Understanding Barrier Frustration in Dogs

What Is Barrier Frustration?

What is barrier frustration in dogs? Imagine for a moment a child in a shopping cart. Mom is in the toy aisle when the child sees a toy that is really attractive. The toy seems to be within arm's reach, so the child extends the arm. Yet, he is unable to grab the toy that so strongly attracts him. Being so close and unable to get the toy creates frustration in the child, and within seconds he starts a temper tantrum. He cries, screams, and grabs the attention of everybody in the store. This cliche is very common. How many kids have you heard crying in stores because they wanted something and couldn't get it?

In a similar fashion, dogs develop frustration when something holds them back from interacting with certain stimuli in the environment. What holds a dog back? Most likely a leash, a fence, a tether, a baby gate, being in a car, an x-pen, or any kind of barrier. When frustration builds up along with excitement and agitation, the dog develops an outburst similar to the one seen in the child at the store. Barking and lunging are the two most likely outcomes.

This reaction is often confused for aggression, but there are some ways to distinguish it from other forms of aggression. We will take a look at some signs of barrier frustration and effective ways to diffuse it so your dog can learn better-coping strategies.

Is My Dog Developing Barrier Frustration?

Determining if your dog develops barrier frustration really takes closely observing your dog's behavior. The best way is to hire a reputable dog trainer or applied animal behaviorist so to assess your dog's behavior and determine if you are ultimately dealing with barrier frustration. Because this behavior shares similar behaviors seen in other dog behavioral problems, it is imperative to seek help before trying anything on your own. The following are some indicators of barrier frustration and the typical profile of a dog that suffers from this behavioral problem. You know you own a dog with barrier frustration when:

  • Friendliness: Your dog is normally a very friendly fellow that looks forward to meeting and greeting people and other dogs. Surprisingly, these types of dogs top the list as candidates for barrier frustration. Why? Simply because these dogs are happy, eager beings that want to interact. According to certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant Christine Hibbard, it is almost as if these dogs are saying, "Woohoo! I love other dogs, so turn me loose to meet them!”
  • Aggressive Display Around New Companions: Your dog is eager to meet other people or dogs but is a bit conflicted due to fear and anxiety. When your dog feels trapped because he is attached to a leash with nowhere to retreat, he becomes frustrated and resorts to an aggressive display.
  • Reactions Arise When a Barrier Is in Place: Your dog develops barrier frustration in determinate situations. There has to be a barrier of some sort at play. Gates, leashes, tethers, windows you name it; anything that prevents your dog from being free can be considered a barrier. This means that when your dog is off leash/free to interact, he acts as a normal dog.

How Can I Manage My Dog's Barrier Frustration?

A dog that has barrier frustration develops frustration when certain barriers prevent him from interacting with his environment in the way he desires. Often, these behaviors are seen in dogs that have a history of living at large, leash-free, and in dogs that are allowed to wander around. Other times, they develop when the dog is deprived of regular social interactions with people or other dogs. This is often seen in animals that have been left in their yard all day with little stimulation in their life. Once they are out in the real world, things are too exciting to cope with!

What Won't Help

So how do you treat a dog with barrier frustration? One possible solution may seem obvious: just remove the barrier! Yet, this will not help.

  • Firstly, because there are leash laws to abide by, you certainly do not want to deal with potential problems from some incident related to your dog's unruly behavior and your neglect.
  • Secondly, allowing your dog to interact freely with every dog he sees does not teach him any form of impulse control. After all, you wouldn't buy your child every toy he sees at the supermarket just to make him shut up! Rather, you try to teach him more appropriate manners and coping skills. For example, you might say to a child: "Mommy can't buy you the toy now, but when we go home, we can play a fun game!"

