Training a Dog Impulse Control and Frustration Tolerance

Updated on February 16, 2018
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Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Low Impulse Control and Tolerance Frustration in Dogs

Just like children, dogs aren't born with sufficient impulse control and built-in tolerance frustration. It's a skill that is learned through life experiences. And just like in adult humans, dogs who haven't developed sufficient tolerance may revert to undesirable behaviors that may even surface as aggressive displays. But what is frustration tolerance, and most of all, how can puppies be taught to cope with it so they can grow into well-adjusted adult dogs?

In humans, it's quite easy to notice people who are unable to cope with their daily frustrations. These are people who lash out at their employees, smash the guitar on the floor because they were unable to get the right cord on a song they were planning on learning, engage in road rage when there is a car blocking their way, and so forth. Normal daily mishaps that others would normally ignore or be able to accept create havoc in the lives of people with low frustration tolerance.

Dogs have different priorities compared to people, so your dog may care less about a traffic jam or a flight delay. He'll be more likely to get frustrated if you must clip his nails and he doesn't like that, if he sees another dog and you prevent him from greeting or if you refuse to give him attention when he craves it. Just like a child, he may throw a temper tantrum with whining, barking and even nipping behaviors.

How do dogs develop low impulse control and frustration tolerance? Well, for starters, all pups lack some level of impulse control, but singleton puppies and orphaned puppies may be more prone to develop frustration tolerance since they lack littermates or mom who can teach them a whole deal on how to cope with frustration.

Mother dog arrives? All pups rush to nurse, but not always will the pup get to nurse on his favorite nipple. Pup may also have to wait his turn to be cleaned by mother dog. Play and other interactions with litter mates also works as a valuable aid to help teach tolerance.

The way the puppies are raised may also play a role. It's the role of new puppy owners to continue applying tolerance coping skills in their puppies. This means learning to recognize when the puppy behaves in certain ways because of real needs or just as a way to attain attention.

If for instance, a puppy cries in the crate after all his needs have been met (he has been fed, has recently drank, and he has gone potty outside) most likely the puppy is whining in protest because he wants social interaction. Opening the crate at this point, will only teach the puppy to use his whining to get what he wants. Instead it may be better to wait till he calms down, and once he's settled, to open the crate. Settling down may take more or less depending on how much the puppy has learned to cope with frustration.

In the training world, it's a big misconception to think the positive trainers are always giving in to all the dog's whims. The saying "positive doesn't mean permissive" helps debunk this myth. Positive trainers do apply consequences to a dog's actions, only that the consequences chosen are not aversive in nature.

Dog learning to sit nicely at the door

Teaching Tolerance Frustration to Dogs

A dog's philosophy of life seems quite opportunistic. If dogs could talk they would say "carpe diem" --seize the day-- when opportunities knock at the doggy door. A dogs sees you drop a slice of baloney? He'll likely run to get it. A squirrel crosses the road? He won't think twice before chasing it. Neighbor dog walks by the yard? He'll rush to greet him. Now, rather than later, seems to be the motto. Yet, through training opportunities we can train them some impulse control. You may stumble every now and then on some well-meaning websites or trainers suggesting to do the following in order to train frustration tolerance in young puppies:

  • If you pick up your puppy and your puppy squirms and wriggles in hopes to be placed back down, wait for your puppy to stop squirming before being placed down. If you place him down when he's squirming you will have just taught him that squirming works and he will do it all the time.
  • If your puppy whines and paws to get out of the crate because he dreads being closed there, wait for him to calm down and then open the crate. If you open the crate when he's whining and pawing, you will have taught him that whining works and he will likely do that again and again next time.
  • If your puppy has a tantrum when you touch his paws, stop touching his paws only when his tantrum is over. If you stop touching his paws when he is throwing the tantrum, you will have taught him to use a tantrum to get what he wants next time.

What do these scenarios have in common? They are based on negative reinforcement. In other words, something the puppy doesn't like is stopped when the puppy behaves in an acceptable manner. If the puppy dislikes having his feet touched, your touch is removed only once he is calmer, if the puppy doesn't like to be held, he is placed on the floor only once his tantrum is over, if the puppy dislikes being in the crate, he is removed from the crate only once he stops whining.

