#17-Barrier Frustration

Vetlist Tip #17

Hi Dr. Nichol,

I was wondering if you have a handout or general advice regarding barrier anxiety? I have a 2 year of pittbull cross dog that gets very excited, vocal and anxious when he hears dogs on the other side of the door of the owners house or in the exam room and doesn’t listen to commands. The most notable for the owner is the pawing anxiously at his face to remove his gentle leader if another dog is walking by (otherwise does great on gentle leader). Listens overall and is obedient, except in those situations. Does well with other dogs when he meets them.

Thoughts? Comments? Starting points?

Liz Georges DVM
Hi Liz-

I know this problem well. If this dog has no other behavior issues it is likely to be what we call barrier frustration rather than an anxiety disorder.

Some dogs are highly reactive to stimuli that they are physically prevented from investigating. Naturally territorial, many dogs need to rush to the perimeter of their territory to interact with an “intruder”. In the wild they carry this off with innate behaviors that include normal body signaling. These encounters rarely involve hostility or aggression.

Pet dogs, on the other hand, can become immediately frustrated by the contrivances of human life like doors, windows, fences, and leashes. Not equipped by their behavioral genetic programming to understand these “artificial” barriers some dogs get frustrated. Hence their over-reactions when hearing another dog on the other side of a closed door and the fence fighting that occurs between many neighbor dogs who are separated by wire fencing.

There is no simple treatment for this problem but there is prevention by blocking a dog’s visual access to the sights that trigger the response. Fence covers can help.

Your client was smart to teach her dog to accept a Gentle Leader. She can use it, along with a target stick and a clicker, to derail her dog’s arousal early in its ramp-up. By immediately reinforcing him, using the clicker, the dog can, with hundreds of repetitions, learn to look to his leader for an opportunity to earn an interaction, a click, and a food reward when first becoming aware of an unreachable creature.

I will be teaching a behavior class for dog owners next Wednesday evening at VESC. You client can call my office (792.5131) to register. I can share more details with her then if she would like.

I hope that helps.



Hello Jeff-

Do you have any insights about managing this problem for those of us in the shelter world.  Barrier frustration and excessive barking are constant issues for us.  Some dogs handle it well, others not so well and it can really affect their adoptability and thus a chance at a new life.

Tom Parker DVM
Espanola Valley Humane Society


Hi Tom-

You are right that shelter dogs are a subset of their own. Stressed by the close proximity of other confined and fearful dogs there is a lot of tension and barking. Many seem to acclimate to being in a run but when hearing or seeing someone approach they jump to their feet and either try to interact and bark out of barrier frustration or become defensive of their space and vocalize to warn off the “scary monster”.

One method that has worked well in many shelter situations is Treat Buckets. A plastic bucket with dog treats is hung from the run gate. First walk by and just toss a treat, then walk past a little slower, then talking softly and then stopping and giving food while talking. Gradually increase the intensity. Teach the staff what to do and teach them what not to do. Don’t force the dog. Allow the dog to approach the visitor.

I also suggest setting these dogs up for success by covering the lower portions of the run gates in order to somewhat diminish the intensity of the stimulus. Passersby should not look down and stare at dogs; this causes many to feel intimidated. When a dog is ready for an interaction the visitor should squat and turn their side to the dog. Direct eye contact should be avoided. Silence on the part of the human is best to build trust. Patience and slow repetition matter.

All of these concepts are well-established by Dr. Sheila D’Arpino, DVM, DACVB of Maddie’s Fund. She has a great blog for this type of challenge at http://shelterbehavior.blogspot.com/

All the best, Jeff