What Will Help

  • Reactive Rover Classes: A good way to help your dog with this problem is to enroll in a "Reactive Rover" class. Many trainers organize these classes where reactive dogs with barrier frustration are taught new coping skills along with other dogs with similar problems. These classes offer safe, remedial socialization, both on and off-leash if safety permits. The structured setting and systematic training approaches of these classes conducted under the supervision and guidance of a trainer offer the ideal solution to the problem.
  • Desensitization: An alternative is to try systematic desensitization under your dog's threshold levels so to help him better cope with the frustration since the trigger will be made less salient. However, you will also need to train a default operant behavior to replace the barking and lunging. You may, therefore, teach your dog to look at you, do a default sit or perform any other behavior that is incompatible with the barking and lunging. You can read more about this method in my article on "differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors." A good place to start practicing this is with your dog by a pet store parking lot at a distance from other dogs where your dog is capable of responding to your cues.

Happy training!

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 27, 2019:

I am not a fan of prong collars due to the risk for pain and negative associations, but for large dogs who are strong and actively pulling, I like to use a front- attachment harness such as the 'Walk your dog with love' harness or the' Sensible' harness.

You dog likely needs behavior modification, ideally with the help of a professional for safety and correct implementation. If this is due to barrier frustration, you may need to work her under threshold and focus on rewarding an alternate behavior, but if this is due to true aggression/dislike of other dogs, a slightly different approach may be needed working on changing the dog's emotional response 9(through desensitization and counterconditioning).

Clare Toll on August 20, 2019:

Hi, My dog is getting so difficult to handle on her leash. She is the sweetest dog off-leash and loves both people and dog. In fact, I believe she actually prefers humans to other dogs.. She always runs to greet people at dog parks rather than dogs. She will greet them but will let them know early on she would rather not deal with other dogs. Recently, her behavior while on a leash or on a chain has been awful. We just started going camping and your dogs have to be on leash or chain and under control at all times. She has become this monster dog on the leash leaping at and snarling, snapping trying to get at other dogs. It got so bad we had to take her home and find someone to watch her.. My husband really thinks we can fix this problem but I'm over here thinking this dog is cujo on a leash and might need some major drugs to calm her down. She has always suffered from separation anxiety but over time has got better doesn't destroy as much or potty in the house anymore. I'd love to able to walk my dog without the fear of her trying go after every dog in town. Is there really help out there? I've heard that prong collars can help is that true?

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on January 21, 2015:

I must be lucky my dogs never had this problem. A wonderful hub with useful information.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 11, 2013:

Thank you for stopping by vocalcoach, many dogs get frustrated when they're on leash or behind a fence and they act totally ok when off leash or no longer behind the fence. I worked for a kennel/shelter last year and all those dogs barking were for the most part frustrated.

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on February 10, 2013:

Thank you for this well done article. It helped me to hear your reasons about why dogs react when on a leash. An excellent hub.

Lori Colbo from Pacific Northwest on October 02, 2012:

Great ideas. Thank you.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 02, 2012:

The behavior of hiding is reinforcing. If she is scared and feels safe under there, since nothing happens to her, in her mind she thinks that the act of hiding is what is keeping her safe from a perceived threat.So the more she does it, the more the behavior will continue. You will need to work on her emotional state about the yard. That means making wonderful things happen when she is out there. Try to toss treats and let her go on a treasure hunt, have fun play sessions with her favorite toys, keep on leash and do some training using high value treats, feed her in the yard. Sounds like she needs to build more confidence, google clicker training, build an obstacle course and invite her to jump a little obstacle and praise lavishly, take her on walks and praise her when she makes eye contact with you..etc..

Lori Colbo from Pacific Northwest on October 01, 2012:

I live in a fifth wheel on a good sized lot. Big yard fenced all around. Nellie loves to be out doors and is free to roam the yard as she pleases. What I want to do is top her from going under the RV. It is up off the ground about 2 1/2 feet with a canvas skirt around it. when I first got her 3 years ago she was terrified of the spacious yard, she'd been abused, so her first reaction was to dive under the house. It's all bare dirt under there, plus there is wiring and pipes. She can't quite stand up to her full height and now her back is starting to sway and she stands kind of funny. She does not spend all her time under there anymore, but enough to keep her collie fir dirty. I don't have money for training. I bought some stakes to put through the holes at the bottom to secure it, but haven't done it yet.

