What Can Frustration Teach You About Dog Training?

When I’m frustrated, my jaw tightens and I make aggravated, deep-throated utterances. When my dog Honey feels frustrated, she sits down and scratches.

Frustration is our body’s way of telling us something. What does it teach us about dog training?

Honey the golden retriever chews a stick on the beach.

One of my humans chews his nails when he’s frustrated. But sticks taste better.

Finding Information In Frustration

If you’ve been reading Something Wagging for more than five minutes, you’re probably not surprised to know that I find lots of parallels between sailing and dog training. Probably the most important similarity is that to be a good sailor as well as a good dog trainer, you need to take in information everywhere you find it.

When traveling in shallow areas, we keep a constant watch on our depth finder. But we also look for aids to navigation, strange ripples in the water, changes in coloration, and yes, even birds standing a few feet away to tell us where to turn to keep from going aground.

When you’re training a dog, you have an eye on nearby distractions, your own body movements, and most especially, the response of your dog.

So if you or your dog are feeling frustrated when working together, what does that information mean?

Honey the golden retriever on bench in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

I think it means that after posing for pictures I get to have some fun.

Lessons From Frustration

Honey is so eager to please it can be easy to miss signs of frustration. But she has one reliable tell: scratching.

So when Honey sits down and scratches her ear in the middle of a walk, she’s telling me she’s frustrated.

Over time, I’ve become a better student and have learned how to deal with her frustration.

Interact with her more directly

Honey does not like to feel ignored. If I spend too long chatting with someone on a dock when she wants to go play, she feels frustrated. And out comes the paw scratching her ear.

If I can’t break off the conversation right away, I’ll kneel down and rub Honey’s ears while I’m chatting. She feels better being the center of attention again. And tolerance replaces her frustration.

Honey the golden retriever runs free.

Or you can just remember what’s important–giving me lots of off-leash play time.

Find out what she wants

I once read that toddlers act up because they know what they want but don’t have the means to express themselves verbally. Some parents teach their children sign language to allow them to tell what they want even though they are still learning the verbal vocabulary they need to ask for what they want.

I sometimes think dogs are the same way.

They know what they want. But they don’t have an easy way to ask for it.

Honey the golden retriever at Yellow Dog Eats.

If I pose pretty in front of this restaurant sign, will you realize I’m hungry?

So it’s up to us to figure it out to save them (and us) frustration.

Honey gets frustrated walking on leash when we’re crossing a grassy or sandy area. She just want to be free to run and jump and roll on her back.

So if it’s safe to do so, I look around for hazards before letting her off leash for a few moments of play.

After she’s gotten her ya yas out, she’s happy to be clipped back on to continue our on-leash walk,

Just stop

There have been times when I was trying to teach Honey a new behavior that she just couldn’t get. After a while, she started showing signs of frustration.

Too late. We should have stopped five minutes ago.

But late is better than never.

If either of us starts showing signs of frustration during a training session, it’s definitely time to stop.

Frustration Is A Sign

Frustration isn’t bad. It isn’t particularly good. It’s just a sign. A sign that tells us that something needs to change.

And the better we learn the lessons of frustration the less likely it will turn up when we’re training.

Your Turn: How can you tell when your dog feels frustrated?

Positive pet training blog hop.


  1. Meagan & Merlin says:

    Merlin’s a whiner. He doesn’t listen when he’s frustrated.

    • Having a frustrated dog who can’t listen is a pretty good incentive to keep him from getting frustrated to begin with.

      And yeah, once Honey starts scratching, she doesn’t hear a word I say.

  2. When we are frustrated, Mom stops what we are doing and we move on to doing something we know, like, and will be successful at. We return to the frustrating thing after success elsewhere.

    • Luckily you and your sisters have so many talents that your mom has a lot of activities to choose from to calm your frustration.

