Frustration Tolerance

May 23, 2019

dog dish istockphoto cropHave you ever been in the supermarket and seen a child pointing at something on the shelf, imploring his mom to buy it? The mom says no. The child asks again in a louder voice. But when he gets another “No!” he starts crying, or worse yet, screaming. What’s going on here? Frustration intolerance, that’s what. The child simply cannot accept that, as the Rolling Stones said so eloquently, “You can’t always get what you want.”

This fact of life applies to our dogs as well. Although I’ve not seen studies on the subject, I suspect that with both dogs and children, there is a genetic set point for frustration tolerance. In other words, every dog or child is more or less genetically predisposed to having a certain level of patience and acceptance when dealing with their desires being thwarted. That said, the environment and the way one is raised has a lot to do with whether that tolerance level stays the same, decreases, or increases. Whether a dog is a puppy or a full-grown adult, frustration tolerance is something that can be taught.

In fact, I’m currently working with a client who has a young, small breed puppy. This is a lovely, well behaved, adorable pup who I have never seen show an ounce of aggression. The owner, however, informed me that the pup has lately been showing teeth and hard staring. To be honest, I was shocked to hear it. But just because I’ve never seen something doesn’t mean it’s not true. I absolutely believed the owner that something was happening, but a gut feeling, along with knowing that this puppy is constantly wanting—and getting—attention, I suspected frustration intolerance was behind the behavior. Upon questioning, I learned that the display most often occurred when the pup wanted to be picked up, played with, or otherwise shown attention. I gave the owners exercises to  start building self-control and frustration tolerance, for example, having the pup sit and wait to be released to eat meals. I also instructed that at the exact moment the pup began to show the troublesome behavior, the owner use a lightly said marker phrase, “Too bad!” and put the pup in a time out for a minute. (Long time outs are not necessary—no dog is sitting there pondering the error of their ways.) Lo and behold, I received an email a few days later, saying the pup is no longer showing the behavior at all, and that all the owner has to do is utter the marker phrase and the behavior immediately stops. Well, that’s not exactly the way the phrase was to be used, but it’s working for them and it shows that the pup is learning that the Rolling Stones were right after all.

Hey, this is a frustrating world for people and dogs. None of us get what we want all the time—and maybe that’s a good thing. But we need to teach this concept as early as possible, and reinforce it regularly. Besides, not always getting what we want makes that special something all the more special if we do finally get it.
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The Terrible Weight of Responsibility

May 9, 2019

Sad, abandoned dog in the middle of the road /high contrast imagThe voice on the other end of the phone was difficult to understand, because the woman was struggling to speak through her tears. This was technically a training call, but it was really a desperate cry for help. The caller did not live in my training area. Still, I felt so sorry for her that we spoke for quite a while. Her 3-year-old dog, a Golden Retriever, had bitten three people. Two were young teenagers. Each child needed more than 10 stitches. In one case, the dog had bolted through the front door when it had been left open; in the other, the child had gone to pet the dog. The woman has two children herself, a 20-year-old and a 9-year-old. Although she was lucky as far as the parents of the injured kids not suing, this was a grim situation and she knew it.

I know some of you are thinking, Why was a bite allowed to happen more than once? I’m guessing it had to do with less than perfect management, a hope that the first bite was an isolated incident, and the family’s love for the dog despite what had happened. The 20-year-old sleeps with the dog every night, is extremely closely bonded with him, and has told her mom that she doesn’t know how she’ll go on if the dog is euthanized.

The dog had a rough start in life: parvo as a pup, along with seizures. The family paid quite a bit to nurse him through it all. Did the illnesses leave lasting neurological damage? No one knows. We do know the dog has inflicted multiple bite wounds and caused serious injury. I did suggest getting the dog a complete veterinary workup, on the off chance that there was a physiological reason for the behavior. While I would never tell someone sight unseen to euthanize their dog, I asked how the woman would feel if, knowing what she does, the dog mauled or even killed a child. How would she live with herself? We both knew there was no way the dog could be rehomed. The family could work with a trainer, but regardless, this is a dangerous dog who would always need to be managed carefully. The other option, full-time management, would entail muzzles, crates, and constant worry and oversight. Besides the stress it would create for the dog and the family, management is seldom 100% reliable, especially when there are kids involved. At this point, the young son has no friends because no one can come to the house. This is a dog who could live another 10 years. Should the child be forced to grow up that way?

I’ve trained a lot of dogs over the last 25 years. The Golden Retrievers I’ve worked with who were aggressive tended to be intensely so. Perhaps it’s because the normal Golden temperament seems to be the sky is blue, the birds are singing…  In my experience, when dogs of this breed go wrong, they go really wrong. In this particular case, options were very limited because of the extent of the dog’s aggression, along with the family having a young child in the home. I believe the woman will end up euthanizing the dog. By the end of our conversation she had stopped crying, and said she felt better for having talked it over. My heart goes out to her and her family. It’s a terrible situation. Unfortunately, sometimes we must bear the terrible weight of responsibility in order to do the right thing for everyone involved.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter. Nicole also runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in Santa Clarita, CA.

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