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Understanding Barrier Frustration in Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

What is barrier frustration?

What is barrier frustration?

What Is Barrier Frustration?

What is barrier frustration in dogs? Imagine for a moment a child in a shopping cart. Mom is in the toy aisle when the child sees a toy that is really attractive. The toy seems to be within arm's reach, so the child extends the arm. However, he is unable to grab the toy that so strongly attracts him. Being so close and unable to get the toy creates frustration in the child, and within seconds he starts a temper tantrum. He cries, screams, and grabs the attention of everybody in the store. This cliche is very common. How many kids have you heard crying in stores because they wanted something and couldn't get it?

In a similar fashion, dogs develop frustration when something holds them back from interacting with certain stimuli in the environment. What holds a dog back? Most likely a leash, a fence, a tether, a baby gate, being in a car, an x-pen, or any kind of barrier. When frustration builds up along with excitement and agitation, the dog develops an outburst similar to the one seen in the child at the store. Barking and lunging are the two most likely outcomes.

This reaction is often confused with aggression, but there are some ways to distinguish it from other forms of aggression. We will take a look at some signs of barrier frustration and effective ways to diffuse it so your dog can learn better-coping strategies.

Is My Dog Developing Barrier Frustration?

Determining if your dog develops barrier frustration really takes closely observing your dog's behavior. The best way is to hire a reputable dog trainer or applied animal behaviorist so to assess your dog's behavior and determine if you are ultimately dealing with barrier frustration. Because this behavior shares similar behaviors seen in other dog behavioral problems, it is imperative to seek help before trying anything on your own. The following are some indicators of barrier frustration and the typical profile of a dog that suffers from this behavioral problem. You know you own a dog with barrier frustration when:

  • Friendliness: Your dog is normally a very friendly fellow that looks forward to meeting and greeting people and other dogs. Surprisingly, these types of dogs top the list as candidates for barrier frustration. Why? Simply because these dogs are happy, eager beings that want to interact. According to certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant Christine Hibbard, it is almost as if these dogs are saying, "Woohoo! I love other dogs, so turn me loose to meet them!”
  • Aggressive Display Around New Companions: Your dog is eager to meet other people or dogs but is a bit conflicted due to fear and anxiety. When your dog feels trapped because he is attached to a leash with nowhere to retreat, he becomes frustrated and resorts to an aggressive display.
  • Reactions Arise When a Barrier Is in Place: Your dog develops barrier frustration he feels constrained. There has to be a barrier of some sort at play. Gates, leashes, tethers, windows, you name it; anything that prevents your dog from being free can be considered a barrier. This means that when your dog is off leash/free to interact, he acts like a normal dog.
Here are a few suggestions to help manage your dog's barrier frustration.

Here are a few suggestions to help manage your dog's barrier frustration.

How Can I Manage My Dog's Barrier Frustration?

A dog that has barrier frustration develops frustration when certain barriers prevent him from interacting with his environment in the way he desires. These behaviors are often seen in dogs that have a history of living leash-free and are allowed to wander around. Other times, they develop when the dog is deprived of regular social interactions with people or other dogs. This is often seen in animals that have been left in their yard all day with little stimulation in their life. Once they are out in the real world, things are too exciting to cope with!

What Won't Help

So how do you treat a dog with barrier frustration? One possible solution may seem obvious: just remove the barrier! Yet, this will not help.

  • Firstly, because there are leash laws to abide by, you certainly do not want to deal with potential problems from some incident related to your dog's unruly behavior and your neglect.
  • Secondly, allowing your dog to interact freely with every dog he sees does not teach him any form of impulse control. After all, you wouldn't buy your child every toy he sees at the supermarket just to make him shut up! Rather, you try to teach him more appropriate manners and coping skills. For example, you might say to a child: "Mommy can't buy you the toy now, but when we go home, we can play a fun game!"

What Will Help

  • Reactive Rover Classes: A good way to help your dog with this problem is to enroll in a "Reactive Rover" class. Many trainers organize these classes where reactive dogs with barrier frustration are taught new coping skills along with other dogs with similar problems. These classes offer safe, remedial socialization, both on and off-leash if safety permits. The structured setting and systematic training approaches of these classes conducted under the supervision and guidance of a trainer offer the ideal solution to the problem.
  • Desensitization: An alternative is to try systematic desensitization under your dog's threshold levels to help him better cope with the frustration since the trigger will be made less salient. However, you will also need to train a default operant behavior to replace the barking and lunging. You may teach your dog to look at you, do a default sit, or perform any other behavior that is incompatible with the barking and lunging. You can read more about this method in my article on "differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors." A good place to start practicing this is with your dog by a pet store parking lot at a distance from other dogs where your dog is capable of responding to your cues.
  • Keep the training short and sweet. If you notice signs of frustration, you have likely progressed too fast (your dog needs to learn to be calmer in less excitable setups) or are making the sessions too tedious and long.
  • For walking politely around dogs, I prefer doing attention heeling rather than sits which can increase frustration since all that excited energy must go somewhere. I prefer to leave the downs and sits for when a dog has already been around the other dogs and their excitement has gone down a bit so that they are a little more in a "thinking state."
  • When doing attention heeling, make sure to feed treats every now and to reduce a bit of the frustration. In other words, if a dog is really eager to meet another dog, we risk being perceived as the obstacle that is holding them back. If we feed treats to reward little signs of progress like sitting or acting calm for us to remove the leash, we are increasing our value to our dog's eyes (who may eventually possibly desire to be more with us than with other dogs) while also making us appear less then an obstacle.
  • Be patient. This type of impulse control requires lots of practice and training. This often entails being more around dogs in calm settings than excited ones. I personally prefer to use the perimeters of dog parks for training, and organizing walks with other calm dogs, and allow play only once the dogs have proven to be calmer around dogs over time.
  • Careful what you reinforce when going to the dog park. Sometimes, even though our dogs sit before being sent to play, they are still too over threshold (like a dog may learn to sit before being unleashed, but may be shaking or whining in anticipation). When there is still too much underlying excitement, this excessive excitement may inadvertently become part of the behavior chain of walking up to the area and sitting to be unleashed.

