Ignoring attention seeking behaviour: Why “ignoring” has become a dirty word and how to use it well!

If you are working on attention seeking behaviour, there’s a very good chance you’ve been advised to ignore it at some point. But should we be ignoring our dogs? It feels so alien, and rude. But, if used correctly, there can lots of benefits when you are trying to change attention seeking behaviour.

Ignoring as a dirty word!

Of course, it is possible to get this wrong. In the early 2000’s, Jan Fennel told us to ignore our dogs ALL the time. Effectively, they should be seen, but not heard! This led to a lot of very demoralised and unhappy dogs. Very quickly people realised that this was wrong and so any form of ignoring has since been demonised.

Maybe, we should re-name ignoring to “not-responding” instead. It would certainly make more sense, and be harder to get wrong. When we “don’t respond” to a behaviour, our lack of action becomes targeted to the specific behaviour and not the whole dog, as Jan Fennel would have it. It becomes more about communication, which we will see, is easily recognised and understood by our dogs. So, when I refer to ignoring, think not-responding!

Why does it work?

Ignoring might feel rude, in fact, if a friend behaved in this way towards us, we’d be pretty offended. But, in dog language it makes perfect sense. When dogs stand still and turn their heads, it is their way of saying “please stop”, or “not now”. It is the mildest form of avoidance and they use it a lot. In fact, you’ll often see this type of behaviour when dogs play together and one needs a quick break, or when an anxious dog wants another dog to move away, or even when they are trying to avoid taking a pill!! It’s simply means “no thanks”.

Giving your dog your full attention is the exact opposite. It is incredibly rewarding and validating. If ignoring means “no thanks” then looking right at your dog an talking to them must surely mean “yes please”. So it really makes no sense to give him this attention when he is doing something you don’t want. But, this is very often what happens. A barking dog is often shouted at, a dog that is nipping gets pushed away, a dog that has run off in the park gets chased, and a dog that is jumping on your granny gets all of the above! This is the ultimate in mixed messaging, and a very quick way to confuse our dogs.

two large german shepherd type dogs. One has his paw on the other and is trying to get him to play, the other is sitting still with his face turned away trying to ignore the first.
Saying “No” Doggie Style!

Make it obvious

To be effective, ignoring has to be more than just pretending the behaviour isn’t happening. We turn a blind eye to behaviour a lot – wanted and unwanted! Our dogs are very used to that. So, that won’t do the trick. There’s no room for a grey area, we must make it really clear that we are taking action to not respond. In fact, the more obvious we make it, the more clearly we are understood. When they tell you to stand like a tree or an army major (tall, strong, and proud) there is a good reason.

So make it clear you are purposely not engaging in the unwanted behaviour. Stand still, turn away and avoid eye contact, you could even leave the room, if the behaviour has become too hard to ignore.

Should I reward good behaviour?

I’m a big advocate of using rewards and incentives when you are trying to mould a new behaviour, and this is no exception. However, I think the timing is important. So first, return to what you were doing before this all started. If you were trying to get through the front door and to the kitchen, first proceed to the kitchen. If you were trying to read a book, go back to that, and if you were snuggling, then enjoy your snuggle again.

The goal of attention seeking behaviour is to gain attention, no surprise there! So, this means that attention is going to be the most effective reward. Once you are back to where you started, and your dog is doing something you like, then you absolutely should lavish your dog with all the attention they want. Soon they will notice that this new behaviour is much more effective at achieving their goal and switch to that instead!

Also check out this video on Mouthing and Grabbing – One Problem, Three Solutions

Attention seeking behaviour gets worse before it gets better!

The sole purpose of attention seeking behaviour is to get a reaction from you, so it stands to reason that your dog will continue to perform the behaviour for as long as it continues to work. When you start ignoring the behaviour for the first time, your dog will know exactly what you are doing. The big problem is, that he’ll be confused about why you are suddenly doing it. So, for this reason he’ll try a little harder. This will make it feel like the problem is getting worse and not better. This is very normal, just keep going and be patient.

The problem also gets even worse if you’ve tried ignoring before and given up. If this has happened, you are not alone, but a precedent has been set that you will give up after a certain period of time. He knows the process is: he barks, you ignore, he barks louder, you give up, you tell him off, barking wins! So, the next time you try this type of training remember that an expectation has been set. You’ll have to work extra hard to undo that expectation. This is simple enough, it just requires more patience!

Extra Help

Not everyone is great at ignoring a dog in the proper way. Perhaps they are elderly and don’t react very quickly, or are easily overwhelmed by the size of your dog. Alternatively, they could be very young and not as consistent or calm as would be ideal. Maybe they just don’t do a great job, or they are a guest in your home and you don’t feel comfortable asking.

In these cases, you’ll need to find a way to help them. A house line is a great way to keep control, prevent accidents, and stop the behaviour from working. Just remember to let the dog loose as soon as the moment has passed so they can interact freely. The goal isn’t to prevent interaction altogether, just to limit it to positive interactions.

Extra, extra help

Don’t suffer in silence. This is not always a straight forward problem to solve. So, if you are finding this hard there could be lots of reason why. An experienced dog behaviourist will be able to figure out what’s gone wrong, and support you while you work with your dog on his training.


How can I help you with your dogs behaviour training?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, in person and via zoom. If you are looking for help and advice for your dog then please get in touch!

Caroline
Caroline

I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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