  3. It must be “a Golden thing” – Callie used to do the ear scratch number, and Shadow still does. But until now – I’m ashamed to admit – I never put 2 and 2 together. And I pretty much reacted to it the same way you do with Honey. So, on Shadow’s behalf I thank you for the clue. As for Ducky? She barks. She barks when she wants attention (which is at least 14 out of every 24 hours); she barks when she wants to go outside (which is usually at least 10 times a day); she barks at everything she hears or sees; and Sam and I swear she barks just to hear her own voice at times. 🙄 But when she’s frustrated, she’ll bark AND jump up on our legs or in our laps.

    • Interesting about 3 goldens with this behavior. It was new to me when Honey scratched in frustration.

      Perhaps because goldens are such soft dogs they pick a very subtle sign of frustration. Sounds like Ducky is doing her part to keep the house from sounding too quiet. 🙂

  4. When Luke gets frustrated, he will revert to doing something that he knows and makes him happy. If we’re training a new trick, and he’s not getting it, he’ll perform an old trick.
    Just lately I’ve noticed that sometimes he starts sniffing around; but I’m not sure if it’s because he’s frustrated or just bored with what we’re doing!

    • Honey will sometimes go through several tricks in a row when she can’t figure out what I’m asking for. It’s really a smart thing to do. Luke is such a good boy.

      Not sure what the sniffing means. But maybe if you keep watching you’ll figure exactly what’s going on in his mind.

  5. I love that you focused on the dog’s frustration! Lots of our agility classmates scratch when they get stressed. Sometimes Barley does that, too, but she doesn’t usually get frustrated. Rye just ignores me when she’s frustrated–and usually she decides to bark, sniff, or chase things then. You’re so right about being able to prevent that from happening by learning to recognize stress! Great post!

    • It took me a while to recognize the scratching as a sign of frustration. Interesting that you see it in agility. Honey is the first dog I’ve seen scratch in frustration.

  6. Thanks for reminding me to pay close attention to verbal cues. It can make all the difference in the world, especially with a semi-reactive dog (yes, Elsa I’m talking about you!).

  7. One time I was training Mr. N and was interrupted by the bf who asked me a question. I was talking to him for a minute or two when Mr. N picks up the clicker and slams it into my hand. He did not appreciate being ignored! He makes his opinion very clear.

    • Mr N does seem to be an assertive gentleman. It’s probably a good thing for a little dog to learn so they don’t get overlooked.

  8. What a great post! Zappa barks and barks and barks until I talk to him and address his issues. Fiona gets really, really hyper and nippy. Chance sulks and furrows his brow and doesn’st want to be bothered. And Blaze is more like Fiona by getting hyper until I pay attention.
    Never really thought about frustration before, but I have always responded to it. Interesting how dogs relay their frustrations.

    How long did it take you to catch on to Honey’s ear scratching? I think it would have taken me a while. So glad she has a good partner like you. 🙂

  9. When Bernie gets frustrated, he stops smiling at me. If a walk is getting too long, he’ll stop and plant himself to tell me he’s done. If we’re training, he’ll do this head shake thing that tells me “I’m doing what you ask, but I’m really tired of this activity.” I’m still figuring Lizzie out. I don’t think walks ever tire her puppy Doodle butt out, and she seems to like training sessions more than Bernie.

  10. What a wonderful article – I am in the process of training my 5 month old golden retriever and these are definitely words to live by!

  11. Shyla starts to scratch and then rapidly moves to shut down when she’s frustrated. Your point is excellent – it’s just information. For me, it means either change something immediately or stop. Great post!

  12. I honestly don’t have an answer. So I’m going to start paying better attention to what my dogs are telling me.

    Thanks for this insight, Pamela. I appreciate it.

  13. Good information because I feel like a lot of dog owners don’t know that random scratching like that is often due to mild stress. Remy does a lot of scratching too. And loud, obnoxious yawns. With Ace, it’s a very quiet but visible yawn or he’ll also scratch.