Frustration Tolerance and Impulse Control

Learn how to teach your dog to behave more patiently.

Dogs don’t come with factory installed impulse control. They see food, they eat it. They see a squirrel, they chase it. They spot a person they like, they rush to a greeting. Some dogs give up quickly when they can’t get what they want. Others bark and whine. A minority get cranked up, jumping, bodyslamming, and mouthing. And a few growl, snap, and even bite. This week, 4 easy tips for how to teach your dog a more patient response to not getting what he wants right away.

First things first. All healthy young dogs need exercise – and none more than these frustration-intolerant characters. Every day, they should get enough exercise to leave them dragging their tongues on the floor. A dog full of pent-up energy just can’t learn quiet, calm manners.

Also, start where your dog is, not where you wish she was. Suppose your Dogalini starts bodyslamming you if you don’t throw the ball immediately in a game of fetch. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, she sat quietly till you were good and ready to throw? Sure. But that’s your goal, not your starting point. Build your dog’s patient behavior with patient practice, and to begin with, throw that ball as soon as she’s sat for a nanosecond.

With that in mind, try these 4 reward-based exercises for teaching your dog to wait patiently when she wants something:

Tip #1 – Wait for Supper

This works whether you’re feeding your dog out of a bowl or giving him a food-dispensing toy to play with. Have the meal ready and ask Zippy to sit. Begin to lower the food to the ground. If Zippy gets up from the sit, raise the food and again give him the cue to sit. Then start lowering the food.

You may have to stop and start over a few times before Zippy is able to control himself as you lower the food all the way to the floor and then give him the okay to eat it. If he’s having a really tough time with this exercise, troubleshoot. Put Zippy behind a gate he can’t jump over, or have a second person hold him on leash and help him out by delivering bits of food to him while you lower his bowl or his food-dispensing toy. As Zippy gets better at sitting while you put his food down, you can dispense with the gate or the leash, and also with the auxiliary treats.

Tip #2 – Wait for Permission to Go Out the Door

This is an important safety lesson for all dogs, and it’s also a great way to teach dogs to get what they want without barging around. I described the training process in detail in an earlier article. It’s basically the same way you teach waiting for supper. Pick a time when you feel patient, your dog has already had some exercise, and you know she isn’t desperate to pee and poop. Put on her leash, ask her to sit, and reach for the door handle. If she gets up, which she probably will, take

your hand away and give her the sit cue again. Then reach for the door. If she gets up, repeat.

Many dogs can succeed at waiting for you to open the door at the very first training session, though they will probably need much more practice to hold their sit every time you get ready for a walk. If your dog is extra-impatient, don’t expect too much of her at first. Stick with what she can handle without getting agitated, and call it a success if you can touch the door handle while she holds her sit. At that point, give her permission to get up as you open the door. (Remember that you should have her on leash for her safety.) In later sessions, slowly build up her ability to hold her sit while you open the door all the way.

Tip #3 – Reward Patient Behavior

Suppose Zippy’s ball has rolled under a cabinet and he can’t reach it. He’s pawing at it, and in a moment he’ll start trying to dig his way under the furniture while barking furiously. Seize the moment! Before he gets completely worked up, ask him to sit or down, then get the ball and give it to him. Hey presto, you’ve just rewarded him for acting patient in a situation where, if you left him to his own devices, he’d blow up.

You can find opportunities like this throughout the day. For instance, pick times when Zippy’s resting quietly to show him affection, invite him to play, or take him for a walk.

Tip #4 – Avoid Training Frustration

Modern trainers reward correct responses, while ignoring or preventing mistakes. Once they get the hang of training, most dogs will keep trying even if they make a couple of mistakes in a row and so don’t get a reward. But impatient dogs get … impatient. They may bail out of training or start barking or pawing you. They may even aggress. For these dogs, it’s important to train in the tiniest possible steps, so that they can succeed, and earn rewards, at a high rate. With practice they can learn to accept the occasional missed reward, but as in every situation you’ll need to build their patience slowly.

Many impatient dogs also become agitated around delicious food such as meat and cheese. For these dogs, the rule that high-value treats make the best training rewards doesn’t apply. Use a good dry dog food instead, and keep training sessions short so your dog doesn’t have time to get worked up.

If Your Dog Aggresses When Frustrated, Get Help

These tips should help with most easily agitated dogs. But if your dog snaps, bites, or otherwise gets scary when frustrated, the situation is potentially dangerous. Work with a qualified trainer or behavior specialist who can develop a behavior modification plan tailored to your dog’s needs and yours.

Jolanta  Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
July 18, 2011