If you are working on an issue with your dogs behaviour, there’s a very good chance you’ve been advised to ignore them at some point. But why should we be ignoring our dogs? It feels so alien, and rude. But there are lots of benefits when you are trying to change an unwanted behaviour. And especially when you are working on attention seeking behaviours such as mouthing, jumping up, chase me, play with me, barking and begging.
It 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. As humans we communicate with our voices so we have no need to respond with our bodies, but this is the dogs primary language. In fact, you’ll often see this type of behaviour as dogs talk to each other. It’s simply means “not now”.
Giving your dog your full attention is also incredibly rewarding and validating. If ignoring means “not now” then looking right at your dog must surely mean “more please”. So it makes no sense to give him any attention when he is acting up. This is often what happens though. 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!
Make it obvious
Ignoring is more than just pretending the behaviour isn’t happening. We turn a blind eye to unwanted behaviour a lot. Our dogs are very used to that. So, that won’t do the trick any more. There’s no room for a gray area here. We must make it really obvious that we are taking action to ignore. And actually, 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.
Five Steps of Ignoring
There are five steps I recommend following if you are using ignoring as a training tool. Basically, the way this works is to start at step one, and progress through the steps until the behaviour stops. So, if you get to step 2 and your dog has understood and responded then you can just go back to what you were doing. If you end up leaving the room, then wait for peace and calm before re-entering the room and starting again. There will be circumstances where you can’t leave the room. That’s ok, just proceed as far as you can and then wait for calm. Patience is the key here. If you can maintain a nonchalant attitude your dog will give up reasonably quickly. But, if you get frustrated he’ll sense that and try harder!
- Stop! Be calm and turn your head to look the other way. Make it obvious you are not looking at the dog at all and definitely don’t talk to them. Your dog likes to hear your voice so save it for when you are pleased with him.
- Building on step one, ease your hands away, and cross your arms.
- Building on steps one and two, now turn your whole body. This is easy if you are standing up, but if you are sitting down it might still be possible to turn yourself in the chair.
- Stand up, if you aren’t already.
- And finally, quietly head to the nearest exit (if you can) and leave, closing the door behind you.
Should I reward good behaviour?
I’m a big advocate of using rewards and incentives when you are trying to mould a behaviour. But, in this case, I think you are far better just returning to what you were doing without fuss. If you were trying to get through the front door and to the kitchen, you can now 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. Many of the behaviours you are trying to solve are related to over excitement and rewards are traditionally quite exciting. This means you might end up accidentally undoing the calm you have just worked so hard to achieve, and so you end up in a vicious circle.
It get 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 wait for it to burn itself out. Signs like lip licking and yawning are great indicators that you are making good progress!
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 it goes: he barks, you ignore, he barks louder, you give up, you tell him off, dog 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!
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 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, it’s up to you to step in and ignore the dog on their behalf. You’ll be playing the part of bodyguard by putting yourself between the person and your dog. Once you are between the two, stand facing your dog and go through the same steps as above. You are now ignoring the dog on behalf of someone else. Your dog will probably try to get past you but that’s ok, just keep getting in his way. Eventually, he’ll realise what you are doing and settle down as before.
Extra extra help
Don’t suffer in silence. 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. If you are looking for help and advice for your dog then please get in touch!