What can I do to ease any anxiety she might have when I do this?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 01, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by, I am happy you found the article useful!

Bob Bamberg on October 01, 2012:

Great hub, Adrienne, I learned a lot. I had only thought of barrier frustration in connection with separation anxiety, when they chew and scratch door jambs and windowsills, etc. Voted up, interesting and useful. Regards, Bob

Jobb Gosamo from Philippines on September 30, 2012:

Eye-opening and useful. thanks


Frustration has been defined variously as an emotional reaction experienced after a given expectation is violated (1) an animal's reaction following a surprising incentive reduction or omission (2) and as being related to mild engagement of the reactive aggression (RAGE) system which increases in proportion to the intensity of the desire that is thwarted (3). Frustration can arise in a range of circumstances: absent, reduced or delayed rewards (4) situations where one is thwarted from obtaining/retaining a resource (5, 6) where barriers to autonomous control exist, whether accessing an incentive or avoiding an aversive (7), or with intrusions into personal space and territory (8). Frustration has been linked to displays of aggressive behavior to varying degrees, including redirected aggressive behavior (8–10). Frustration has been implicated in the performance of displacement behaviors (11) and repetitive behaviors including stereotypies (12). It is suggested that frustration evolved to invigorate responses when an individual is faced with threats to obtaining, protecting, and maintaining resources, and it is considered a negative emotional state, therefore frustration related behaviors are considered a potential welfare concern in animals (13, 14).

Like other affective states, frustration exists in the form of a specific emotional reaction, mood (period of irritability), and as a temperament trait (consistent behavioral predisposition over time and location). These forms have been investigated in the human literature: e.g., state vs. trait anger (encompassing some aspects of frustration) (15, 16) and a scale developed by Harrington (17) for measuring trait level frustration tolerance/intolerance (i.e., frustration tendencies). In dogs, like most other animal species, the focus of any research relating to frustration has tended to be on the immediate emotional reaction rather than the predisposition related to mood or temperament. For example, the frustration behaviors arising in domestic dogs when reinforcement for gazing at a human experimenter is extinguished included significant increases in frequency of ambulation, sniffing, and vocalizations (13). Other studies have explored changes in communicative aspects of dog-human behavior during reinforcement omission and extinction protocols (18, 19). Whilst such studies provide a foundation for how frustration may manifest in specific experimental settings, it is also important to understand the breadth of circumstances in which frustration can arise. In particular, considering frustration in the daily lives of owned dogs, and the reliability of a response across contexts, which may provide insight into a more general predisposition rather than a context specific response. In the field of clinical animal behavior, when assessing a problem, it is vital to understand both the motivation and the likely underlying emotion (e.g., differentiating fear/anxiety from frustration) so that specific treatment can be instituted (20). In addition, differentiating an individual dog who shows frustration in a single situation which is problematic (state level) from a dog who is generally frustration intolerant (trait level) is important, as they may require a different treatment approach.

In the daily lives of pet dogs, situations which may elicit frustration include the presence of physical barriers such as doors, or being restrained on a lead, both of which may thwart a dog from obtaining a desired resource (7). A desired resource may be a social (person or conspecific) or non-social (chasing prey, accessing food, a toy etc.) stimulus. In addition, frustration may arise alongside fear when access to safety is thwarted (21). Frustration may also arise in situations where expectations are not met due to absent, reduced or delayed reward (4). Absence of a reward may occur when an owner fails to provide access to a desired resource the dog was expecting (e.g., an owner may be in a rush to return from a walk and not allow the dog off lead to play with a conspecific as usual). Reduced reward occurs when a dog receives less than they were expecting while deviations from a set routine may result in frustration from a delayed reward (e.g., if a dog is walked or fed at a later time than usual). Situations where there is competition for a limited resource (e.g., one bone and two dogs who wish to have it the shoe that the dog wants to chew but the owner wants back) can also result in frustration as there is a threat of loss of resources. Territory and personal space are also important resources (8) associated with increased autonomy—and so if a dog perceives a potential intrusion into his/her personal space and/or territory, frustration can arise. Indeed, a lack of autonomous control over the environment occurs in all of these contexts and is a contextual hallmark for frustration (22).

