Attention-Getting Behavior Or Something Else?

We were at a dog club meeting recently and were chatting with our friend Sue about her dog.  She was relaying how he had recently developed an “attention-getting behavior” problem.Seems she taught him to go get his ball when people came to the door instead of standing and barking at them. He was rewarded with a cookie when he did it.  It worked well enough.  But recently he has begun “stealing” things – shoes, papers, clothing, and bringing them to her at different times.  As a result of this ball-at-the-door training, Sue believes he is bringing things to her to get cookies.  It is this behavior that she described as “attention getting.”

The term “attention-getting” has never really been clearly defined by behavior consultants and trainers, and has been applied to all kinds of behavior patterns including pawing, barking, and jumping on people; digging holes; chewing clothing and other inappropriate objects; nipping and biting owners as they try to leave the house; as well as repetitive behaviors such as licking and tail chasing.

The label “attention-getting” has become a catch-all for all kinds of problematic behavior.  But these behaviors can have very different causes, and unless there is a clear case made for why getting attention is the motivation, and not something else, the term just leads to confusion and erroneous ideas about the “why” of various behaviors. 

It is usually helpful when trying to identify the cause for a behavior to look at it from the animal’s point of view. What is “in it” for him to do the behavior – that is what basic need does it meet, what aversive situation does it allow him to avoid or escape, or what rewarding consequence does it provide him?  When examined this way, many so-called attention-getting behaviors are really motivated by something other than getting attention from a person. Digging holes and chewing clothing may be due to separation anxiety or noise phobias, boredom, teething, or some interesting odor in the ground or on the clothing. Jumping up on people can release energy, and put the dog near a person’s face where he can lick them in greeting. If the consequence that ends the behavior (or the motivation) isn’t identified or is incorrectly identified, changing the behavior will become more difficult if not impossible.

Can getting attention be a motivation for some behaviors?  Sure, but it is more helpful to identify exactly what it is that brings an end to the behavior.  Our dog Coral will occasionally come into our offices, pick up a piece of paper on the floor or out of the trash can, and parade in front of us where we can see it.  This behavior is very successful for her in that it always gets her a bout of play with us, a walk or a treat stuffed toy.  We realize we reinforced the behavior, but for us this has become a cute and acceptable way for Coral to tell us she wants to play. 

The play can certainly be interpreted as attention, but the walk and toy are very different rewards.  Coral has learned that her behavior can lead to one of several positive outcomes for her.

It’s hard to interpret Sue’s dog’s behavior as attention-getting because the consequence of bringing stolen objects is that he gets a cookie. What he is really showing is cookie-getting behavior.

Another point to consider is that sometimes people describe an undesirable behavior as attention-getting when it leads to some aversive consequence, such as yelling at the dog, scruff-shaking or squirting with water.  The claim is made that even these otherwise aversive outcomes are reinforcing for the dog that is starved for attention. This is probably a very rare situation. If the dog really perceives these sorts of outcomes as desirable attention, then there is something seriously wrong with the relationship between the dog and the people in his life.

So when you hear someone describe a behavior as attention-getting, or if the phrase occurs to you as a possible cause for a behavior, look a little more closely.  It is quite possible that the behavior is motivated by something else.

1 Comment

  • evelyn haskins

    Reply Reply April 20, 2013

    I think this is a HUGE topic.

    I think since we developed the ‘domestic dog’ from an already social species, the wolf, to think of us as members of its own social group, then I’m sure that dogs need the attention of their humans. Some breeds/individuals more, and some less. This might be a serious issue with ‘single dog households’.

    I’m also sure that more time spent interacting with the humans in a household, the less behaviour ‘problems’ exist.

    So maybe we should instead be talking about ‘need’ for attention, rather than actively ‘seeking’ it?

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