Attention, All Dog Caregivers!
Dogs, just like people, crave attention. Giving your dog attention is one of the least obvious but most powerful rewards for encouraging behaviour. Ignore a child and eventually he’ll start exploring ways to get some attention from you; if being naughty gets a reaction, that’s what he’ll continue to do. We see so many kids who have learned bad behaviour just because it got them some kind of attention. These children likewise feel their good behaviour is usually ignored. Yet we blame them and keep punishing them (giving yet more attention!) as they repeat the behaviour we’ve unwittingly encouraged. And so often we do exactly the same—or worse—with our dogs. Instead of correcting unwanted behaviour, we accidentally reward it.
To get the best out of this series, be sure to read Tip 1
before progressing further in this article.
There are many rewards for encouraging behaviour in dogs: from treats and belly rubs to playtime and praise. But it’s that oft-overlooked reward of attention that reinforces most bad behaviour. We give it without even thinking—and that’s why it’s a leading cause of dog problems. We’re just not being careful about what we give our valued attention to.
Here’s a simple but very effective dog-rehabilitation trick: give your dog attention whenever he or she behaves in a way you like and ignore (or briefly and humanely correct) unwanted behaviour. Pretty simple, huh? It’s really just basic common sense, yet we so often forget to put it into practice.
Pay Attention to What You Pay Attention To
Here’s a typical example—one I encounter so often when helping people rehabilitate their dogs: A dog keeps jumping up on guests when they walk in the door, so I ask the person how he or she responds to that; the reply is that they will shout at the dog, keep pushing him down, repeat a command over and over, or walk the dog into another room and close the door. I then ask what they do when the visitor is now in the house and the dog has calmed down. Usually the response is that they ask their guest to please ignore the dog so as not to excite him.
So they’ve been doing the opposite of what they should do to encourage the dog to be calm around visitors! The owner has been rewarding bad behaviour with attention. And she’s discouraged good behaviour by ignoring it. The result is a dog who has learnt that bad behaviour is good and good behaviour is bad. Be aware of when you give attention to or ignore your dog; it’s incredibly important.
Turning Fear into Confidence
Another important example of how to use attention may seem difficult to comprehend and much harder to put into practice. But it can have an instant and profound effect when dealing with fearful dogs.
A dog may be terrified, for example, of other people when out walking; when passersby get too close, the dog tries to back away, pulls at the leash, panics, and thrashes. Often, the person on the other end of the leash will then start to talk calmly to the dog. They may try reasoning with her, speaking in soft, reassuring tones, repeating “It’s OK” or “Good dog!” again and again. Yet when the dog is walking happily beside them, they do and say nothing. They fail to correct the unwanted behaviour. Without realizing it, they reward the fearful behaviour while failing to encourage calmness.
Yes, it’s usually that simple.
Focus Attention On Goals
When I work with these dogs, I ask the person to not do or say anything while I take the lead. The dog may freak out having me so close at first, but I just focus on the walk ahead. I don’t want to give the dog attention while she’s nervous. I give a gentle tug on the leash to get the dog moving forward, and off we go. (A tug involves a quick but gentle pull and immediate release; we don’t keep pulling on the leash, as this just maintains tension and invites resistance).
If the dog is acting fearful, I ignore as much as possible, so as not to encourage the behaviour, and maintain a calm, assertive air; in fact, I act aloof, regal, like I simply expect the dog to follow. The dog, craving a leader to guide him through the ‘terrifying ordeal’, will usually choose to walk by my side. This is often to the amazement of the carer; they’ve never seen their dog choose to be so close to a stranger before.
Demonstrate Calm Assertiveness
We then walk, with me saying nice, soothing things to the dog only when she shows more confidence. I also stay focused on the walk, envisioning it going perfectly. At first, communication is only with my wrist and the leash, giving gentle tugs without looking whenever there’s even a little tension. I try only to glance at them out of the corner of my eye; visual contact would just lead to more unwanted behaviour. It would also unwittingly invite a challenge of my leadership role. Assertiveness is all about correcting bad behaviour and expecting good. By being calm and assertive, I get a calmer and more responsive dog. And that’s when I can start to encourage the dog’s improved behaviour by giving her my attention.
Put Your Foot Down
When the dog starts to pull away from a passerby, I give a gentle tug upwards and towards me. And I make a firm ‘Ah!’ or ‘Eh!’ sound. The tone must be right; it has to be a halting, not questioning tone. To dogs (and many other animals), a short, sharp, deep tone means ‘Stop it’. When you make such a noise, she will immediately stop what she was doing. Those of you who speak Chinese, use the fourth tone; to everyone else, imagine stamping your foot as you say ‘Stop it!’; this will help you get the required short, sharp, deep, falling tone. To a dog, other tones, including an angry voice, just sound weak and create uncertainty or further insecurity; such tones can accidentally encourage the behaviour you’re trying to prevent.
