Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Attention Hog.

Is your dog an attention hog ... ok, an attention-seeker? Barks demandingly? Paws at you demandingly? Whines?  If so, you're not alone.  Even better news: It's totally fixable, curable actually (which means you can make it go away for good!)

Here is the first thing you should know about attention-seeking behaviors: they are learned behaviors. This means somewhere along the way someone has reinforced them and therefore they continue because they work for the dog.

So, this means the dog's behaviors can be fixed if you change your response to the behaviors.

DEFINING ATTENTION-SEEKING BEHAVIORS
Let's discuss defining what attention-seeking behaviors are and are not.  If a dog has a need that should be met -- needs to potty, hungry, etc. -- then the need should be addressed.  However, if the dog is just demanding one of those things but it's not a need at that moment then they are in fact using at attention-seeking behaviors to gain something they desire at that exact moment.

Puppies will be an exception in many of these situations.  Young puppies, under 5 months, are especially going to be more difficult to determine if they need to go potty or if they are just wanting attention, etc.  So you'll have to really get to know your puppy to know how to differentiate between needs that should be met or if the puppy is actually being demanding. When puppies are young I often give in to the behavior, whether it's a need or attention-seeking and address it later if it does become more of an attention-seeking behavior rather than a need. (More on this below)

HUNGRY OR DEMANDING FOOD?
As far as hunger goes, we have complete control of our dogs' meals and food (or we should, read: no free feeding!).  Therefore no dog should be demanding food, ever.  If they are it's an attention-seeking behavior not an actual need. (Note: If your dog does in fact act as if they are always hungry please have a vet check, including a full blood panel just to be safe.)

This also applies to puppies. All puppies should be fed on a schedule and when younger than 5 months should be fed 3-4 times a day.  This would definitely ensure that they aren't hungry throughout the day and shouldn't have a reason to demand food.  So, if your dog is medically sound there is no reason they should be demanding food; if they are then this is an attention-seeking behavior.

NEEDS TO POTTY OR DEMANDING TO GO OUT?
Needing to go potty is going to be the most common reason for a dog barking, whining, pawing or other behaviors that would be legitimate/may not fall into the attention-seeking category as easily.  Dogs will all use different behaviors to show they need to go potty.  The problem with this is the fine line between do they really need to potty or are they just demanding to go out or get your attention?

This is where it's important for you to know your dog and take several factors into account.  Did your dog potty 10 minutes prior? Did your dog drink water recently? Did your dog eat within an hour or so? Did your dog see a squirrel outside? Does your dog have a bit of diarrhea?  Does your dog know the neighbor's dog is out and want to go bark at him?

So, if you are certain your dog does not actually need to go out to relieve herself then she is likely just offering attention-seeking behaviors in the hopes that you'll let her out.

A SIDE EFFECT.
A little side effect, if you will, of dogs that get attention when they want is dogs that cannot learn to do nothing.  This really is an indirect form of attention-seeking: dogs that cannot do nothing.  When we have dogs we feel must always be engaged with us or doing something -- Oh he needs to be walked! Oh she needs to be jogged! Oh he needs to play! Oh she needs to be trained! -- then we create a dog that actually does need attention all the time or he'll drive you coo-coo-bananas. While those are all very important things to all dogs it becomes a problem when the dog is used to getting it all the time.  It can fall into the attention-seeking behavior category because they cannot just lie down and do nothing. They need attention in some form all the time.  Sadly, we create this. Giving into attention-seeking behaviors often snowballs into other things -- a dog that cannot just be ok with doing nothing and allowing you to watch TV or talk on the phone or read this blog! So, there are side effects to these types of behaviors as well. I could go on about this topic but this could be it's very own blog post in itself ... hmmm, maybe my next blog post topic. Perhaps, yet I digress ...

OKAY ... SO, HOW DO I ADDRESS IT?!
Ok.  So now you're pretty sure you know how to define if your dog actually needs something or is demanding it (using an attention-seeking behavior to get what he wants).  The big question now is -- So how do I get my dog to stop being annoying?!

