How many times, as dog owners, have we labeled or dismissed a particular canine behaviour as ‘attention-seeking?’ They’re the behaviours that humans often find most irritating, and dogs exhibit persistently like barking, whining, begging, jumping up etc. Come on, now. Fess up! It’s a topic which I could bore you with for hours but, in this particular blog entry, I want to talk about the effect that giving/withholding our attention has in dog training.
When teaching, I like to refer to ‘attention’ as ‘contact’.
Contact comes in three forms:
Take jumping up as an example. It’s a behaviour that I see a lot. Some dog owners spend their lives pushing their dogs off them, and shouting ‘No! Get down!’. Now that we know about the three forms of contact, let’s unpack this. Dogs jump up for lots of reasons but they continue to jump up for long periods of time because we reinforce it. ‘That’s not right,’ I hear you cry, ‘I tell my dog to get down all the time, I don’t reward him!’. You may not be feeding Rover a tasty treat but by looking at him, pushing him away, and speaking to him, you’ve accidentally rewarded the jumping with all three forms of contact simultaneously. Therefore, this irritating, attention-seeking behaviour is reinforced continually with, you guessed it, attention!
Like it or not, we humans are to blame. We not only permit ‘attention-seeking’ behaviour, we encourage them. This is where withholding attention comes in. If your dog does something you don’t want it to do, totally ignore them until the behaviour stops. If you ignore these behaviours, they will filter out (although they may escalate first!) because they aren’t achieving the desired effect. When the behaviour stops you have to be very quick to reward its absence. Reward what you like, ignore what you don’t.
If in doubt, consult a qualified, force-free trainer or behaviourist.