Given frustration exists to invigorate responses in order to increase focused efforts to achieve a desired goal, frustration related behaviors are likely to vary depending on the goal. However, typical component features (23) expected with frustration would include relatively high physiological arousal, communication of the desire for autonomy through aggressive displays (e.g., snarling, growling, snapping, biting) and behavioral tendencies associated with increased efforts such as pulling/lunging on lead or digging at a barrier to access the desired resource. Vocalizations (including whining, barking, growling) may accompany these efforts, and if the goal cannot be achieved then redirected behaviors (e.g., sudden grabbing of the lead) or displacement behaviors such as sniffing, scratching, spinning, or tail chasing may also be seen. Over time frustration may be implicated in the development of some repetitive and compulsive behaviors (24). It is unsurprising that given these responses, frustration is often implicated in many of the behavioral problems affecting dogs (7, 25). The form and intensity of frustration behavior can also result in a risk of injury to others. Despite the significance of these issues, the identification of individuals with poor frustration tolerance is currently based on the use of either instruments with facets loosely related to frustration [e.g., “self-assuredness” and “amicability” within the Monash Canine Personality Scale, (26)] or subjective evaluation by the clinician. The absence of a more precise and objective assessment instrument also impacts on the assessment of treatments aimed at controlling these problems, and is therefore a serious impediment to progress within the field. Therefore, the aim of the current study was to develop a psychometric instrument for the assessment of frustration in dogs via an owner completed questionnaire, encompassing common contexts, and manifestations of frustration in owned dogs.

Barrier Frustration in Dogs

While barrier frustration isn't really a type of dog aggression or reactivity on its own, it's important to be aware of as the behaviour itself can look scary and threatening to those who don't know what it is. Here are a few signs that your dog may be experiencing barrier frustration.

What it looks like

  1. Barking and lunging at the end of the leash or behind a barrier.
  2. Frustration barking. This happens when the dog is excited/over aroused with seeing other dogs or people but are restricted from getting to them. Barrier frustration is commonly seen in dogs that get excited/aroused by other dogs, in dogs that exhibit prey aggression, and in territorial dogs.
  3. Barrier specific. In milder cases, some dogs calm down and are neutral and appropriate with people or dogs when the barrier (i.e. leash or fence) is removed.

  1. Individual personality. Just like with people, each dog has his own individual personality. Some of these personalities are more prone to frustrate quicker than others in certain circumstances.
  2. Learned behaviour. This type of dog has learned to associate other dogs or people with excitement or arousal. This happens typically when focus on socialization is too much on play and interaction with other dogs or visiting other people.
  3. Underlying reactivity. Barrier frustration can often be a symptom of an underlying type of dog reactivity, such as over arousal, predatory aggression, or territorial aggression. Because the dog is already aroused, it doesn't take much for these dogs to become easily frustrated in the process.

How to treat

  1. Treat the underlying cause.If barrier frustration is a symptom of an underlying issue, it's important to follow a training plan that helps to address this underlying issue first.
  2. Obedience training. For a dog that just shows frustration when restrained, but is neutral when they're no longer behind a barrier, obedience training will help to teach impulse control. The goal is to teach the dog that calm submissive behaviour is the fastest way for him to get what he wants most, which is meeting the other people or dogs.

Got a dog that is showing some barrier frustration signs? Email us at [email protected] to see how we can help you today!

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Watch the video: Koda - barrier frustration, session 1 (October 2021).

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