Happy training!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 27, 2019:

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Read More From Pethelpful

I am not a fan of prong collars due to the risk for pain and negative associations, but for large dogs who are strong and actively pulling, I like to use a front- attachment harness such as the 'Walk your dog with love' harness or the' Sensible' harness.

You dog likely needs behavior modification, ideally with the help of a professional for safety and correct implementation. If this is due to barrier frustration, you may need to work her under threshold and focus on rewarding an alternate behavior, but if this is due to true aggression/dislike of other dogs, a slightly different approach may be needed working on changing the dog's emotional response 9(through desensitization and counterconditioning).

Clare Toll on August 20, 2019:

Hi, My dog is getting so difficult to handle on her leash. She is the sweetest dog off-leash and loves both people and dog. In fact, I believe she actually prefers humans to other dogs.. She always runs to greet people at dog parks rather than dogs. She will greet them but will let them know early on she would rather not deal with other dogs. Recently, her behavior while on a leash or on a chain has been awful. We just started going camping and your dogs have to be on leash or chain and under control at all times. She has become this monster dog on the leash leaping at and snarling, snapping trying to get at other dogs. It got so bad we had to take her home and find someone to watch her.. My husband really thinks we can fix this problem but I'm over here thinking this dog is cujo on a leash and might need some major drugs to calm her down. She has always suffered from separation anxiety but over time has got better doesn't destroy as much or potty in the house anymore. I'd love to able to walk my dog without the fear of her trying go after every dog in town. Is there really help out there? I've heard that prong collars can help is that true?

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on January 21, 2015:

I must be lucky my dogs never had this problem. A wonderful hub with useful information.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 11, 2013:

Thank you for stopping by vocalcoach, many dogs get frustrated when they're on leash or behind a fence and they act totally ok when off leash or no longer behind the fence. I worked for a kennel/shelter last year and all those dogs barking were for the most part frustrated.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on February 10, 2013:

Thank you for this well done article. It helped me to hear your reasons about why dogs react when on a leash. An excellent hub.

Lori Colbo from United States on October 02, 2012:

Great ideas. Thank you.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 02, 2012:

The behavior of hiding is reinforcing. If she is scared and feels safe under there, since nothing happens to her, in her mind she thinks that the act of hiding is what is keeping her safe from a perceived threat.So the more she does it, the more the behavior will continue. You will need to work on her emotional state about the yard. That means making wonderful things happen when she is out there. Try to toss treats and let her go on a treasure hunt, have fun play sessions with her favorite toys, keep on leash and do some training using high value treats, feed her in the yard. Sounds like she needs to build more confidence, google clicker training, build an obstacle course and invite her to jump a little obstacle and praise lavishly, take her on walks and praise her when she makes eye contact with you..etc..

Lori Colbo from United States on October 01, 2012:

I live in a fifth wheel on a good sized lot. Big yard fenced all around. Nellie loves to be out doors and is free to roam the yard as she pleases. What I want to do is top her from going under the RV. It is up off the ground about 2 1/2 feet with a canvas skirt around it. when I first got her 3 years ago she was terrified of the spacious yard, she'd been abused, so her first reaction was to dive under the house. It's all bare dirt under there, plus there is wiring and pipes. She can't quite stand up to her full height and now her back is starting to sway and she stands kind of funny. She does not spend all her time under there anymore, but enough to keep her collie fir dirty. I don't have money for training. I bought some stakes to put through the holes at the bottom to secure it, but haven't done it yet.

What can I do to ease any anxiety she might have when I do this?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 01, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by, I am happy you found the article useful!

Bob Bamberg on October 01, 2012:

Great hub, Adrienne, I learned a lot. I had only thought of barrier frustration in connection with separation anxiety, when they chew and scratch door jambs and windowsills, etc. Voted up, interesting and useful. Regards, Bob

Jobb Gosamo from Philippines on September 30, 2012:

Eye-opening and useful. thanks

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