Attention Seeking Behaviors and What To Do About Them

Attention seeking dog behaviors are by far the biggest group of dog behavior problems, and it is very difficult to name each of the behavior patterns that dogs display in this group. Nevertheless, almost all dogs in the world display some type of attention-seeking behavior patterns, in some cases they are mild, or dog owners have learned to live with them, so they aren’t always thought of as problem behaviors.

How do they start?

There are many reasons why attention seeking behaviors start, however there are a few scenarios that are especially common ground for problems to start;

  • Lack of physical activities
  • Boredom
  • Nervousness

By not satisfying a dog’s natural needs, humans are setting the scene for any kind of dog behavior issues. Once these start, and before most dog owners even realize what is going on, they end up reinforcing them and suddenly the behaviors become problems.

Although we have a different understanding of our environment than our dogs do, they are capable, just as any animal, of learning that their own actions can shape the environment around them and produce the results that they want. In other words, they are able to figure out that if they create certain actions, these will generate attention that can be seen as a type of reward.

And the laws of operant conditioning say that animals will tend to increase behaviors that were rewarding or had a positive effect for them, and they will tend to stop performing behaviors that are unpleasant or uncomfortable, or simply non-rewarding.

Attention seeking behaviors fall into the first category, dogs like to do something, we never address that behavior or we encourage it in the beginning, and then it becomes a problem.

One of the reasons for this is in the lack of knowledge by a dog owner. Here are three common scenarios, for example:

  • It’s ok for our dog to jump on us, but we would like him not to jump on other people
  • We don’t mind barking throughout the day, but not at night or early morning
  • We don’t mind our dog calling us to play, but we would like him to stop when we are doing something

These types of conditional rules and exceptions are how we would normally approach kids or other humans. However, there is nothing common between kids and dogs or any other animals in the world. It is simple to explain to a kid that it is time to stop playing and that it is a bed time. Dogs don’t understand that concept, nor do they have that concept of time, and certainly not the concept that we are busy doing something.

Is it possible to train your dog, that he can jump on you, but not other people, or when it is the appropriate time for play, or even when it is ok to get up onto the couch? It certainly is, however this is a complex training that will require experience, knowledge and the whole family will have to be synchronized, not to mention that the training and maintenance phases afterwards will need to be strict and performed on a regular bases.

All of this in most cases is way beyond a normal pet owner’s capabilities and limits; therefore it is better to have straightforward, clear rules then it is to try to complicate them. The more complicated the rules and training procedures are, the more time, knowledge, and effort you will need to invest in reaching them.

In a dog’s world everything is more or less black and white. This applies to every action as well. For example, if a dog does something and you reward him, he will do it again (this falls under the positive reinforcement quadrant). Even if you stay neutral or don’t respond to your dog’s action, the behavior will probably still reoccur if it is a self-rewarding type of behavior or if you fail to ignore it (by not reacting) beyond the point of extinction.

This is how most attention seeking behaviors creep into our lives. We never act to address them when they first start and we only start noticing them when the behavior has escalated into a problem to deal with. At this stage, you need a personalized approach and training program in order to deal with the behavior.

The power of attention seeking behaviors

The same rules apply to all dog behaviors that a dog finds pleasant or reinforcing. These behaviors will increase; dogs won’t grow out of them or stop performing them for as long as they continue to provide some type of satisfaction or reinforcement.

Additionally, most attention seeking behaviors are self driven dog behaviors or as some dog trainers call them, self satisfying dog behaviors. For example: barking, chewing, digging, destructive behaviors, etc. They all tend to provide relief to a dog or satisfaction (which can be considered a reward) therefore making these dog behavior problems even more difficult to deal with and to extinguish.

How to deal with attention seeking behaviors?

As mentioned above, most dog owners unfortunately, don’t decide to address their dog’s behavior problems until they are so severe that life with that animal becomes unbearable. The road to recovery is often long, difficult and demanding, and unfortunately many dog owners decide to give up due to the fact that they don’t have time or it is simply too much for them to deal with.

The sad part is that this could all have been avoided in most cases, if the dog owners had learned how to deal with their dogs and learned that every dog behavior needs to be addressed on time to prevent it from becoming an issue.

Step one

is to determine the reason for the appearance of the attention seeking behavior in the first place. In most cases, the reason is one or a combination of; a lack of physical activity, boredom, a lack of mental stimulation, or nervousness, for example.

Remember that even if the attention seeking behavior started because of these reasons, the severity of the state in which your dog is now, may make it appear to be that everything is a possible trigger. The more that a dog practices a certain behavior, they often tend to forget what or why they are doing it in the first place, and now, and it is a self driven action that may appear out of nowhere, as a bad habit.

You will often need to make changes to your lifestyle to address this, and implementing new rules and habits will not go over easily with your dog and the intensity of the behavior will normally increase for a while (you can read more about this in the Behavior Extinction Bursts article).

