Attention Seeking Behaviors

Dogs are great at learning how to get our attention. They bark at us, scratch at the door, whine, nudge us with their noses, and paw at our hands – anything to get us to pay attention to them. The reason these annoying behaviors never seem to go away no matter what we do is because we are often inadvertently reinforcing the behavior with our attempts to stop them. Essentially, we give the dog the attention he is seeking when we yell at him or push him away. You see, even negative attention from a much-loved caretaker is better than nothing.

It is very important for dog caretakers to understand how dogs learn. Behaviors that are rewarded will continue to occur and may even increase in frequency, even if the reward only comes 5 out of 10 times the dog exhibits the behavior. This variable schedule of reinforcement actually makes the behavior stronger. It’s as if you are a giant walking slot machine and the dog becomes addicted to pulling your handle in hopes that he will eventually get the pay off. Jackpot!

The only way to get rid of these annoying attention-seeking behaviors is to completely remove the reward. Figure out what the dog gets out of the behavior (attention, food, going outside, etc.) and then take that away in response to the behavior.

An example is the annoying behavior of barking at you for attention. If the barking causes you to get up and walk out of the room (something he certainly doesn’t want) then the behavior is being negatively punished. This means we are taking away something good in response to a behavior. If done consistently, the dog soon learns that that behavior no longer “works for him” and dogs do what works – plain and simple.

Remember to not say a word to him. Don’t even give him eye contact - simply get up and walk away; or turn your back; or look at the sky. Behaviors that are not rewarded will go away.

Courtesy of Kelley Bollen, MS, CABC - Animal Alliances, LLC

Last update on Aug 1, 2014 by Bob Burch.

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