Attention-seeking behaviors: teaching politeness to your puppy

To me, puppies trying to get your attention is both the most normal, and the most annoying thing. Why’s that? That’ll be because, most of the time, the dog uses quite irritating behaviors to ask for things: barking, biting, chewing on furniture… I understand that you want to play, but is howling to let me know really necessary? Luckily, the answer is no, otherwise many of us would’ve given up on the idea of having a dog a long time ago! Here’s how to train your dog to ask for things and attention with behaviors that you find acceptable.

Attention-seeking is natural

We’re talking about a baby animal. It is perfectly normal that a puppy needs us to take care of it. On top of that, we’re talking about a species that was selected for its ability to create a bond with humans. Clearly, puppies are going to want to establish contact with us…and that’s entirely on us.

Dogs will continue to want our attention all their lives, and we can’t ever blame them for it. This is why we don’t try to suppress or extinguish their requests for attention. Can you imagine a life where your dog never tries to talk to you?! What we want is to transform these irritating demands into “polite” requests. We’re basically going to teach our dogs to say “Please”!

Remember: dogs don’t have the notion of good/bad, even less so of polite/impolite! What they do have is a fantastic capacity to remember what is useful/useless for them. That’s how we’ll be able to modify this behavior.

Un chiot Berger Belge gruge un coin de table.
Image by Mariusz on Pixabay

How do you train polite attention-seeking?

This training protocol will have three phases. They come one after the other, and it’s important to take the time to complete each phase before starting the next one. Taking the time to get solid, long term results once comes out far better than starting over 4 times a year!

Phase 1 : preparing your training plan

Did you think we were going to start training before sitting down and thinking about what we want and expect out of the dog? Have you met me?

I want you to define many different things before we start working on the problem:

  • What behavior(s) do you want to replace: barking, jumping, scratching at the door, biting your hands? There are no good or bad answers: it’s your choice. Some families are okay with scratching, some aren’t. Some people are sensitive to barking, some don’t mind a couple low barks. Sit down with the whole family and make a list of which behaviors can stay and which need to go. Once you start training, you’ll need everyone to be consistent with your choices.
  • In what situation(s) do these behaviors happen? The most common are: to play, to ask for affection, and for food. If your dog also does these behaviors to ask for the door, to get help with a stuck toy, or for any other specific situation, you’ll also want to add them to the list.
  • And finally, the most important point: what behavior(s) do you want your dog to do instead? It can always be the same one: a lot of people teach their dogs to Sit for everything they need, and use the context to figure out what the dog wants. Others like to have specific actions for specific needs: sit for pets, bringing a toy for play, going to the mat for food, etc. Once again, this is 100% your choice. Nonetheless, if this is your first puppy or if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, I recommend you go with the “one behavior to rule them all” strategy.

You should now have 3 lists.

By taking one item of each list, you can make the following equation:

Undesirable behavior, in X situation → will be changed to → Desired behavior, in situation X

For instance, if I have a puppy that bites my hands to play, barks for its Kong, and jumps to say hi. With my personal criteria, I would have:

Bites my hands, to play → will be changed to → Brings me his plush, to play
Barks, for his Kong → will be changed to → Goes on the mat (silently, or lightly whining because I’m okay with that), for his Kong
Jumps, to say hi → will be changed to → Twirls into my legs, sits or tippy taps in front of me, to say hi

I strongly encourage you to write these down and display them somewhere they’ll pop out throughout the training period, for two reasons:

  • The whole family has it in plain view, without any doubts on what was decided.
  • In the moment, we tend to think a little less and forget things. A visual aid is a great way to counter this problem.

Once you’ve taken all your decisions and written them down, you’re ready for phase 2!

Phase 2 : learning the target behavior

Let’s go back to my “please” example. If I expect to hear it from a child that doesn’t even know how to pronounce the word, that has never heard it and that doesn’t know that it means…I’m gonna be waiting for quite a while.

It’s the same thing for your puppy: it currently has no idea that Sit communicates a desire to be pet, nor does it know how to fetch a toy. I have to teach him how to do that before I can expect anything from my dog.

Proactive learning

When it is clear what your puppy wants: it approaches with a playful strut, it just heard the bag of treats, it wants some cuddles. That’s when you want to ask for the target behavior! Ask before your dog does anything wrong. Interrupt their initial idea and show them the right way to ask.

