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Frustration: The under-explored exacerbating factor...

We often label behaviors as "frustration based", yet our strategies for modifying those behaviors do little to address frustration.

Frustration is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:

"The prevention of the progress, success, or fulfillment of something."

When we imagine all of the ways in which domesticated animals are prevented from acting on their agency, existing in a world built by humans, for humans; it seems logical to assume that an experience of frustration by this definition is woven into the foundation of their very existence.

In the dog training industry for example, I often see dogs displaying reactive behaviors such as barking and lunging organized into two categorical boxes "fearful" or "frustrated", and these labels have confounded me to greater degrees as time goes on. Are fearful dogs not also capable of experiencing simultaneous frustration?

A Mixed Bag of Emotions

Dogs are complex and capable of experiencing a mix of strong emotions, that can change depending on the day, circumstance, environment, etc. When we focus too greatly on fearfulness, we overlook the frustration an animal may be experiencing and vice versa. While we can make progress in modifying these behaviors, to do so is self-limiting, and we will only get so far unless we look at the entire picture.

Rather than viewing behavior as categorical, I find it helpful to think of the emotional experience as a pie chart that is fluid and changing. How much more effective could we be if we acknowledged the possibility that the behaviors of domesticated animals may be heavily influenced by their experience of frustration? Progress isn't linear, however, it becomes much more predictable when we teach dog guardians about the nuances of trigger-stacking. In the same way, when our strategies target fearfulness, we may see great progress on days where that emotion is the predominant slice of the experiential pie. But what about days when frustration is the predominant slice, how does that change our approach? If it doesn't cause us to pivot, we are ignoring a vital piece of the larger picture.

Agency: Antithetical to Frustration

Agency is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:

"Action or intervention, especially such as to produce a particular effect."

This definition seems to place it in stark oppositional contrast with frustration, if frustration is the byproduct of an inability to produce a particular effect, then agency is the pathway to change, progress, and fulfillment. All too often, the broad idea of providing agency to an animal displaying behaviors that are considered problematic, or potentially unsafe is met with fallacious all or nothing thinking. A misassumption that agency translates to absolute freedom. when merely a modicum of agency can produce drastic positive effects. Psychologist Albert Bandura breaks agency down into 3 categories, individual, proxy, and collective.

  • Individual Agency: Individuals "bring their influence to bear on what they can control." (Bandura, 2017)

  • Proxy Agency: Individuals "influence others who have the resources, knowledge, and means to act on their behalf to secure the outcomes they desire." (Bandura, 2017)

Very rarely do our animals have individual agency. If we embrace proxy agency, as the other end of the leash, and otherwise custodian of our dogs' universe, we always have veto power. We can always choose not to oblige a request. However it places a new onus on us to justify, putting up those roadblocks, and in turn develops awareness of our reflexive tendency to do so, when perhaps it isn’t justified. I don't have to allow a reactive dog to charge up to triggers and directly interact with them to fulfill a need for greater agency. In fact I find that often these "choices" are a product of ritualization, rather than intentionality. An open door does not on its own provide knowledge of what lies on the other side. I observed a great example of this in a young dog whose guardians had developed a route that felt safe and manageable, walking the same path and pattern each day. The dog pulled heavily throughout the walk and the humans interpreted the pulling as a desire to venture further into the world. At the same time, the dog never veered far from the route and always returned to finish the predicted pattern. If the dog wanted to explore and venture into new experiences, why restrict themselves to a known pattern? We modeled for the dog how they could use strategies to steer the owner and change the route of the walk, before asking them what their choice would be in this context. To the human's deep surprise, the dog started pulling as they began the walk, then quickly turned around heading back toward the house with no tension on the leash. When they reached their front yard they opted to stay put and alternately sniffed and sat observing the world going by for about 20 minutes, before heading back inside. If an animal has not been made aware of an option, or doesn't understand how to express a choice and control the associated outcome consistently, or does not perceive a particular option as accessible when it is needed, we cannot assume that the behaviors they choose are always innately expressions of intentional decision. As trainers, behavior consultants, etc. we get called in to solve problems through the lens of a human perspective. We tend to enact our solutions unilaterally and somewhat uniformly. Labels allow us to provide tidy explanations for our clients, but categorizing behavior by the observable can sometimes obstruct our efficacy as it prevents more meaningful investigation. I was recently asked to consult on a case in which a dog would growl, bark, lunge and snap in what appeared to be a variety of ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances.




​Human walked past dog while eating.

Human reached over dog to grab drink off end table while dog was sleeping on couch.

Human reached under dog to grab fallen remote.

Human reached to touch dog while dog was laying on bed.

Human approaches dog while on walk.

Human began petting dog unexpectedly.






​Human moved away from dog.

Dog was escorted into another room, and restricted from returning to the human by a physical barrier.

This dog was given a long list of labels such as: Resource Guarding Food, Resource Guarding Furniture, Resource Guarding Shifting Trigger (drinks, remote, etc.), Fear-based Reactivity, and Handling Sensitivity. The lengthy treatment plan outlined numerous counter-conditioning exercises to be performed with a variety of known and unknown triggers associated with each of these labels as if in separate orbits. Though these triggers are not in separate orbits, there is a common thread underlying all presentations of the behavior; a human encroaching upon the dog's personal space. It begs the question of course, why the dog is so defensive of their immediate personal space, and a vet exam was immediately prioritized and the dog was put on a pain relief trial. Beyond that, if we look at how the dog was using the behavior, the valued resource can be better identified beyond the objects adjacent to the dog in those circumstances. Rather than food, drink, and remote, the emphasis appears to be on the dog's ability to enjoy their space undisturbed. The idea of shoving the message "if you allow me to disturb your space, I'll give you good things" down the dog's throat through contingently irrelevant counter-conditioning exercises didn't sit well with me, as it further stifled the dog's already limited options for communication. Instead, I found it far more productive to teach the dog how to appropriately advocate their need for space by teaching a system of communication that allowed the human to ask for the dog's consent to approach/interact/touch, and for the dog to gain space by using simple space buffering strategies as the human developed new habits in respecting their input. Within a few short sessions, the dog was choosing to engage with the human in ways they had not before, going so far as to solicit play and greater degrees of physical interaction like petting. Enabling the dog to have a direct effect on how the human approached and interacted with them, cultivated a relationship in which they didn't merely tolerate, but invited the human to engage in deeper more meaningful interactions. The simple act of creating space for an animal to express even minuscule levels of preferential input, has had profound effects on baseline arousal in countless behavioral cases. Peeling back what I believe to be a layer of universal frustration, to expose its contribution to behavior. And in my experience, engaging animals as collaborators in negotiating their experience consistently decreases the necessity of lengthy and repetitive counter-conditioning exercises. References: Bandura, A. (2017). Agency. Albert Bandura Agency | Psychologist | Social Psychology | Stanford University | California. Retrieved December 2022, from

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