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Attention-seeking

Attention-seeking behaviour in dogs are often shown in puppyhood initially, when care soliciting from a parent and the need to play and interact with littermates is quite normal of course.

But once they are grown up more and have established more adult relationships with their owners, as well as other dogs, jumping up, pawing, barking or dropping a toy into a lap uninvited and other demands for interaction are not always seen as being cute or fun all the time. However, such demands are often nonetheless inevitably rewarded with the owner’s full attention - a cuddle, a game, and verbal chat in that voice we reserve for babies and puppies and so these behaviours are reinforced, learned and maintained perhaps long after they should have naturally been lost or used more sparingly in social encounters by dogs when older!

Dogs value human attention throughout their lives - especially from their owners, on whom they dote, but clearly also need to learn to become more functionally independent and less constantly dependent on us. There’s nothing wrong with giving attention to our dogs, of course. After all, what’s the point of having a dog if you’re going to spend the entire time ignoring your best friend?! But if you reward behaviour in a puppy continuously and don’t help him to learn to be less dependent on direct contact when he is in your company and to develop his own independent interests, all that attention demanding can become a real nuisance when he’s fully grown, and does nothing to help him develop into a more restrained and contented adult.

For example, if an eight-week-old Newfoundland pup jumps up at you for attention or when you feed him, it’s all pretty harmless. But if that same dog as a three-year-old heavy hairy monster jumps up, he could easily dangerously floor a child or elderly person, or even a strong adult. Equally in a smaller dog, nudging or pawing for your attention as a pup can start off as being very cute but if your adult dog does it over and over again, whenever you are busy and unable to give him attention, it can become very annoying indeed.

In all cases, giving the demanding dog the attention he’s seeking will stop the behaviour only briefly. The moment you turn your focus to something else, it will be repeated again… and again. Pushing your dog away or giving any other negative response, even telling him off, will be equally unsuccessful, as it all still involves giving him some attention. From a dog’s viewpoint, anything is better than nothing, so even such negative attention is valued.

The key, then, is to ignore the attention-seeking, and to reward good manners instead. So if he nudges you for a pat or uses another attention-seeking behaviour, ignore him. Don’t look at him, speak to him or touch him. Completely ignore him and get up calmly and walk away if he persists (as he often will, initially). Instead, when he is quietly undemanding - perhaps busy with a chew toy, or watching the world go by in his bed, call him to you and give him a fuss. This establishes that lots of attention is available but mainly at your behest, not his.

Safety must come first, of course. If your dog’s attention-seeking involves stealing something forbidden and running off with it, assess any dangers. Dogs learn what will quickly get us leaping from our seats, eager to chase them for their prize. Generally, the more prized or dangerous the object, the more intense our reaction - and the dog will soon learn seek out such objects again in the future! If your dog has run off with something that could harm him, you have to remove the item from him. But make sure it doesn’t happen again by keeping all scissors, remote controls, shoes and other ‘stealable’ items out of reach if your dog seeks attention through theft! That way, you won’t reinforce the behaviour by ‘playing’ chase!

Do be aware that nuisance attention-seeking will generally get worse before it gets better when you try to treat it. If you ignore your dog when previously you’ve given him your attention for a particular behaviour, your dog will become frustrated as to why he is no longer able to elicit what he thought was a predictable response from you. So he’ll do what he knows more intensively and nudge harder, or bark louder, or jump higher to get your attention. Be strong and ignore all his attempts, or walk away as required or you’ll soon be back to square one!

If the nuisance attention seeking continues despite your best efforts, do seek professional help from a behaviourist via a veterinary referral. It could be that there is an underlying reason for the behaviour, such as intense insecurity, which will need delicate handling and a broader approach to your dog’s social husbandry.

The information contained in this article is not a substitute for individual veterinary or behavioural advice and is for information purposes only. You should always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your pet’s health. He or she will be able to take a complete medical history and physically examine your pet, to then recommend appropriate individual advice or treatment options. For detailed behavioural advice tailored specifically for your pet, we recommend that you contact a qualified pet behaviourist. For further details of local canine and feline behaviourists practising in your area and how they offer help for with problem pets, please contact The Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers at www.capbt.org, or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at www.apdt.co.uk. Do bear in mind that while dog trainers can take you on as a client directly, pet behaviourists will always require a referral from your veterinary surgeon.

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