The dogs and I are playing our usual soccer game in the morning. I see Rio turn towards Deuce, as they both are trying to get to the orange ball, and she playfully grabs his tail in her mouth and gives it a tug. Deuce’s focus is on the ball and potentially landing so he’s unflappable as he proceeds to totally ignore Rio. The ball is in mid-air and they both are going after it.
I have to chuckle. These two could not be more different. I start to think about the reason why Rio grabbed Deuce’s tail at this precise moment and I conclude that this is her way (one of her many ways) of expressing frustration.
All animals experience frustration. The environment sure has a way to send us to curveballs on a regular basis; those that learn to navigate these minor or not so minor irritations with grace and aplomb will not only survive but thrive.
One thing I love about working with so many different dogs is that I get to witness, among other things, how they deal with frustration and learning challenges.
Research on early puppy development points to the importance of building resilience in puppies from a very young age – at 2-3 weeks old! Their ability to cope at this early stage with some (mild) frustration will prepare them for future challenges and their capacity for bouncing back. This is one facet where the temperament of a dog, and by temperament, I mean more than anything the genetic make-up of the dog, will bear some weight on how the dog experiences frustration and copes with it. As always though, it is a two-fold phenomenon: The temperament of the dog and what the dog has been exposed to as well as opportunities for learning as to how best to respond to the doggy-world curve-balls down the road.
I would argue that expressing frustration — and here I am trying to define it as: irritation, confusion and even (some) perceived lack of control over one’s environment which results in feeling upset, angry or plain “uncomfortable”, is a healthy response.
I have seen dogs express their frustration by whining, high-pitch barking, sighing, walking away (from what frustrates them), getting way over-the-top excited and by giving up and stop trying.
As I see it, when I am working with either my dogs or my client’s dogs, part of my job is to monitor the frustration level of the dog so that even if the dog is experiencing some frustration, the overall experience will continue to have positive overtones. Sometimes with some dogs, my goal is to teach the dog the necessary skills to bounce back from feeling upset with frustration and to resume with gusto with whatever task brought on the onset of failure, impatience, etc. When done correctly and I would argue humanly, the dog does learn to put the situation and the feelings of frustration in “perspective” – sort of speak.
He might continue to go through the motions of feeling frustrated but has also learned that there is something worth sticking around for and to bounce back emotionally to either more equanimity or just plain joy. When the dog has many appropriate opportunities to experience frustration, and from his viewpoint, these opportunities produce a “good” outcome, the dog learns that frustration is tolerable.
When it comes to my own dogs and how they express frustration, at times I can just observe and laugh it off, and other times, I have to deal with my own frustration when for example I get a bark out of Deuce to throw the ball just one more time, or a whine from Rio, as I am getting ready. Her whine is short and stands for: let go outside to play NOW!
I would argue, that sharing our lives with dogs, provides us with ample opportunities for practicing our own resilience to feeling irked at them and generosity in our part in recognizing that dogs, just like us, need to express not only contentment but also frustration.