Monday, March 21, 2011

Do I Have Your Attention?

Dogs engage in a little attention getting behavior from time to time, and there is nothing particularly wrong with that – as long as the behavior stays within reasonable limits.

But what you have to remember is that your dog will quickly learn what works and what does not 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.

Does this sound familiar to raising children? Yes, it is!

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.

What to Do About It

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

It might go like this:

1. Owner ignores unwanted behavior, say, stealing objects.

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

3. Owner continues to ignore the behavior.

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

5. Owner continues to ignore the dog's charades.

6. 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.

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 clap, or click. 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.


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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