Have 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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