Re-training attention-seeking behavior in dogs

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Has your dog ever barked at you for a treat?  Scratched at your leg for attention?  Shoved a muzzle under your arm while you are trying to work?  And have you ever given that treat, played with or petted your dog when he demanded it?  If so, you are guilty of reinforcing attention-seeking behaviors in your dog.  When your dog does these things, he is often cute and difficult to ignore.  But there always comes a time when you find the behaviors not-so-cute.  The good news is that dogs are easy to train to “ask please.”  The bad news is, owners are slightly harder to train, but can learn with repetition!

What, exactly, is attention-seeking behavior?

Attention-seeking behavior in dogs can manifest itself in many ways:

  • Whining
  • Barking for attention
  • Pawing at doors
  • “Demanding “ affection by pushing their head or muzzle into or under a person’s hand
  • Begging when the owner has food

Why do dogs exhibit these attention-seeking behaviors?

The answer to that one is pure and simple – because it elicits a desired behavior or object from their human, i.e.  the dog gets what it wants!

How can we put a stop to such behaviors?

Although the answer on paper is simple, in practice it is not necessarily so.  The simple answer is – DO NOT REWARD THE DOG BY GIVING HIM WHAT HE WANTS when he offers an attention-seeking behavior.  Often, the owner does not even realize how he is reinforcing these behaviors.

Example:  Fido wants on the bed at night, so he whines, barks and circles at the foot of his owner’s bed.  In the beginning, the owner thinks this behavior is cute, and feels sorry for the poor neglected little dog!  So, in a fit of compassion, he hoists Fido onto the bed.  Every night for several nights, the same scene unfolds.  After a period of time, the owner has decided this behavior isn’t so cute, and he doesn’t want to share the bed anymore, so when Fido whines, owner says “SHUT UP, YOU DUMB DOG!”  “BE QUIET,”  “KNOCK IT OFF.”  And finally, when he can’t stand it anymore, he gives up hoists Fido onto the bed!  Mission accomplished!  Fido’s take on this…….”I get it!  If I bark, whine and circle LONG enough, I can get on the bed….now I know what my master wants!”

In this example, the human can be trained in as little as one night!

Solution:  Following the previous example, the owner has decided this behavior isn’t so cute, and he doesn’t want to share the bed anymore, so when Fido whines, his owner completely ignores him.  Fido, having had success with this method before, becomes louder and more insistent.  After all, his owner obviously must have gone deaf!  Finally, Fido gives up and lies down on the wonderful new bed that his owner has provided for him.  At this exact moment, wonder of wonders, his owner tosses a fabulous chewy treat onto that bed!  Fido’s take on this: “I get it, if I am quiet and lay on this great dog bed, dog treats rain from above!  Now I know what my master wants!”

Remember, however, that Fido has had success in the past with attention-seeking.  This retraining may take several nights of repetition.  And Fido will not quickly forget if owner slips and yells, touches, pushes or gives up and hoists even once during this retraining period.

Points to remember:

  • Any reinforcement of the  old unwanted behavior at all will delay the retraining period.  This includes touching, talking or giving in.
  • Lack of reinforcement of the new wanted (lying down) behavior will delay the retraining period.
  • Reinforcement of the new wanted behavior must be immediate.
  • Make sure the new behavior includes something positive for the dog – in this example it was a fabulous new bed and a chewy treat.  Reinforcement reward can include anything that your dog likes, including attention, treats and toys.
  • Remember that you may still have your dog engage in original behavior if you have invited him.  He should not, however, demand your attention or action.
  • Patience and repetition are the keys.  Make a plan and stick to it, no matter how difficult.  Once you slip, your dog will simply remember to demand longer and harder.
  • Instituting, and living by, a Learn to Earn Program is key in preventing further bouts of attention-seeking behaviors.  Teach your dog that the only way to get anything is to offer an acceptable behavior, such as a sit, to “say please.”  Be consistent in this, and you will be happy to live with and enjoy a well-mannered canine!
This article was written by Cynthia Gordon, who is a Victoria Stilwell-Approved Positively Trainer. Check out her website: Gentle Touch Dog Training

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