Approval seeking or attention seeking? | Kay Laurence

 Approval seeking or attention seeking? | Kay Laurence.

Jumping up is nearly always viewed, by both positive and negative trainers as A Major Sin. It certainly rates near the top of the list of most dog owners as an undesirable behaviour. The behaviour can vary from a flying, direct midriff punch, scratching your legs, or eye level shoulder blasts. But if we could empty our minds of the traditional view that This Is a Bad Thing, we may begin to see the behaviour as a sign or symptom of an underlying need that is being dismissed.

Often jumping up is viewed as “attention seeking”, which expert advice tell us needs suppression as opposed to attention. Our dogs are not there to be “seen but not heard”, why are we suppressing a desire for interaction? A common protocol for reinforcement trainers: “cue sit, good sit, feed sit”, or punishment trainers: “ignore the dog for demanding attention as any attention may be viewed as reinforcing”. Can you imagine turning up at a much anticipated event and everyone turns their back on you? Being ignored will either deeply upset you, and at the very least may drive a more demanding need to be noticed.

Jumping up is purely a side effect of the physical difference in our height. Pups greet the faces of their seniors, often with paws, but they don’t greet their butt or tail – always the face. Because our face is waaay up the in the sky, and often facing away from the dog, the pup is driven to place feet on us to bring that delicious and important face downwards.

Let’s look at each individual situation where jumping up may occur. Firstly, when we greet the dog after an absence, our reunion. The dog will want to re-connect, to know our relationship is on a good basis. This is super-important to them, their lives often revolve around that relationship, otherwise why live with people? They will ask what sort of day we have had and want to tell us about their day – why would you want to ignore that? Imagine the child coming home from school bursting with news about their day and you turn away and ignore them? Stuffing their mouth with cake because you are too busy is not going to satisfy their need for You, no one else, to give them some focus and listen to them. Cake is not a solution, it is a cheap, avoidance ploy, it is you they want. They want to feel that you value them, which hardly takes more than a minute, 60 seconds. Are dogs any different?

We then have The Visitors jump-on. If any half intelligent puppy watches our behave it certainly appear that we jump on people in a big way – lots of hugs, kisses, raised voices and excitement. Are they supposed to ignore this or attempt to mimic our emotional responses? Greeting by sniffing genitals is appropriate for loose dogs on their own agenda, but I would add the rule “only when offered”. If I do not offer my genitals for sniffing then good manners dictate you Do Not sniff!

If your dog is turning to Strangers for reinforcement then this needs to be addressed with the earliest possible intervention. Strangers should not be greeted – I cannot see a future where you would wish your dog to go to strangers for reinforcement or interaction. The future is a dog that runs up to everyone and anyone uninvited. Often the behaviour begins in the attractively packaged “I have a puppy” invitation, and the stranger obliges our need for attention and interaction by greeting the puppy. Where is this going? Do you want your class time to be a struggle to secure your dog’s focus to you? Because this time last year when they were cute and cuddly everyone interacted with your puppy and proudly you opened up to this. Do you want to lose your dog in the park when they see strangers? I would suggest that many of the adult dogs I see for rehabilitation that have anxieties about strangers touching them have a history of being fondled as puppies and had no option to move away or say “no thanks”.

There is also a genetic component, we have selectively drifted towards “friendly” dogs, and I speak from experience that this is not a blessing. Having a dog that regards the whole world as their pack can be a long term nuisance. Ideally we need to breed, develop and reinforce a dog who is indifferent to strangers, friendly with friends that you invite for interaction.

We can follow this with “you need to listen to me” jump up. This you will remember as a child – the adults are talking and you NEED the bathroom. Usually this does not suddenly occur so good manners can be employed to request attention when there is a natural break in the conversation. This reminds me of the waitress/server in a restaurant, it is good manners to wait for the eaters to give you eye contact, not to interrupt their conversation to ask “can I get you anything”. Now that IS negative attention seeking.

Looking at each situation there are clearly different appropriate protocols.

