When Dogs Don't Enjoy Attention

Sometimes our attention can scare our dogs or even punish them. How to tell if that’s happening, and what to do about it.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #166

When Dogs Don’t Enjoy Attention

Usually, we dog trainers keep busy spotting all the ways in which our clients accidentally encourage behaviors they don’t like. Often, the accidental reward is attention. Suppose your puppy is relaxing on his mat while you check your email. You pay him no mind till the moment he gets up and grabs a shoe – and at that point you suddenly get deeply involved in his world. (Never mind you’re grumbling and scolding him.) One big lesson your puppy might learn is that quiet, unobtrusive behavior gets him nothing but boredom, whereas acting like a hooligan makes life more interesting PDQ.

But attention can be a punishment, too. Even when (you guessed it) you didn’t mean it to be. This week, I and my coauthor Bob Ryder, of Pawsitive Transformations in Normal, Illinois, will explain how that can happen, and what to do if your dog gets anxious when you or other people pay attention to her.

Attention Can Feel Unpleasant to a Shy Dog

If your dog is shy, attention from an unfamiliar person can worry or even scare her (The same applies to shy kids – maybe you were one, and you remember?). If you’ve just adopted your dog, you qualify as an unfamiliar person, too. If your dog moves away from a person who’s paying attention to her, or seems to be ignoring the person, you have a big clue that the attention is making her uncomfortable. You may also see “displacement behaviors.” These are normal behaviors, but out of their usual context. Sniffing the ground, scratching, and licking the genitals are common displacement behaviors. A human might inspect his manicure when he’s stuck in the elevator with someone he’d rather not deal with.

If your dog moves away from someone or seems to be ignoring them, that’s a big clue the attention is making her uncomfortable.

Attention May Predict Unpleasant Interaction

Attention sometimes predicts scary or painful interactions -- for instance, if you are sometimes angry, overbearing, or frustrated when you’re focused on your dog. One of Jolanta’s clients has a hard time reading his own and others’ emotions. He doesn’t intuitively connect his dog’s body language with either his own behavior or the emotions she might be having, so he’s often frustrated and confused by her. Like most people, he tenses up and speaks more loudly when he’s upset. He’s paying close attention to his dog at these times, but she finds his loud voice and tense body frightening, so she retreats. Things have gotten to the point where she starts acting anxious as soon as he focuses on her. You can imagine the thought balloon: “Uh-oh, he’s looking at me! Pretty soon he might get scary. I’m outta here.”

This is an extreme example of how attention can become unpleasant to a dog. A more common situation involves training – or maybe we should say “attempts at training.” Let’s say you’re trying to teach your dog to stay, but your dog hasn’t had any exercise that day, so she’s full of pent-up energy and can’t keep still. And you haven’t read up on how best to teach a stay, so you jump from having your dog stay for just a couple of seconds while you stand in front of her, to having her stay put while you walk all the way across the room. She keeps getting up; you eventually get so frustrated that you shout at her to STAY STAY STAY! Enough reps of a scenario like that, and your dog will learn to make herself scarce any time the kind of attention you’re paying her clues her in that a training session is about to start.

What to Do If Your Dog Is Shy

I’ve written about shy dogs in some detail before. Your most important job in helping a shy dog feel more at ease with human attention and interaction is to keep the pressure off. That’s true whether your dog is shy only around new people, or shy with familiar people as well. Let the dog choose the pace at which she investigates someone and begins to make friends. If she’s not shy with you, you can encourage her and gently praise any positive response to attention. Even a little sniff at your pant leg or a sidelong glance toward your face could be rewarded with a tasty treat. But don’t let yourself be tempted to lure her or sweet-talk her into accepting attention when her body language tells you that she’s uncertain.  At best, this will slow her progress in the long run. At worst, pushing her can make other people’s attention even scarier than it already is, and teach her that your attention can predict worrisome experiences too.

How to Teach Your Dog to Enjoy Your Attention

A client of Bob’s recently adopted a Goldendoodle (let’s call her Goldie), who would cringe or move away almost every time they paid more than the mildest attention to her. Affectionate though Bob’s clients were, trying harder meant paying Goldie more intense attention, which overwhelmed their shy girl. 

Bob decided to help Goldie with counterconditioning, a well-established technique I’ve written about before. He coached his clients to ignore Goldie at first while they tossed treats a few feet away from her. They talked to Bob and focused on him instead. Within a few minutes, Goldie began looking toward them furtively: Maybe more chicken was en route?

Still not looking at Goldie, and speaking very softly, Bob’s clients added phrases like “Hi Goldie” and “Good girl” just a split second before they tossed each morsel. Soon, Goldie was looking for a treat each time she heard her name and the soft-spoken praise. Now Bob’s clients added a sentence or two to make their attention a tiny bit more intense – “Who’s the sweetest girl? You are!”

Next, Bob had his clients turn so that they were facing just a little more toward Goldie as they spoke quietly and tossed chicken. Again, they started with a word or two and worked their way up to actual sentences. Pretty soon Goldie’s body language relaxed, and she was receiving more and more attention before each treat. She sported a softly waving tail and squinty smiley face. She was able to meet her family’s gaze, and she sat and lay down when they asked her gently.

Goldie has made a lot of progress, but behavior modification isn’t an insta-fix. About a month later, she’ll still slink off if anyone speaks to her with even a slightly harsh tone, or when her adopters walk straight up to her and reach to pat her head. But she bounces back quickly and enjoys training. She comes when called, too – and approaching people on cue is a big deal for a dog who used to be scared if they so much as looked at her.

To unshrink your shrinking violet, start with a degree of attention that doesn’t worry her at all, even if that means sitting in a chair and tossing treats without looking at her. Take your time working up to greater intensities, the way Bob’s clients did. Be patient and remember that you can undo your progress quickly if you push your dog too hard, so get qualified in-person help if you and your dog are stuck.

You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).