While it's true that some level of impulse control can be attained this way, it doesn't really do much to change the dog's emotions about these things. In these cases, it would be far more productive to teach the puppy to enjoy being picked up, having his paws touched and enjoying staying in the crate than just making a point about teaching him how to behave nicely.

So when a puppy or dog misbehaves, it's important to first determine what is triggering his behavior. Is the dog pawing at the muzzle because he doesn't like how it feels? Instead of waiting it out to remove it, teach him to enjoy wearing a muzzle.

Is the puppy whining when you leave the room? Teach him to gradually accept brief absences and that great things happen when you live the room. Is your puppy squirming when you hold him? Get him used to enjoy being held, with time, he'll tolerate being held because he looks forward to it.

You want to change the pup's emotions, rather than having a pup who gets tired of fighting and looks calm, just because he has really just given up. Yes, some dogs may eventually learn to stop squirming and stop whining (negative reinforcement tends to work) but that doesn't necessarily mean that next time they'll be looking forward to being picked up, having their toes touched or wearing the muzzle. A day may come where they may decide to react and defensively too.

Through desensitization and counterconditioning you can teach your puppy to enjoy things he perceives as aversive. After all, do you prefer a teacher who would pull your hair (and old-school teachers used to do this) until you give the right answer to a math problem, or one who would take her time to explain how math works and make it a fun and enjoyable learning experience?

Dog waiting calmly for me to put leash on

Exercises for Training Impulse Control in Dogs

It is my belief that impulse control exercises have their place in training and behavior modification. I use impulse control exercises to teach frustration tolerance when I know that a dog is acting out of frustration and impatience and not because he is struggling with something he has a hard time accepting. Following are some impulse control exercises I use:

  • Teaching the dog to wait at the door instead of bolting out.
  • Teaching the dog to sit and wait to enter the car once they hear the command.
  • Teaching the dog to sit and wait for me to place the food bowl down instead of jumping on me and almost knocking me over.
  • Teaching the dog to walk by and ignore some tempting food on the sidewalk (that could even be harmful) instead of pulling to get it. The advantage is that he will get more and better treats when he "leaves it.".
  • Teaching a dog that if I keep my arm stretched out with a treat in my hand and he looks at me first instead of jumping and barking in frustration, that behavior will make my hand release the treat.
  • Teaching that whining and barking doesn't unlock my attention, only quiet, calm behavior does.
  • Teaching that calm behavior gets a game of fetch or tug started.
  • Teaching gradually by rewarding split seconds of calm behaviors and then building on duration. If you ask too much at once, especially in the initial stages of learning, you'll likely cause frustration.

Basically, I look forward teaching these three important points:

  1. that calm behaviors unlock a world of of rewards
  2. that frustrated behaviors don't unlock rewards
  3. that by waiting and not getting a reward right away, there are far off more and better rewards.

Watch for These Signs of Frustration in Dogs

When training a dog that easily gets frustrated, it's important to recognize signs of frustration building up. The following are common signs of frustration in dogs.

Signs of Frustration in Dogs

  • If Rover gets a sudden itchy fit, most likely you are dealing with an out-of-context displacement behavior; basically, Rover's way of dealing with a frustrating situation.
  • Some dogs may start chewing on the leash when they get frustrated.If you notice any signs of frustration, try to split the exercise in smaller, attainable steps and reward each little piece of progress. Work in small, short sessions to help your dog succeed and build tolerance as you progress.
  • Some dogs start pacing back and forth when they are frustrated.
  • Whining, barking can be vocal manifestations of frustration.
  • If your dog tends to get frustrated when on leash and sees other dogs or people, read my hub on barrier frustration. And if your dog gets too revved up at the sight of treats try using some kibble. Many dogs are bored by kibbel, so in frustrated Fido it may just work right to take the edge off.
  • Last but not least, be wary that in some cases, frustrated dogs may even engage in aggressive behaviors! In such a case, or if you are having problems dealing with your dog's frustration, don't hesitate to contact a force-free behavior consultant to help you out.

Frustration tolerance therefore depicts a dog's ability to cope with not getting what it wants. Some dogs are better in this than others, but with time and consistency with most dogs you are able to change their frustration threshold for the better.

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Adrienne Janet Farricelli


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      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Great tips and so useful to dog owners.