Greeting, or re-uniting after being apart, should be indulgent, sincere and full of affection, but not crazy arousal and high pitch celebration. This is setting the dog up for exuberant jumping and barking. Their arousal is understandable if they have been alone for several hours, the solitary situation has ended which is a reason to jump for joy. Make sure both your hands are free of shopping or coats or keys, take hold of the dog by the collar to prevent getting a black eye, and bend over to calmly offer proximity to your face for some “air-licking”. For health reasons I don’t like dog-gob all over my face (read: nasty red weals erupting), so the proximity licking will satisfy the dog’s need for social approval without the need to make you regurgitate. If your dog is used to parking, this collar restriction will not bother them. Perhaps add some very slow hand stroking as well to induce some calmness. The face proximity is only suitable for safe dogs, it is not appropriate to ask strangers to perform this, or children. Face proximity is what causes the jumping – the need for social approval from your face. If bending down for this is not practical, set up a platform where the small dog can jump onto for that precious moment of reunion.

For the strangers passing by, put your dog into park, and have the wherewithal to ask them to pass on by, after verbally admiring your canine friend at a reasonable distance. A friend of mine has red hair and can remember her child hood in the 60′s when touching red hair was obviously “good luck”. Yuck. This would not be allowed now and considered extremely invasive. I think we need to progress in that direction with our dogs. Strangers should not presume to touch your dog.

For the Visitors and Friends, again ask them to give you a few seconds to park your dog, and explain to them the air licking possibilities, or preferably a gentle offering of the palm of hand to the side of the face. This can long term develop into hand greeting rather than face greeting which is my preferred behaviour when several need to be valued and reconnected at the same time. If your dog is physically very pushy with the greeting the parking will help reduce the demanding nature and teach them that their need for approval will be met, and does not need to be demanded. Good manners will be rewarded.

The question is whether feeding a dog for sitting meets their need to social approval or actually gets in the way causing a barrier? Maybe you want a hug from a friend, not another slice of cake? Completely separately you can teach your dog to allow husbandry from strangers, there are plenty of training cues when you handle them to position, or place on grooming tables. This is learning tolerance of handling, not greeting.

Other attention seeking behaviour that needs our attention is the interruptions when you are working on the computer/gardening/watching TV etc. I regard the canine comfort level as: “be nearby and visit often.” Speck will settle in the lounge behind the sofa, his preferred spot. Every 20-25 minutes he comes around for a “we OK?” moment. Reliably, not cued by the adverts, but always within the half hour. It takes me 5 seconds to convey: “sure, we’re OK”. He returns to his spot contend to settle down again. But I have lived with enough collies to ban all toys from the room where settling down is the desired behaviour. Demanding attention for the soul is NOT the same as demanding play or food from your plate.

Mabel was the very devil as a youngster tapping the door to go out. I would leave the computer, usually still focussed on the work, let her out, return and sit down, 5 seconds later she would tap to come back in. It took me a year to realize she didn’t want to go out, she just needed attention. After recovering from that smack between the eyes, on the door-tap cue I would invite her over to the side of my chair, we exchanged some breath, (Mabel never licked faces) and after 10 seconds of deep discussion about the slow progress of rainy Tuesday mornings she would go back and settle down, never needed to go out. How much does 10 seconds cost? I assure you the dog is not the only benefit of that golden interaction. It is good to be reminded we are valued and we valued them as well. How can you be too busy for that?

To review:

  • Ignoring or suppressing the need for approval can make the behaviour more frenetic, even with reinforcement for self control in the sit you may not be satisfying their need. Take an extra minute for each re-union opportunity to value your dog, without excitement and notice how the need to jump and be noticed reduces.
  • Look to the future of a behaviour, see where that delightful puppy behaviour is heading and question whether this is an appropriate behaviour for the adult dog. Stranger friendly puppies are attractive, stranger friendly adults may not be.
  • Maintain your contract with your dog before social pressure from visitors. You can explain the protocol to people, they can wait. Your priority is to employ the protocol, parked greeting, for the dog first.