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Attention Seeking Behavior

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Both we and our dogs engage in a little attention getting behavior from time to time, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that – as long as the behavior stays within reasonable limits. If a dog barks at his owner as if to say, "Hey you! Over here," – that's perfectly acceptable communication if your dog has something to convey and is otherwise being ignored. Likewise, if you are engrossed in conversation and your dog paws at your leg to solicit your attention, or to be petted, it's no big deal to respond if you're up for it.

But what you have to remember is that your dog will quickly learn what works and what doesn't according to how you respond. If you always (or even worse, sometimes) cave in to unreasonable requests, you will get even more of the obnoxious behavior in the future. The principle involved is "positive reinforcement," which effectively ensures that you reap what you sow. Even telling your dog to stop, or reprimanding him, can be rewarding for some dogs. The principle here is that some attention, even negative attention, is better than no attention at all.

Attention seeking behavior can reach serious proportions. Take, for example, a dog that is always barking in your face to maintain your undivided attention, or one that constantly jumps on you or paws you whenever you are talking with a friend. Some dogs try to attract attention by stealing things and chewing them up or even swallowing them. Your hysterical reaction, yelling and chasing the dog to get the object back, can be just what the attention-needy dog wants. The game "keep away" that results is, apparently, a whole lot of fun for the dog – especially if you wave your arms around and scream a lot.

Other attention seeking behaviors can be really strange. Some dogs develop pseudo-medical attention-seeking behaviors, like faking lameness, following a visit to a veterinary clinic where they have received much attention for their ailment. A toy poodle patient of mine scratched violently at his face for years despite intense diagnostic workups and assorted medical interventions by her veterinarian owner. The problem resolved when the other dog in the house died and resumed when the owner acquired another dog. In retrospect, the dog was scratching her face because she wanted attention, any attention, including medical attention, from her veterinarian owner when she engaged in the behavior.

Types of Attention Seeking Behaviors

  • Barking
  • Whining
  • Vomiting
  • Feigning lameness
  • Chasing lights or shadows
  • Snapping at "imaginary" flies
  • Strange bodily contortions and posturing

    What to Do About It

    The main principle behind treating attention-seeking behaviors is to ignore the behavior. But it doesn't work right away. In fact, the behavior may get worse, even more intense or more demanding, before it eventually fades away. It's as if the dog is thinking, "That's odd – this used to work. I'd better try even harder to make it work again."

    Stages in Treatment

    The treatment stages are as follows:

  • Owner ignores unwanted behavior, say, stealing objects.

  • Dogs steals more items, more often and dances around in front of the owner to try to get him to intervene or chase him.

  • Owner continues to ignore the behavior.

  • Dog starts to lose confidence in this attention-getting technique and performs it less frequently.

  • Owner continues to ignore the dog's charades.

  • Dogs attention seeking behavior eventually peters out.

    Warning

    If you give in intermittently, or succumb to your dogs charades after a lengthy period of trying to "tough it out," you will actually reinforce the behavior even more firmly. The dog learns that if he keeps it up, attention will eventually come his way. This is the same principle that keeps gamblers riveted to "one arm bandit" slot machines.

    How to Hasten Successful Treatment

    Use of a "bridging stimulus" can help speed up successful treatment. A bridging stimulus is a neutral signal or cue that heralds a particular consequence. The actual stimulus could be the sound of a duck call or tuning fork, or the sound made by striking a key on a piano. The noisemaker is sounded at the time the dog is engaging in the unwanted behavior to signal that the owner is about to withdraw attention, perhaps even leave the room. You must follow through after issuing the cue. It must always signal immediate withdrawal of your attention or the dog will fail to make an association between its unwanted behavior and the inevitable consequence.

    What the bridging stimulus does is focus the dog's attention on that point in time when attention withdrawal is imminent. It is not intended to be aversive but rather to be a consistent herald of what is to follow. Attention behavior will melt away more consistently and rapidly if a bridging stimulus is used than if attention withdrawal is employed on its own without such a signal.

    Philosophical Considerations

    If a dog is always begging for attention there must be a reason. It may be that the dog is being ignored at home or that he is spending too much time alone or in a crate. It may be that the dog is getting insufficient exercise or mental stimulation and has excess steam to blow off or has nothing better to do. It is important to address these issues, too, rather than just trying to stop the dog from doing something that annoys you. Attention-seeking behavior may be merely the tip of an iceberg of discontent.

    So, in addition to preventing the unwanted behavior it is important to ensure that your dog's lifestyle is all that it should be. Questions to ask and address are:

  • Does your dog get enough exercise? The minimum is 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily (unless a medical problem precludes this amount).

  • Is your dog eating a sensible diet? Don't feed your dog "rocket fuel" (performance rations) if he doesn't get much exercise and spends much of the day cooped up at home.

  • Is your level of communication with your dog adequate? You should be striving toward greater than 85 percent responsiveness to one word "commands" (verbal cues) such a SIT, DOWN, COME, and QUIET.

  • Is your dog being rewarded with your attention, petting, praise, whatever, by doing something that you like? If not, start indicating your approval of desired behaviors using these rewards.

  • Does your dog have gainful employment ("a job")? If not, try to engage him in some breed specific activity so that he can perform the function for which he was bred, for example retrieving/hunting exercises for sporting breeds, running chasing for herding breeds, or sniffing things out for hounds.

    Conclusion

    Dogs that display attention-seeking behaviors are needy individuals that are probably under duress or are in some emotional conflict. Pretty much, any behavior can be reinforced as an attention seeking behavior: Attention-seeking components may be involved in various other behavior problems, too. The attention-hungry dog will do whatever works best to get you to pay more attention to him.

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