Attention Seeking Behaviors and How to Stop Them

How is it that our dogs know THE EXACT moment when we need to focus on other tasks that do not include them, such as a work conference call, the latest episode of Homeland or chatting on the phone with our best friend???

EASY….You trigger them.

The dog has learned a sequence: When mom picks up the phone, I lose attention. When dad sits down at the computer, we stop playing. The list goes on!

If the dog desires attention in that moment, he may audition a few behaviors. If I bark does he do anything? If I nudge her hand, do we play again? If I sit at the window and whine to go outside, does he get up and open the door?

The answer is usually YES, we do something for the dog. We inadvertently reinforce the attention seeking behavior which results in a new behavior chain.

The owner gets on the phone = No attention for the dog = The dog Barks = The owner looks at him and asks the dog what he needs and then opens the door to the backyard = The dog is reinforced for barking. And the cycle continues……

Reinforcement may look different for every dog, such as:

  • Looking at the dog
  • Telling the dog no – it’s still attention
  • Offering food / treats to make sure the dog is not hungry
  • Offering Bones and Kongs to silence the dog
  • Offering petting while on the phone or at the computer
  • Offering other rewards such as access to the bed, outside, toys

This all comes from a good, loving place. The owner has a desire to meet his or her dog’s needs and take care of them. How lovely! However, this can easily backfire.

What to do instead:

  • PREVENTION! This is key to your success!
  • Make a list of the scenarios when your dog engages in these behaviors.
  • Write out the time, what you are doing and then what the dog usually does in response.
  • Purchase yummy raw marrow bones or stuff frozen Kongs for your pooch.
  • Set an alarm for these times of day on your phone or list them on your fridge so you don’t forget.
  • BEFORE sitting down to watch TV or hop on the Internet, give your dog something to do. DO NOT wait until your dog engages in the attention seeking behavior and THEN give him the Kong or bone. You will further reinforce the behavior you are trying to decrease. Try this when your dog is hungry so he or she desires the bone or Kong.

Next Steps:

  • If the dog starts to engage in the attention seeking behaviors, simply ignore them. Either look away or walk away.
  • When he or she is quiet or calm, refocus them back to the bone or Kong.
  • NOTE: If you start to implement the mini time outs by looking away and not reinforcing the attention seeking behavior, these behaviors might get louder and stronger for a short while. Hang in there! This is called an extinction burst. The dog is confused and potentially frustrated that he did not receive the expected and desired response from the owner. He will try again and again until he learns the new behavior sequence. If this happens, remember the time outs are working. Stick with it! This technique should always be paired with prevention (see above) so the dog does not get frustrated.