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Attention Seeking Behavior

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman


Definition: Any behavior that is performed by a dog with the express intention of gaining its owner’s attention. Such behaviors are reinforced by the owner’s response to the behavior and take a variety of forms ranging from vocalization to pawing, self-scratching, self-licking, supposed compulsive behaviors, and feigned lameness. Any behavior of which a dog is capable may be inadvertently or purposely reinforced as an attention-seeking behavior.


DIAGNOSIS OF ATTENTION SEEKING BEHAVIOR


Etiology & Risk factors

  • Causes - Most dogs engage in attention getting behaviors. Attention seeking is a normal behavior that does not require to be corrected as long as the behavior stays within limits acceptable to the owner. If a dog barks occasionally to attract an owner’s attention, that’s an acceptable communication if the dog has something to convey and is otherwise being ignored. Likewise, if an owner is engrossed in conversation and his dog paws at his leg to get attention, perhaps to be petted, that’s usually not a major problem for the owner. Dogs quickly learn what works and what doesn’t according to how their owner responds. If owners always cave in to their dog’s unreasonable requests, they will get even more of the obnoxious behavior in the future. The principle involved here is “positive reinforcement,” which effectively ensures that owners reap what they sow. Behaviors like barking loudly in its owner’s face to maintain undivided attention, or jumping and pawing owners whenever they are talking with a friend, can become almost unbearable. In some cases, even telling a dog to stop, or reprimanding it, can be rewarding. Any attention, even negative attention, may be better than no attention at all. Some dogs try to attract attention by stealing things and chewing them up or swallowing them. Owners’ hysterical reactions, yelling and chasing the dog to retrieve the object, can be just what an attention-hungry dog wants. A game of “keep away” results, which the dog really enjoys, especially if its owners become highly animated. Attention seeking behavior can reach troubling proportions and cause owners annoyance or concern. Some dogs develop really unusual attention-seeking behaviors, like faking lameness, following a visit to a veterinary clinic where they have received intense attention for their ailment. A toy poodle, subject of Animal behavior Case of the Month in the AVMA Journal, scratched violently at its face for years to gain its owners attention. This etiology was only appreciated when another dog in the house died and the behavior ceased. It resumed when the owner acquired another dog.

  • Risk Factors

    • Age – any age

    • Breed/Genetic Factors – none known

    • Sex – no particular sex predilection

    • Geographical/Environmental – may be more common in needy, anxious, and mildly dominant dogs that find themselves in an under-stimulating environment.

    • Other medical disorders – some attention seeking behaviors, like facial scratching, may results in self-injury.

  • History and Presenting Signs - Attention seeking behaviors can take may forms including:

    • Excessive barking

    • Excessive whining

    • Idiopathic vomiting

    • Feigning lameness

    • Strange bodily contortions and posturing

Attention seeking behavior of problematic proportions is performed to excess, is triggered by a situation and, by definition, occurs only in the owner’s presence. Historically, it may begin at a low level, but its frequency and intensity build rapidly until it is a regular, ingrained means of communication between the dog and owner.


Physical Examination Findings

There are no characteristic physical examination findings, other than changes secondary to the performance of the behavior itself.


Diagnosis and Prognosis

Sometimes the diagnosis is clear from the behavioral history and presenting signs. On other occasions the diagnosis may be equivocal. In such cases, it is important to establish whether the behavior occurs in the owners’ absence. If it does, then an attention seeking etiology is ruled out. In order to come to this conclusion, it is sometimes necessary to resort to videotaping or audiotaping.

Another way of diagnosing attention seeking behaviors is retrospectively by their response to treatment involving attention withdrawal.


TREATMENT OF ATTENTION SEEKING BEHAVIOR


Treatment – The main principle in treating attention-seeking behavior by a dog is to ignore the behavior. The behavior will worsen initially, becoming more intense or more demanding, before it eventually fades away. It’s as if the dog is thinking, “That’s odd – this used to work. I’d better try even harder.”


The treatment stages are as follows:

  1. Owner ignores unwanted behavior, say, stealing objects.

  2. Dogs steals more items, more often and dances around in front of the owner to try to get him to intervene or chase him.

  3. Owner continues to ignore the behavior.

  4. Dog starts to lose confidence in this attention-getting technique and performs it less frequently.

  5. Owner continues to ignore the dog’s charades.

  6. Dogs attention seeking behavior is eventually eliminated


Caveat

If owners “give in” after a lengthy period of trying to ignore the behavior, they will reinforce the behavior even more securely. The dog learns that, if he tries long enough and hard enough, attention will eventually come.


How to Expedite Treatment

Use of a “bridging stimulus” can speed up successful resolution of attention seeking behaviors. A bridging stimulus is a neutral stimulus or cue that heralds a particular consequence. The bridging stimulus could be the sound of a duck call or tuning fork, or the sound made by striking a note on a piano. The noisemaker is activated while the dog is engaging in the unwanted behavior, signaling that the owner is about to withdraw attention, perhaps even leave the room. Owners must follow through with attention withdrawal after making the sound or the dog will not connect its unwanted behavior with the owner's response.


What the bridging stimulus does is focus the dog’s attention on that point in time when attention withdrawal is imminent. It is not intended to be aversive but rather simply a consistent signal heralding (from the dog’s point of view) an unwanted consequence. Attention behavior will extinguish more rapidly if a bridging stimulus is used than if attention withdrawal is employed without such a signal.


Philosophical Considerations/Client Education

If a dog is always begging for attention there must be a reason. It may be that the dog is being ignored at home or that he is spending too much time alone or in a crate. It may be that the dog is getting insufficient exercise or mental stimulation and has nothing better to do. It is important to address these underlying issues, too, rather than just trying to prevent the dog from doing something that annoys its owner. Attention-seeking behavior may be the tip of an iceberg indicating an unfulfilling lifestyle for the dog.


So, in addition to preventing the unwanted behavior it is important to ensure that the dog has a healthy and mentally challenging life. Questions that may help evaluate the appropriateness of a dog’s lifestyle include:

  • Does the dog get sufficient exercise? The minimum is 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily unless a medical problem preclude.

  • Is the dog eating a sensible diet? It is inappropriate to feed a dog a “performance ration” if it doesn’t get much exercise and spends most of its time simply hanging around the home.

  • Is the owner’s level of communication with the dog adequate? They should be striving toward a > 85 percent responsiveness to one word “commands” (verbal cues) such a SIT, DOWN, COME and QUIET.

  • Is the dog being rewarded with attention, petting, or praise for doing things the owner likes and appreciates? If not, owners should be directed to indicate their approval of desired behaviors using such rewards.

  • Does the dog have gainful employment (“a job”)? If not, instruct the owners to try to occupy the dog in some breed specific activity, so that it can engage in the function for which it was bred - retrieving/hunting exercises for sporting breeds, running chasing for herding breeds, or sniffing things out for hounds.

Conclusion

Dogs that display attention-seeking behaviors are needy individuals that may under some duress. Any behavior can be reinforced as an attention seeking behavior and attention-seeking components may be involved in other behavior problems. The attention-hungry dog will do whatever works to get its owner to pay it the attention it craves. It’s best to reward acceptable behaviors and ignore unwanted behaviors.




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