There have been numerous blogs and articles looking at the dog’s frustration during training and giving tips for how to deal with it, but something that occurs just as frequently is frustration in the human half of the equation and how do we deal with that?
We get frustrated when things don’t happen as quickly as we want them or they don’t happen the way we expect them to; we’re human after all. Even the best trainers will get frustrated, although some of them won’t admit it. If you are an instructor; you’ve probably got frustrated because one of your client’s just isn’t getting it and yet the dog does it perfectly when you handle the dog.
So why does this happen? First off we’re human; it’s part of our emotional repertoire. Some people are more impulsive than others; that is, they lack self-control (maybe something we should be teaching children so that they develop this skill), maybe they aren’t very patient and want instant results, maybe they haven’t thought out a logical training plan and have no idea what to do when things start to go wrong or maybe the behaviour that the dog is carrying out is so annoying and irritating, that they are struggling to find a way of coping with it rationally. Another one that is really frustrating is when you are trying to teach something and your dog can’t focus and your instructor is telling you to get his attention, but isn’t telling you how….this one is so frustrating when you are a handler.
So what do we do about these human traits? Stop what you are doing, take a deep breathe, walk away from your dog and have a break. That is your first step. Continuing to train when you are frustrated is going to end in disaster. You could end putting the dog off the behaviour that you want him to carry out (because your frustration is acting like an aversive to the dog and it won’t be earning as many rewards – a double whammy if you like; the behaviour that you find irritating is likely to increase (or escalate) as your increased attention to that behaviour could be reinforcing it or if it is a stress-related behaviour or an attention seeking behaviour, these will both increase as the dog becomes stressed and tries to appease you.
We may also over use a NMR (No Reward Marker) when we get frustrated which will have an aversive effect on the dog and they will start to shut down, which is likely to frustrate us even more if we aren’t careful, resulting in a vicious cycle.
I cannot emphasise enough that you need to stop and take a break. Go and do something other than train your dog. When you have calmed down and can think, then you can plan what you are going to do differently.
There are several options for you to consider:
- Consider breaking the behaviour down into smaller steps. That way it is easier for the dog (who will get reinforced more and will progress faster) and you will get reinforced more because the dog is doing what you want him to do.
- Video a training session so that you can see what you need to improve on and then find someone to teach you those skills
- Take a break from trying to teach that behaviour for a while. This break may be a couple of days or several weeks. You’d be amazed at how often the dog processes the information from your last session and how often you’ll see the dog progress faster when you resume training after a break. A bit of latent learning can be a very powerful thing.
- If it is an irritating behaviour, change your perspective; instead of thinking ‘How can I stop the dog doing that?’ considering what you would like your dog to do instead.
- If it is one of your clients that you are trying to coach through an exercise, consider changing how you are trying to teach it. Are you focussing too much on what they are doing wrong? If so, look for what they are doing correctly and reinforce them for that. So excellent timing, well done, great treat placement, well done. Consider getting them to mirror your action as you walk them through it step by step. If they confuse their left and right, look for some way of helping them out..do they wear a watch or a bracelet on their left arm or a ring on a finger..something that is different to their right arm. Demonstrating with their dog only shows that you can get their dog to do it but it doesn’t make the owner feel any better about themselves.
- Minimize or avoid the use of NRM.
- If your instructor isn’t able to give you the tools to get your dogs attention, then take a break and consider your options. Is the environment too much for your dog at its current level in focus and engagement training? Does the instructor lack the knowledge to help you work through this problem? Does the instructor lack experience of your breed of dog? May be a change of instructor is called for just whilst you learn how to build the focus and engagement that you need. May be a total change of instructor is needed.
I’m sure you can think of other situations where you may get frustrated.
A couple of real-life examples for you:
1. A recent rescue dog has no idea to play and the handler is trying to teach the dog to retrieve (only a play retrieve not a formal one) and the dog is struggling to grasp that they have to pick the item up off the floor, but will hold it if the handler holds it. The handler has tried different objects and is no further one. After a week or so of making very little progress, the handler takes a break and moves on to doing other things. After the break, the handler gets an article out and all of a sudden, progress is more rapid and the dog now has the basics of a play retrieve. Breaking the cycle of handler frustration and giving the dog a break, enabled the tension of the situation to dissipate and for the dog to be able to learn. The handler being more relaxed enable them to be better with their timing and to be more enthusiastic with their praise.
2. A rather stressy working bred, high drive rescue has the habit of leaping up and nipping at times of high excitement. Really not very pleasant for the handler (the nips hurt) and very hard not to react by pushing the dog off and shouting at it. A very frustrating situation for the handler. So, as the dog is quite food orientated, the handler dropped food on the floor whenever they got the dog out the their vehicle to distract the dog from leaping and nipping and also used the food drop technique frequently as they walked the dog, to reinforce the paws on the floor. A hand touch was also trained and the dog encouraged to leap up to touch the hand (so that the dog had an activity that they enjoyed doing and it was another reward that could be used). Food was also tossed on walks to give the dog something to chase and to build that into a game that is played with the handler. As time progressed, the dog could then be rewarded from the hand for walking nicely and not jumping/nipping. This one is still work in progress but the nipping is now becoming a memory rather than a frequent occurrence and the handler is starting to enjoy the dog and is building a relationship with it.
Enjoy your dogs, enjoy your training and don’t be frightened to take a break, it will do you and your dog and your relationship, the World of good.