Does your dog bark at you while you’re on the phone? Paw you while you’re watching TV? Jump on you when you come in the door? These are all examples of attention-seeking behavior, and they’re your dog’s way of saying, “Don’t forget about me!”
These unwanted behaviors start innocently enough, but they can quickly escalate to serious problems that try your patience and hurt your relationship with your dog. Why do these bad habits develop, and how can you stop them?
What Are Attention-Seeking Behaviors in Dogs?
Attention-seeking behavior is any action a dog performs to get a human to notice them. It can include barking, whining, jumping on you, pawing you, or mouthing you with their jaws. Anything that serves to capture your attention has the potential to become an attention-seeking nuisance behavior.
What Causes Attention-Seeking Behavior in Dogs?
How do these natural behaviors go from an attempt at communication to a problem? Dr. Denenberg says it’s trial-and-error learning. First, dogs try several behaviors on their owners, wondering which will work. Then, with time, they learn which are most effective and continue using those.
For example, if your dog barks while you’re talking on the phone, chances are you’ll turn to them, even if it’s just to say, “Shush!” You might throw a ball or cuddle them to keep them quiet. It doesn’t take many repetitions for your dog to figure out that barking while you hold that device to your ear is a surefire way to get your focus. And boom, an attention-seeking behavior has been born. Soon, your dog will bark incessantly every time you make a call.
How Do You Prevent Attention-Seeking Behavior in Dogs?
Dr. Denenberg warns you can’t wholly prevent attention-seeking behaviors, which are a natural part of your dog’s behavioral instinct. You can’t stop a dog from barking or pawing completely, for example. But you can limit when your dog chooses to express these behaviors and teach them when it is and isn’t appropriate to do these actions.
He advises owners can help prevent attention-seeking by meeting all their dogs’ needs, including providing them with enough attention. And that should start from the first day you bring your puppy home. “Ideally, you start by ignoring attention-seeking early on during puppyhood and for short periods,” he says. “Later, you can increase the time you ignore the dog to develop more impulse control.”
What to Avoid When Dealing With a Dog’s Attention-Seeking Behavior
Although it might be tempting to discipline your dog for what feels like acting out, there is nothing to be gained from taking that approach. According to Dr. Denenberg, avoiding punishment is a must. “First, it is a form of attention, and even if it is aversive, it is better than complete indifference,” he says. “Second, it adds negativity to the relationship. Third, even if the dog stops looking for attention, it stops due to aversive consequences, not because it has something better to do.”
How Do You Stop Your Dog’s Attention-Seeking Behavior?
There are many positive and effective steps you can take to deal with your dog’s attention-seeking, but the issue will take time to resolve. In fact, when you first start changing your response, your dog’s behavior will get worse before it gets better. After all, whining at you worked so well in the past, so surely your dog just needs to try whining louder and longer. Stay strong, be consistent, and maintain your patience. Here are some techniques to help you handle your dog’s attention-seeking behavior.
Reward Alternative Behavior
One of the ways to manage attention-seeking is to provide your dog with alternative behaviors. Your dog wouldn’t be asking for your attention if they didn’t want or need something in the first place. So, teach them a more effective way to get what they want. Then, reward that alternative. For example, if they want you to greet them when you get home, teach them to sit to say hello instead of jumping up. If they want you to play with them, teach your dog to fetch a toy rather than mouthing your hands.
Ignore Bad Behavior
While you’re teaching your dog alternative ways to communicate their needs, you should not reinforce the problem behavior. That means ignoring all your dog’s attempts to capture your attention. But you have to be fair.
Dr. Denenberg advises owners must first ensure they are meeting their dog’s needs and the dog is not sick or in pain. “Only then can they ignore the attention-seeking but start with short periods. Owners often try doing all or nothing, which is too much for the dog. So, the dog shows exaggerated attention-seeking, including mouthing, jumping, and sometimes outright aggression. Start with ignoring for short periods, say thirty seconds, and later increase the time.”
Manage Your Dog’s Behavior
Because it can be tricky to ignore problem behaviors, and teaching alternative behaviors takes time, manage your dog to minimize their opportunities to practice attention-seeking. That might mean giving them a food-stuffed chew toy before you make your telephone call or making your call from another room. If you avoid your dog’s attention-seeking triggers, you will set them up for success.
If your dog’s needs are met, they will have far less reason to seek your attention. Establish a routine so they know when to expect playtime, walks, meals, and so on. And make sure you remove frustrations and provide enrichment. For example, give your dog a job to do, like searching for their dinner kibble in the folds of a snuffle mat.
Dr. Denenberg says it also helps to anticipate what your dog might want. “When you know your dog is likely to show attention-seeking, try providing for its needs beforehand: exercise, play, elimination. Then redirect it to self-managing behaviors, such as chewing or playing with a feeding toy. Also, the dog should have designated rest/nap times scheduled for those times.”