Frustration in Pet Dog Training

Do dogs get frustrated during extinction trials? Researchers put this to the test.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Does your dog ever seem frustrated when you are trying to train him? A new study by Adriana Jakovcevic and colleagues looks at frustration behaviours in pet dogs during training sessions. They looked specifically at something called extinction. This is when the dog has a behaviour that you want to get rid of (i.e. extinguish) for one reason or another.

Basset hound lies down on the road and yawns widelyDogs do things that get rewarded and so the way to extinguish a behaviour is to stop rewarding it. For example, many people find jumping up annoying, but actually reward it by patting the dog or speaking to it when it jumps. Hence, the dog keeps jumping. When you stop rewarding the behaviour, it will stop.

The experiment involved teaching dogs a new behaviour (looking at the experimenter) using positive reinforcement, and then trying to extinguish it. Forty-five pet dogs took part. They were tested individually, either indoors in a confined area, or outdoors in an open space on a 2m lead. Eighteen dogs were tested outdoors, and a further twenty-seven were tested indoors for the purposes of this study.

A container of dried liver treats was put on a shelf where the dog could see it but couldn’t reach it. First of all, the dogs were given a ‘warm-up’ to get used to the room and the experimenter, who gave them three treats during this session.

Then the dog was taught that if it looked at the experimenter, she would give them one of the liver treats. This acquisition phase included three trials of 2 minutes each, with a 2 minute gap in between. At the beginning of each trial, the experimenter called the dog’s name to get their attention, and then gave a treat; thereafter she rewarded the dog each time it looked at her.

Then the extinction phase began, and also consisted of three 2-minute trials with a gap in between. Now, when the dog looked at the experimenter, it was not rewarded.  As before, she stayed in the same place looking at the dog during each of the trials, and left the area in the gap in between trials.

All sessions were video-taped and the dog’s behaviour was analyzed. It’s worth noting that the dogs did not show signs of great stress, such as yawning, crouching low, or a low tail, at any time. Throughout the whole study, dogs’ tails were in the middle, or neutral, position.

Across the acquisition phase, dogs increased their gaze at the experimenter, showing that they learned the behaviour. By the third trial all of them stayed close to the experimenter. 

During the extinction phase, however, 44% of the dogs moved away from the experimenter, almost all of them (98%) turned sideways to her, and some even laid down (29%). During the extinction phase, dogs were more likely to walk around, sniff, and vocalize (especially whining). This shows that the dogs experienced frustration.

Now some readers are probably thinking this is a good thing, meaning that if the dog is frustrated then the procedure is obviously working to get rid of the (now-unwanted) behaviour. However, the authors point out that stress can affect learning. They say that being able to recognize these behaviours in a dog can help people decide whether to continue with the training procedure, take a break, or try a new approach. 

Another useful point to come from this relates to times when people are trying to teach a new behaviour. Often, things will be going well for a bit, and then the dog will spontaneously stop producing the behaviour. This means it doesn’t get the reward – hence potentially becoming frustrated. Knowing the signs to look for can help a dog owner know when to take a step back and make the situation easier for the dog, thus helping it to learn more quickly.

The acquisition and extinction phases of this study were shorter than would typically occur in real-life. However, one of the nice things is that since it took place in a location familiar to the dog, with a typical training situation, it does generalize. The behaviours shown during extinction were turning sideways, laying down, walking around, sniffing, and vocalizing. Knowing that these are indicators of frustration can help people to improve their training skills. A good trainer is always paying attention to their dog.

How do you get on with training your dog(s)? Have you ever noticed any of these signs of frustration?

You might also like: the ultimate dog training tip and why don't more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

JJakovcevic, A., Elgier, A. M., Mustaca, A. E., & Bentosela, M. (2013). Frustration behaviors in domestic dogs. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 16(1), 19-34.

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