How to Stop Attention-Seeking Behavior

A board-certified veterinary behaviorist shares how to get your dog to stop barking, pawing, stealing or otherwise acting up to get your attention during the pandemic.
A dog tearing up a toilet paper roll
“Perhaps the most frustrating thing about attention-seeking or demand behaviors is that we ourselves are responsible for (inadvertently) rewarding and reinforcing them,” writes Stephanie Borns-Weil.

For those of us who usually work all day and then spend a concentrated period of time at home attending to the dog (walking, playing, petting, etc.), our presence all day every day may be confusing. Some dogs naturally think that us being home all day means that we are now always available.

When we are not available, dogs’ frustration and anxiety can lead to barking, pawing and nosing, counter surfing, shoe stealing, and other unwanted behaviors that relieve anxiety and frustration (for them) and gain our attention.

It is important to know that these behaviors, though certainly annoying, are not motivated by anger or vindictiveness. Attention-seeking behaviors—also known as demand behaviors—start for a variety of reasons, including anxiety and uncertainty. But regardless of why they start, these unwanted behaviors are always maintained by learning.

Take attention-seeking barking. You are on a Zoom meeting with your colleagues and a client. You are taking notes on the computer. Your dog, who usually sleeps during the day, wanders in and lifts your hand from the keyboard to get his ears scratched. You naturally respond, “Not now, Bandit. I am in a meeting with an important client and I need to keep working.”

Bandit responds by nosing your hand and woofing. As soon as he makes noise, you respond by immediately scratching his ears. In the meantime, steam starts to issue from your own.

This routine is repeated a few more times during the meeting. By the end of the workday, Bandit has learned that to get his ears scratched, he simply needs to wait until you are in an online meeting and then come in and bark.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about attention-seeking or demand behaviors is that we ourselves are responsible for (inadvertently) rewarding and reinforcing them.

There is a silver lining to this though: Whatever our dogs learn from us, they can unlearn.

To reduce or eliminate demand or attention-seeking barking (and other annoying learned demand and attention-seeking behaviors) you must ignore the unwanted behavior, reward desirable alternative behaviors, enrich the pet’s environment, establish consistent and clear expectations, and strategically avoid your dog during times that trigger the behavior.

Here’s how to do that.

Ignore unwanted behaviors. This can be very challenging to do. Once you start ignoring, you must persist until your dog’s unwanted behavior has stopped completely. And fair warning: Unwanted behavior will get worse before it gets better. If you reward the behavior with any attention (petting, playing, reprimanding), you reinforce it. So, if needed, leave the room and close the door to escape persistent barking. If your dog steals something, pretend not to notice. If he approaches you with the stolen object, pick up a book or turn away. If the object is something that is not dangerous for him or valuable to you (i.e. a tissue) let him have it and continue to ignore. If it is something that you must get away from him, use a diversion tactic to draw his attention away. For example, ring the doorbell. When he runs to see who is at the door, put him in another room and go pick up the object.

Reward desirable alternative behaviors. If your dog approaches you for attention without barking or waving a stolen object in front of you, tell him to sit. Then pet him or play with him. If he comes to you and sits automatically, praise and pet him or offer to play.

Add (or increase) environmental enrichment. Enriching a dog’s environment may be admittedly more challenging than usual during COVID-19, especially for dogs that used to rely on city walks, playdates, daycare, or training classes for mental stimulation. Walks alone or with other dogs (where you can maintain 6 feet of distance between yourself and other walkers), games such as fetch, food puzzles such as the Kong Wobbler and snuffle mats all add interest to the dog’s day. There are many wonderful positive-reinforcement training classes available online. Dog sports such as Nose Works and Agility have also gone online. And I recommend checking out the VALOR Project’s virtual agility league.

Establish consistent expectations. Create a new routine for your dog and stick to it. Make sure all family members apply these new rules consistently. And be patient. The environmental changes brought by the pandemic are new for your dog, too. If your dog misbehaves, assume that he is not clear about expectations. Try again—and don’t forget to reward good behavior.

Avoid your dog during times that trigger the unwanted behavior. Provide your pup with an alternative activity to  occupy him during the times he is most likely to engage in the attention-seeking behavior. For example, just before you start teleconferencing, sprinkle his meal on a Snuffle Mat or stuff it in a Kong and freeze it for him to enjoy in a spot away from you.

Photo portrait of Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil

Veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil heads the behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center. She is a 2007 graduate of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.