How to Help a Dog With Barrier Frustration

Nip Buddy's barrier frustration in the bud.
i puppy image by sonya etchison from

Leashes, tie-downs or any other forms of restraint that limit a dog's ability to interact with the environment may lead to barrier frustration. When excitement, agitation and frustration combine, Clifford may turn into Cujo within seconds. Preventing barrier frustration from becoming a bigger behavioral problem is crucial.

Understanding Barrier Frustration

Do you remember how it felt when you were driving in heavy traffic and another driver pulled in the intersection in front of you leaving you little space to go forward once the light turned green? Very likely you were cursing, frustrated and acting in a not-so-gracious manner. Some dogs share these same types of emotions when they are walked on a leash and see a member of their species, explains certified applied animal behaviorist Kathy Sdao. The excitement of seeing another dog mixed with the frustration of being unable to interact because of the restraining leash may lead to the canine equivalent of road rage.

Identifying Barrier Frustration

What types of dogs make good candidates for developing barrier frustration? Unexpectedly, friendly dogs are often at the top of the list. It is as if these dogs were saying, “Woohoo! I love other dogs so turn me loose to meet them!” explains Christine Hibbard, a certified professional dog trainer and animal behavior consultant. However, there are also dogs who develop barrier frustration due to conflict: on one hand, they are curious about meeting another dog, but on the other hand they are fearful and anxious at the same time. With the leash on, these dogs have little room to retreat, so their next step is to resort to an aggressive display.

Diagnosing Barrier Frustration

Dogs can be affected by a variety of behavioral problems, so it is important to get the help of a professional to pinpoint the most appropriate behavior modification program. Dog trainers familiar with behavioral problems, certified applied animal behaviorists or board-certified veterinary behaviorists are all good options. Generally, you know you are dealing with barrier frustration when your dog builds up frustration and shows aggression behind barriers or on-leash, but is rather calm when off-leash, explains positive reinforcement trainer, Jeff Millman. The barrier needs not be exclusively a leash; indeed, any type of barrier such as a chain, window, fence, door or gate may play a role in the development of barrier frustration.

Preventing Barrier Frustration

It may make sense to remove the barrier to prevent the build-up of frustration, but living in a litigious society makes this option a close call for a law suit and leash laws and fence laws are implemented for many good reasons. A better option is to enroll your dog in a "reactive Rover class," where your reactive dog can socialize with other dogs on- and off-leash for some safe, remedial socialization. While the setting may appear similar to a dog park, in this case, reactive dogs are systematically exposed to friendly, confident adult dogs under the supervision of a trainer. With such a structured setting, Rover can finally greet his fellow dog friends without much drama.

Treating Barrier Frustration

Work on the dog's emotional response to help his barrier frustration. Instead of having your dog bark his head off, lunge and pull at the sight of another dog, you can redirect Cujo's focus on something else. Start off by taking your dog places where other dogs gather, such as a pet store or a veterinarian office parking lot. Find a safe distance where your dog is better under control and not too aroused by the dogs. The moment your dog notices a dog from a distance, become an automatic treat dispenser by feeding several high-value treats until the dog is out of sight. Do this exercise several times a week for 20 to 30 minutes, recommends Kathy Sdao. With time, you should notice a dramatic change in your dog's attitude, from "Oh my, a dog! Bark, bark, bark!" to "Hey, owner, I see a dog, where is my treat?" The end results with this approach are ultimately a win-win situation for all.

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