Dealing with Canine Attention Seeking Behavior
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 into 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.
When a Dog’s Attention Seeking Behavior Needs to Stop
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
- 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 of Treatment for Dogs with Attention Seeking Behaviors
The treatment stages are as follows:
- Owner ignores unwanted behavior, say, stealing objects.
- Dogs steal more items, more often and dances around in front of the owner to try to get him to intervene or chase him.
- The owner continues to ignore the behavior.
- The dog starts to lose confidence in this attention-getting technique and performs it less frequently.
- The owner continues to ignore the dog’s charades.
- Dogs attention seeking behavior eventually peters out.
If you give in intermittently or succumb to your dog’s 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.
Treatment of Attention Seeking Behavior in Dogs
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 the immediate withdrawal of your attention or the dog will fail to make an association between its unwanted behavior and the inevitable consequence.