I sometimes have to put my foot behind the dog to prevent her from backing away. And I may then put the dog in a sit position while the stranger walks past. Any behaviour towards calm acceptance of the situation is rewarded with kind words or a gentle stroke; any time the dog’s fear tries to take over, a gentle tug and a firm ‘Ah!’ or ‘Eh!’ is used. By doing this just a few times, the dog will start to accept people walking close by. From here, the dog will often start approaching people by his own accord if allowed to explore his new-found confidence. All from knowing how to give your dog attention at the right times and in a confident manner.
Reward the Good; Ignore the Bad
How did we get such an incredible result so rapidly? We simply gave attention (with long, higher-pitched voice) to encourage the desired behaviour. But we also ignored as much as possible, or gave abrupt, gentle corrections to those behaviours we wanted to stop. Dogs accept new leadership instantly, and they respond incredibly well to attention. We can use these natural behaviours to our own and the dog’s advantage to bring about seemingly miraculous positive changes. It’s a sad realization for owners that their ill-timed perceived kindness was only making their dog even more fearful. For many of us, changing our own behaviours, our own responses, doesn’t come easy. But, if you want to help your dog lead a happier, more secure life, you must overcome your own need to show attention and affection when your dog is scared.
“But I want to give my dog affection when she’s scared, and I will!”
I hear this a lot, and it’s totally understandable. It’s not easy to do the right thing when our instinct or own desire is to cuddle an anxious dog. The kind of people who say this just want to do what feels right for them. Sadly, their dog (or dogs) will lead a life of constant fear, anxiety, stress and maybe even aggression.
But, hey, at least they get rewarded for it. (Read: please realize the consequences of thinking this way; it’s important to understand that correcting unwanted behaviour is good for the dog’s well-being.)
Fear Plus Attention Equals More Fear
Dogs need us to learn a little about what makes them tick. In nature, a constantly anxious dog won’t get treats and cuddles from his pack mates. They will be attacked, chased off, or very possibly killed. Scared dogs don’t want to be around their pack (friends and family); they know they are putting themselves in danger. They need to be as far away as possible, or at least well hidden. When dogs run away from a scary situation (for example, fireworks), they usually won’t come when called. Even if their favourite person is standing before them, gently calling, they will very often flee. The dog fears the natural outcome. She knows her anxious state puts her in danger of serious harm, so she stays away.
So how do you think it makes them feel when we force them to be close to us just so we can feel better? It makes them more anxious—your kind gesture can make them fear for their lives. Do what’s right for your dog, not you. Don’t be one of the people who euthanizes an ‘aggressive’ dog because she didn’t respond to treats. And it’s just as bad to let your dog live his whole life in perpetual anxiety. Do what your dog needs in his most anxious moments: give him as little perceived attention as possible. Do not encourage this debilitating behaviour.
Apply the Magic of Attention to Anything!
This technique works great for preventing all manner of unwanted behaviours and can be adapted for almost all situations. For the dog jumping up on visitors, for instance, calm, gentle, lengthy attention should be given when she is quiet; the jumping up should be deterred simply by having your guests completely ignore the dog.
The rules are: Don’t look, touch, or talk to the dog; in fact, have your guests behave aloof, as though the dog wasn’t even there. Ask them to turn away if the dog still tries to paw them. (Don’t use hands, including pulling the dog away, as this just initiates play or may even incite aggression.) Get your house guests to give nice attention to the dog as soon as he calms down. And have them stand up and turn around as soon as the dog lifts his paws off the ground. This is the simplest way to correct that unwanted behaviour. Doing this to prevent dogs jumping up on guests works like magic. Try it and see.
I’ll share with you the best advice I’ve ever heard for achieving greater success and happiness in life: Whenever something bad keeps happening, tell yourself “I’m responsible for this”. Then ask yourself “What have I been doing to make this keep happening?” More than likely, you’ve been accidentally rewarding it. You’ve probably been responding in a way that either encourages the behaviour or shows you’re not serious about stopping it. Think hard about that. Be honest. Identify where you’ve been going wrong and adjust your actions accordingly. Use reward, disinterest, and humane corrections at the appropriate times, and watch how the problem behaviour disappears.
Now go and give your dog some nice, gentle, loving attention—but only if she is being good. And remember to ignore or briefly correct excited, demanding, anxious, or other unwanted behaviour. Let me know how it goes by leaving a comment below; I look forward to hearing about the amazing changes that you bring about in your dog. I’m also happy to answer your questions and grateful for any suggestions for improving these articles. That’s what the comments are for.
Attentively yours (if you’re good),
(Remember, I’ll be demonstrating these techniques in a video series to accompany these lessons. Look out for how to access those.)