I had the pleasure of spending a bit of time at my sister’s home recently. Like me, she is a dog lover. She has two boisterous boys named Harley and Rocky. Rocky is a small, Jack Russell sized mixed breed and is just the most social dog ever. When we arrived, we were greeted with the customary excited barking and Harley quickly retired to his toys and his dog bed. Rocky, on the other hand, wanted my attention. He wanted it now, now, NOW! He let me know this by jumping up toward me with his tail wagging so hard that he could barely keep his feet on the floor.
I bent down and gave him a bit of a fuss and quickly realized that it was probably a bad idea to have given him attention right then. So I sat down in a chair and talked with my sister. Rocky was undaunted and attempted to jump up in my lap and he almost succeeded. I decided to cross my leg just in time to block his next attempt and he harmlessly bounced off. Rocky looked puzzled for a moment as I continued talking to my sister. Rocky then moved to my side and attempted another leap up into my lap. Fortunately I was on a swivel chair and I again timed a turn to coincide with his jump. Blocked again.
The best response is no response
My sister, being a good dog owner, was embarassed that Rocky was making such a pest of himself. She began calling his name, “Rocky! Rocky!” to get his attention and stop him from jumping. I interrupted her and said that it was fine and that I had it covered. Rocky made three or four more attempts to jump up and get attention before stopping to puzzle over why his usual strategy was not working. As he sat down to think about things, I bent down and told him he was a good boy and gave him a quick fuss.
This was the signal Rocky was waiting for – game on! Rocky immediately jumped to his feet and began jumping at me again. Just as quickly I sat back and again blocked his attempts to jump up on me. I resumed talking to my sister. It only took two jumps this time and Rocky sat down to ponder the situation again. I once again bent down and told him he was a good boy and fussed him. That’s when the light bulb went off for the little guy. He would sit for some fussing, wander over to his mom, and them come back and sit at my feet for more fussing.
My sister was amazed. The whole exchange took less than 45 seconds. Rocky, who is notorious for pestering guests for affection was politely coming over to me and sitting. And I had not reprimanded or interrupted his jumping behaviour once. I simply gave no valuable response to it. Only when Rocky sat at my feet did he get the attention he wanted. I clearly showed him what would work and he used it to his advantage. No more jumping and everyone was happy.
Less is more sometimes
My sister’s reaction to Rocky’s behaviour is pretty typical. Her dog was doing something she didn’t want so she moved to intervene and stop the behaviour. Unfortunately, in this case her dog was seeking attention and any intervention on her part could be seen as “attention” by her dog. Sure, it was my sister’s intention to diminish Rocky’s attention seeking behaviour but she could have been unintentionally rewarding it. By asking her not to interrupt Rocky and not giving him any attention myself, we were providing no possible reward for the jumping behaviour. The game was over.
Sometimes the best thing to do to get our dogs to stop doing something we don’t want is…nothing at all. This is particularly true when it is our attention they are seeking. Like small children, dogs can get bored. When that happens, what better activity could there be than to see what they can get their humans to do? If the humans involved don’t recognize this, the results can be unfortunate for both the humans and the dog.
Many times owners will shout at the dog or chase them to correct their unwanted behaviours. To a dog, both of these things could be considered good things and not punishment at all. Shouting can sound like playful barking to a dog and chase is favorite game of many dogs. How confusing it must be for them when they find out we are not being playful at all!
Manage it first
The goal in dealing with any attention seeking behaviour should be to remove the thing the dog is trying to get, usually interaction. In my encounter with Rocky, any kind of interaction with him seemed to encourage him to keep jumping up. When I stopped giving him any interaction, he stopped trying to jump up. If my dog is getting my attention by tossing a bone around on a wood floor, yelling at her to stop will likely not be much of a deterrent. It would be better to calmly get up and take the bone from her (offering a treat as a trade) and put the bone away. No yelling, no interaction to amuse her. And the bone is no longer available to use as an attention getting device.
The same can be said of dogs that bark while out in the yard. If it is the sight of things passing by that is giving them a reason to bark, either cover the fence so they cannot see what is on the other side or bring them indoors. Yelling out the back door for them to stop is unlikely to quiet them down and may even be seen by the dogs as another interesting thing to bark at. Then the game could become “Bark until mom comes out to yell at us.”
Create the right environment
Jean Donaldson says in her book “Oh Behave!” that we humans are the single greatest influence on our dog’s behaviour. After all, they watch us all day and take their cues from us. If we are agitated or tense, our dogs seem to sense that and will respond in kind. So if we are fussy and busy in how we interact with them, is it any wonder that their behaviour can seem a little hyperactive?
Evolutionary Biologist Roger Abrantes writes in a recent blog post about things that we “should stop doing in order to make life with our dogs happier and our relationships stronger.” His first two entries on his list of 16 Things You Should Stop Doing In Order To Be Happy With Your Dog include being less fussy and taking things less seriously with our dogs. Abrantes makes several other great suggestions that might lower your frustration with your dog. He suggests being less concerned about what others think and not feeling like you should apologize for your dog, for example.
And all of those are excellent suggestions. Our main responsibility as a care taker for our dog is to help them fit into our lifestyle. That doesn’t need to include staying quiet in the yard or holding a stay for 3 minutes while off leash if that is not what we want from our dog. Trying to hold ourselves and our dog to someone else’s idea of what a “good dog” is can get us into trouble.
I have said in this column before that in our own home we have a simple rule for dealing with our dogs’ behaviour – Train It or Manage It. And there is nothing wrong with the latter option. I am not less of a dog trainer if I simply manage my dog so that I don’t need to train a specific behaviours. My girl Tiramisu has never learned to heel properly. There is a simple reason for that, I don’t need her to heel! We play agility, a sport where she needs to work as much as 50 or 60 feet away from me. I never found a compelling reason to teach her that being right next to me was something I wanted from her.
When we go for walks, we use a leash. I know that my dog is not good at heel and I would not trust her to stay by my side if a squirrel ran by. Knowing that, I manage my dog by using a leash to keep her safe. There is no yelling, there is no running off, no chase games, and no frustration. That’s how I choose to manage my dog.
Similarly, if you have excitable dogs that bark and carry on when company arrives, why not put them in the back yard as your guests arrive? If you have dogs that are excitable around other dogs, keep a safe distance and ask other dog owners to keep their dogs back. If you have a dog that pulls hard on the leash on walks, why not try a front-hook harness or head halter to manage them on walks?
The bottom line is that it might be better to do less yelling, less interrupting, and less punishing of your dog in order to get better behaviour. As the old saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.” It might not be the best idea to yell louder or yank harder to get what you want. That could make the situation worse. It might be as simple as changing what you want or changing what your dog gets out of the unwanted behaviour. There are lots of ways to modify your dog’s behaviour. Doing less or nothing at all might be exactly what you need!
A word of caution: “Less is more” is great for working on behaviours that don’t have immediate bad side effects. If you have a dog that is nipping or damaging furniture or causing other harm, these behaviours should be interrupted immediately. Doing nothing is the wrong option. Be sure to train smart and use all of the options in your training kit. Some things should be ignored and other things should be interrupted.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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