If your dog has no idea how to do that behavior, you can accept anything close to what you want. For instance, if my dog wants to play and has that little hop in its step, I’ll say “Go get your toy!”, while pointing the tug. I’m not going to wait for him to bring me the toy, I’ll start playing as soon as he even sniffs the thing! By repeating this sequence every time, the puppy will start to bite the rope, grab it, and finally bring it my way.

You want to reward with what the puppy was looking for: play, pets, treat, … If you want the learning process to be quick, make sure to reward every time.

Reactive learning

I didn’t see the dog approaching, and I notice the puppy when it sinks its sharp little teeth into my socks. (Thanks Ori for the true story…)

Since we’re only in Phase 2, we’ll help the pup to convert this incorrect way of communicating a need into something more polite. You can use a positive interrupter to make the biting stop, and then ask for the proper behavior. In our example, it will look like this:

Biting → Touch → Puppy gets away from my sock → “Get your toy!” → Puppy engages with the toy → I reward with play

Be careful, it’s very important that you don’t bring the toy to the pup yourself when it bites! This would make your pup think that biting leads to play, and it would be right.

What we want, is for the puppy to stop the undesirable behavior and then offer us the target behavior: that’s what gets rewarded!

Why I don’t think you should just leave the room if your puppy is “impolite” during Phase 2:

The puppy doesn’t know that he could have done something else yet. Which means we’re giving feedback on what doesn’t work, without pointing out what does. That means that the only way our puppy will be learning is during “proactive training”.

It is unfortunately far more likely that you will notice bad behavior while they are happening, rather than when they are about to occur. You have other things to do than to stare at your pup all day!

Only using Proactive training usually makes the whole learning process much longer and difficult to do properly.

Think of it for a second: if a young child forgets to say “please”, we don’t just toss the snack they want in the garbage. We ask “what do we say?” to give them a clue. When they say it they get what they were asking for.

Chiot Shiba Inu qui mord un jouet en corde.
Photo by Kobi Kadosh on Unsplash

How long should I stay in Phase 2?

As you keep working with these two methods of teaching (proactive and reactive), your puppy will start to give you the “correct answer” without you having to ask more and more often. This is a gradual process: don’t expect your dog to do it every time after it remembered to sit once!

When your puppy does the target behavior more than half the time, you’re ready for Phase 3!

Phase 3 : extinguishing the undesired behavior

At this point, your puppy has proved that it knows how to use the target behavior. It is now time to teach it that the other behavior just doesn’t work anymore. There will now be a consequence when your puppy messes up.

Let me be clear: you’re not going to be screaming at your puppy or using aversive tools. When I say consequence, I mean disappointment, loss of opportunity to win. In Phase 2, I was giving you a hint so you can get your snack even if you messed up. In Phase 3, you won’t get it, or you’ll get it later.

You will simply refuse your puppy’s request if it isn’t submitted through the proper channel. If it jumps, we leave and don’t say hi. If it bites, it loses access to us and we won’t play. If it barks at me for food, the treats go back in the pantry.

Your puppy will, slowly but surely, stop asking the incorrect way. It will instead rely on what works all the time: the target behavior.

What if I don’t have time to respond to a request, even if it is polite?

Once your training is complete, you’ll be able to start saying “Thanks, but not right now.”

First, you need to make sure that your dog’s basic physiological needs are met. If you puppy is hungry, thirsty, needs to pee or hasn’t been stimulated in a while, it is your role as a guardian to make sure all of those boxes are checked to keep your puppy in good mental and physical health.

Once that’s done, if you puppy would like something else and the timing isn’t great for you, you can delegate the responsibility to an interactive toy! A food/treat ball can fill in for a play session, a frozen toy can replace a training session, etc. I recommend you sprinkle those into your dog’s daily routine, especially at times you know you’ll be busy. For advice on interactive toys, Montreal’s Pawse Pet Boutique is my favorite.

With time, practice, and your puppy getting older, it’ll be easier and easier to say “I see that you need me Bud, but it’s not quite the time yet. Go to your bed”.

Gather your courage and patience, and start training!

If your puppy has already become a mastermind of attention seeking behavior, or if you’re having issues getting the target behavior to stick, you can always get in touch with us.

written by Nina Esmery, CTC

Mis à jour le April 5, 2024