buttons are a fabulous way to communicate with your dog and reduce frustration. You can get a starter set on Amazon!

Recognise the signs

If your dog is struggling with their behaviour, it will help to start noticing and recognising when it is happening. Knowing when the frustration is building up, and taking action, can be important while you figure out how to manage it. Knowing what your dogs favourite activity is might provide some clues as to ways you can ease frustration throughout the day. But prepare yourself as it is likely to be something you’d rather your dog didn’t do. You might have already banned it! Some good ways to ease frustration include shredding paper, de-fluffing toys, and being destructive. Humping and rough play can also offer a release. These types of activity are often prohibited by us, but we could be taking away our dogs best coping mechanism, forcing them to find other outlets – such as lunging at our hands, sleeves, and the lead!


How can I help you with your dog’s frustration?

If you’d like help with your dogs behaviour, why not get in touch and find out how I could help you resolve your dog’s training and behavioural challenges. Consultations are available in-person in the Dundee area and beyond, or online if you’re further afield.

Caroline
Caroline

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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