Quick answer:  Do nothing.
Explained: Do not look at your dog, do not talk to your dog, do not pet your dog, do not touch your dog, do not tell your dog to "go away", do not tell your dog to "go lay down", do not tell your dog to "sit" . . . you get the idea. Don't do anything, literally, do nothing. You might gently put your dog in his crate.  Not as a punishment but a way to get her away from you and to leave you alone, especially if you cannot ignore the dog. (No, this won't cause problems with associations with the crate.) In that moment your dog does not exist. You must ignore him completely.  While this is a very simple answer it's not an easy one.

It's not easy because ignoring a demanding dog is very difficult.  Most people have a very hard time doing this.  The dog is being annoying. Not, only this, if you do in fact start to ignore the dog the behavior will increase before it ceases completely.  These are the laws of psychology.  There is something called an extinction burst.  An extinction burst is a predictable and common blast of defiance from the recesses of a brain denied familiar rewards.  The brain makes a last ditch effort to return to it's old ways.  

So you're drudging along, ignoring like a champ, the dog finally stops quicker than normal and you feel like you're making great headway ... then suddenly the dog starts barking and scratching you.  Possibly even one of those behaviors isn't one that he did before.  You think -- forget this, it's not working! Look! Now he's scratching at me, he never did this before!  But alas, this actually is great news. This means your dog is trying hard to make that last attempt to break you.  A last attempt to get what he wants -- he's going through an extinction burst.  This means your efforts are working! Do not give up! Keep up the good work!

Here is a handy little chart you can use for a what to do and what not to do.
DOG’S ACTION/BEHAVIOR
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO
WHAT YOU SHOULD NOT DO
puts paw at/on you, our nudges you to elicit attention
if sitting, stand up, walk out of the room;
if standing turn & walk away
look at, pet, talk to or push the dog
whines or barks for attention/because he wants something or attention
if sitting, stand up, walk out of the room;
if standing turn & walk away
tell the dog to be quite, look at, pet or acknowledge the dog in any way
drops a toy at your feet or in your lap to elicit play or games
if sitting, stand up, walk out of the room;
if standing turn & walk away
look at, pet, talk to or push the dog
nips, mouths or grabs your hand/foot/clothing/shoes
put dog in crate, quietly & calmly  OR quickly get up & walk to the nearest room, close the door behind you, leave dog on other side of the door for 30 sec—1 min
pull away, push the dog away, yell, scream, look at, pet or acknowledge the dog in any way

TROUBLESHOOTING.
  • What happens when you do the above and the behavior is still strong or your dog starts a new annoying behavior in its place?
    • As stated above this often happens when things are in fact working and an extinction burst occurs. This indicates that your efforts are working and your dog is trying a last attempt to get what he wants.  You must remain strong, keep doing what you're doing, which should be a Professional Ignorer. 
  • What happens when I just cannot ignore the barking? It's incessant!!
    • I totally empathize with this. It's super hard to ignore a barking dog. It bothers me to no end, so I get it.  However if you cannot ignore the behavior then you'll have to face the reality that it will continue, plain and simple. 
  • I live in an apartment, so ignoring my dog that is barking is going to be hard.  Any creative ideas?
    • This does present a problem as neighbors may not be too keen to suffer through your new training regime.  
    • If your dog does barking only for attention but not if you leave then I'd use the front door as my escape.  Dog barks for attention -- walk out of the door.  If your dog is crate trained and is quiet in the crate then gently put dog in crate as soon as she starts barking.  Cover crate if you have to, with a sheet or blanket.
If none of the above seems to work for you, it's going to be hugely beneficial that you find a trainer near you to come in and help you.  Usually attention-seeking behaviors come with a few other things that could be tweaked to benefit the dog long term.  

Happy training from your favorite red-headed dog trainer in Texas. 

Stacy Greer
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior, LLC

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