Training your Dog – Attention Seeking

Are you interested in solving the problem of an attention seeking dog? Perhaps your dog is carrying out an unwelcome activity which you are desperate for him to stop but don’t know what to do? Read on to learn about extinction.

Extinction is a name that we give to the act of changing a dog’s behaviour forever, and it works really well for the attention seeking dog, simply by ignoring the attention seeking act until it goes away. Does it sound simple? It is quite simple in theory yet very different in practice, when the dog is ‘performing’ and you have no idea when or even whether the behaviour will stop.

Extinction for Attention Seeking Behaviour

It’s actually quite simple, the dog’s brain is ‘wired’ to repeat everything that brings him a favourable result. This is an evolutionary tactic that was once linked with his survival and that has become diluted by artificial selection and domestication. When a behaviour no longer brings the result, that suits the dog, it will become useless and basically extinct.

So if you ignore an attention seeking behaviour it will eventually go away, it still sounds simple right? In theory it is, you’re right, quite simple but in practice – well! Let’s take a look at some common unhelpful dog behaviours.

  • Barking – we respond by telling a dog to be quiet giving the dog our attention (A rewarding act)
  • Begging at the table – we drop some of our food to the dog (A rewarding act)
  • Stealing articles – we respond with chasing the dog around (A rewarding act that’s also great fun)

Your Dog and Extinction

Ask yourself for a moment, when your dog is doing something that’s a pain, whether you are rewarding the act in any way. Remember that even responding to it is rewarding because our dog’s love our attention. Then change the way you respond to the behaviour and carefully observe your dog.

The Extinction Burst

The behaviour will probably get worse. This is because it has always worked for the dog before and so he will try harder and harder to make it work this time. Thankfully though just after it gets much worse the behaviour will go away altogether. This is called an extinction burst.

The extinction burst is where many dog owners give in. They think that ignoring the attention seeking behaviour simply isn’t working or they just become momentarily desperate for the behaviour to stop. So in that split second, when the dog is trying really hard, they respond.

A response at this point strengthens the behaviour way beyond the point that it was previously. From the dog’s point of view he tried harder and eventually his behaviour worked so he knows what to do next time he wants attention. The basic idea is that you completely ignore any behaviour that is displayed to try and get your attention, when it stops working then the behaviour will become extinct, but remember the extinction burst.

Attention seeking behaviour from a dog does get worse before it gets better, but if you carefully maintain the act of ignoring it, despite its severity, then it does get better very quickly.