When a puppy or dog demands attention through a succession of pawing, scratching, whining, jumping up, and barking, we humans often send all the wrong messages. We end up accidentally reinforcing those very behaviours that annoy us. Over the long term, these behaviours can become entrenched and this can be particularly unwelcome when we need peace and quiet.
While I advocate loving your pet to bits, there is one important proviso – it must always be on your own terms. Attention-seeking behaviour (ASB) is a good example of how we should remain in charge, lest unwanted behaviours escalate out of control. The reinforcement of ‘cuteness’ can quickly turn attention-seeking behaviour into really bad habits.
When a pet sits quietly and looks at us, we usually respond with a kind word and a pat. This favourable response to their behaviour reinforces their efforts, so they repeat it. Eventually, with enough repetitions, it becomes conditioned in the pet’s psyche to mean: if-I-sit-quietly-they-give-me-what-I-want.
If, at some point, we do not respond, they will try something different to gain our attention. Mild ASBs begin to escalate: they’ll try sitting in our path, leaning on us, rubbing around our legs, whining, putting their paws or chin on our knee, shoving toys at us, scratching, climbing, jumping, vocalising, and even biting. The indulgence of attention-seeking behaviours can lead to very manipulative pets.
Where do we draw the line? At what stage has the pet overstepped the point of acceptable behaviour?
Although it is embarrassing when Fido jumps all over your visitors seeking attention, it’s not fair to yell at him for this behaviour if he’s been allowed to jump all over you since he was tiny. Consistency in training is essential to avoid confusion.
Some common ASB problems occur on our arrival home – when the pet climbs all over us in an ecstatic, noisy greeting, or when pets mug us for being a little late at feed time. Should we make a fuss of Fido when he greets us with such joyous enthusiasm, jumping up with love and excitement? Should we leap to attention and throw food into a bowl when Fido barks at us to hurry up? NO! This is absolutely the opposite response to such a demand.
If you are being assaulted with excitement, or being commanded to produce food, to play fetch or for after-dinner cuddles, ignore the dog. Calmly walk away or quietly take him to his time-out zone, and only after he has exhibited acceptable behaviour – e.g. sitting quietly on a mat for a few minutes – should we give him what he wants: the invitation to approach for some appropriate interaction. As another example, I am all for a pet having lap cuddles, so long as it is on our terms – we must invite the pet onto our lap, not be leaped upon.
Ignoring a dog is an art! Removing direct eye contact is critical, because this is a strong canine connection. Turn your eyes and head away, or stand up, turn your back, or walk away if necessary. Deprive them of your attention and they will soon understand that seeking – or demanding – attention does not get them what they want.
Yelling “Get DOWN! Stop jumping on me!” or “Shoosh! No barking inside!” is pointless, because it’s still giving Fido attention – not very nice attention, but attention nevertheless! Keep your actions and voice quiet and in control, because calm, firm confidence is essential in any training situation, for best results.
All pets should learn that we humans have our own personal space, which must be respected until we invite others to share it, including our pets.
It is very important, however, to invite your dog into your space as often as possible – on your own terms – for cuddles and games and treats. Apart from being a lovely aspect of having a dog, this wonderful interaction helps them learn the right cues for receiving attention.
Avoid reinforcing attention-seeking behaviours in other peoples’ dogs. You can de-train all their hard work with an inappropriate response to a puppy or dog mugging you for attention. Ask the owner’s permission before responding, but never give attention when their dog is demanding it. When the animal gives up, wait awhile, then reach down and calmly pat it and say hello. Cease the interaction if it over-reacts and demands more.
If you are content with your dog’s behaviour, and if you are comfortable with reinforcing their attention-seeking antics – fantastic! Just be aware of the consequences, and be on the lookout for escalating behaviours. For example: I love cuddling my dog, Drummer while upright, so I have taught him to jump up gently on command. He is never allowed to do this to anyone else, or to me unless I have specifically asked him to.
By avoiding inadvertent reinforcement of unwanted behaviours, and encouraging your dog to have greater respect for you, we can develop a much more loving and rewarding relationship. Be your dog’s loving companion, not their slave or punching bag!