Changing a lifetime of habit will be demanding, but before you try to do that, you first need to make sure that all of your dog’s needs are being satisfied; it is important to address the original reason or cause for the issue in the first place. You will also have to prepare an alternative response for your dog that is acceptable, to replace the unwanted behavior with.

Step two

is training; training even just simple parlour tricks will satisfy a dog’s mental needs, as well as help him to learn how to work with you as a life companion. This will help build his patience, respect and your dog will learn how to work in order to access a reward.

Addressing the unwanted behavior will have to take place as soon as possible. The rules have to be strict and followed by all family members and anyone who comes to visit will also have to follow the same guidelines. Consistency is always a key factor.

It is imperative that every dog’s attempt at practicing the attention seeking behavior doesn’t go unnoticed and unaddressed. By allowing your dog to practice the particular behaviour every now and then, you are actually placing your dog onto a variable reinforcement schedule (learn more about this in clicker (marker) training ). By allowing your dog to occasionally practice the unwanted behavior, you are actually strengthening it.

Simple and complex dog attention seeking behaviors

The background behind the attention seeking behavior is simple, the dog learned at some point in time that a particular behavior brings some type of reward (in most cases, the reward is their owner’s attention, either good or bad).

In order to address the attention seeking behavior you need to remove the reward that is the driving fuel for it. Ignoring the dog (if possible) is the best answer. This doesn’t mean not paying any attention to the action, it means ignoring the behavior while your dog is performing it, and then rewarding him immediately when he stops doing it. This is the best and most basic approach since you need to eliminate any possible satisfaction that your dog can get from the performance, and mark/reward the behavior of not performing the unwanted action. This is not easy and in the beginning it is a time, energy and patience-consuming process.

There can also be attention seeking behaviors that would have started out as behaviors based on rewarding outcomes. But over time, the dog has simply learned to enjoy the performance of the behavior itself, regardless of whether or not there is an additional reward. Some dogs learn to enjoy practicing the behavior so much that they prefer it over other types of rewards. These are much more complex attention seeking behaviors and will need a more detailed approach in order to help address them.

To deal with attention seeking behaviors, you will need your dog to have some level of training preferably by using clicker (marker) training principles as this type of dog training increases a dog’s problem solving skills and the dog learns that he needs to work or do something in order to access a reward. The more you practice this type of dog training, the more your dog will build working habits and it will be easier to redirect his behavior from practicing unwanted actions to performing alternative actions like sitting, tricks, etc.

Clicker (marker) training is a great training technique and it can be used to directly address the issues themselves, by marking the moments and situations where your dog is performing something else other than the unwanted behaviors, which delivers a clear message to the dog and is often the fastest route in resolving most attention seeking behavior issues.

Corrections and attention seeking behaviors

As with any other aspect of dog training, corrections are unfortunately, the first tool of choice among most dog owners. Do they work? That depends on many factors, but in most cases no, or they produce conditional results so that the handler needs to rely on the corrections forever (which means that the dog didn’t actually learn anything about the unwanted behavior, he still practices the same bad behaviors until he is corrected, in which case he may stop out of fear, but only until the next time).

In most cases it is useless to apply corrections simply because the attention seeking behaviors were practiced for so long that they often appear subconsciously (as explained further on the Dog Jumping issues when discussing Pavlovian dogs who weren’t able to control their salivating at the sound of the bell) and correcting a dog for an uncontrolled pattern of behavior won’t bring any results. Not to mention that every time you apply a correction there are so many more things that can go wrong than can go right.

The only types of corrections that may help in some of these situations are environmental corrections (more about this type of correction can find be found on the corrections in dog training page). If the “reward” that the dog is getting by performing an action has become the satisfaction of the action itself, then the action needs to somehow become unpleasant. In some cases, you can organize the environment in such a way that it may become unpleasant when this action is performed.

For example, excessive chewing can be reduced or eliminated by applying a product that has a taste that will discourage the action. Or excessive distructive behaviors can be discouraged by placing booby traps so that the dog will get discouraged when he starts practicing it.

Your goal is to eliminate the pleasure (therefore the reward) that the dog is getting from the action. No matter how many times you may physically correct your dog, if your dog is still getting satisfaction from performing the action, he will keep doing it. This is another reason why an environmental correction can be much more effective than a physical one when dealing with these situations.

The key is to lessen or remove entirely, the satisfaction factor from the action itself, but it is equally important to give your dog a substitute or alternative action, instead. Always remember that when you are trying to remove something from your dog’s life it has to be replaced by something new. For example, replace the act of jumping with the act of sitting.

Keep in mind that if you are dealing with something as self driving and self rewarding as most of the attention seeking behaviors are, you will need to match (as much as possible) the value of that satisfaction with the replacing action.

Addressing attention seeking behaviors can be difficult and in many cases, time consuming. Having a good plan and strategy is imperative in order to reach results as soon as possible. If you are new to dogs, and having difficulties dealing with these issues, it is best to contact a professional local dog expert.

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