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Is Your Attention Accidentally Reinforcing Your Dog's "Bad" Behaviors? | Pupford

December 26th, 2023

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While we often think of food as a dog’s strongest reinforcement, your attention (eye contact, petting/scratches, talking, etc) can be almost as strong as a reinforcer for your pup!

Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years to instinctively look for and work for our attention.

But, your attention can sometimes accidentally reinforce “bad” behaviors you do not want your dog to do… 😲

In this article, we’ll discuss how attention can be a reinforcer, why dogs care about our attention, and of course, how to more intentionally use your attention to improve good pup manners!

Here’s some of what we will cover:

  • Why do dogs care about our attention?
  • Your dog decides their reinforcers
  • Unintentional attention reinforcement
  • Interrupt & redirect to the “right” behavior

Let’s get right to it! ⬇️


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dogs have been bred to desire out attention and care

Before we talk about unintentional attention reinforcement, it’s important to understand why dogs care about our attention.

Let’s take a very quick dive into the history of dogs.


In the original days of domestication, dogs' growth and survival were improved with our attention. (Of course, our survival and growth also benefitted from dogs in those early days, but that’s a topic for a different day.)

Food scraps thrown their way, a warm place to stay out of the elements, and general companionship. Dogs learned that being around us humans was advantageous for their species!

If someone was constantly providing you with food and other important means, wouldn’t you want to keep an eye on their next move?

Related Reading: 7 Signs Your Dog Needs More Attention


dogs depend on us for many of their basic needs

Fast forward to today and you’ll see 5lb Chihuahuas wearing sweaters and designer shoes posing for an Instagram post… 😎

While that feels like a long stretch from their ancient ancestors, our dogs’ need for our attention is higher than ever!

Think for a moment. How would your dog fare without you?!

Would they be able to find food?

Would they know how to find shelter in the cold weather?

Would they be able to fend off predators?

While I know this is extreme, it paints the picture of just how dependent dogs are on us humans. And we made it that way!

We’ve bred dogs that enjoy our companionship (pretty much every breed).

We’ve bred dogs that love working with us (Shepherds & Retrievers).

We’ve bred dogs that love protecting us (Dobermans & the like).

Essentially, we’ve helped shape dogs to want our companionship and attention. They look to us for food, protection, and even love.

And that alone makes your attention a massive reinforcer for your pup.


our dogs have many reinforcers including food

Before we continue, we need to define reinforcers.

A reinforcer is something delivered after a behavior that causes the future rate of that behavior to maintain or increase.

While you could in theory make a pages-long list of dog reinforcers, here are a few:

  • Attention (even just looking at our pups)
  • Treats or food
  • Verbal praise
  • Petting/belly rubs
  • Fetch
  • Tug

The list goes on!

And while some dogs don’t care as much about attention from humans as others, almost all of those reinforcers come from us

We throw the ball. We give the treats. We rub the bellies. We give the praise.

Of course, there are reinforcers that we don’t provide (barking can be one), but most of them rely on human interaction!

dogs decide what their reinforcement is whether it is food, play, or attention

What’s wildly important to remember is that YOUR dog decides THEIR reinforcers.

I have two Labs and they are alike in SO many ways. But, their choice of reinforcers varies greatly.

Sunny would do nearly anything for a neck scratch… Scout doesn’t really care for it.

Scout would do nearly anything for just one more throw of a ball… Sunny likes fetch, but it’s not a considerable reinforcer for her.

They grew up in the same household under the same structure, but what they care about isn’t the same. And that should be expected!

Like us humans, dogs are individuals. Each one has certain things that make them tick, bother them, or even make them excited.

So, lean into that! And above all, figure out what your dog really really wants as a reinforcer.

PS- I did a podcast/article about how using fetch improved my dog’s recall ten-fold, check it out here!

Now that we’ve talked about reinforcers and why attention is important to our dogs, let’s get to the heart of the article! 👇


sometimes our attention can reinforce undesirable dog behaviors

Let’s revisit our definition from above.

A reinforcer is something delivered after a behavior that causes the future rate of that behavior to maintain or increase.

But what if that reinforcer is delivered, albeit unintentionally, after a non-desirable behavior occurs? Unfortunately, the laws of learning still apply!

Let’s look at a few examples.

And let me say, these are extremely common so do NOT feel bad if you do these. My goal is to get you thinking about when/how this may occur in your home. Being aware of dog training “mistakes” is the first step in fixing them!

If your dog jumps up and you put your hands on them to try to push them down, a reinforcement was just applied. Your dog wanted your attention (that’s why they’re jumping, in most cases) and you gave it to them by touching them.

So, that jumping is likely to be repeated and/or increase in frequency.

If your dog sits begging at the table and you say “oh buddy, you’re so cute but not today”, a small reinforcement was just applied. Your dog wanted your attention (ultimately to get food) and you gave it to them by speaking to and engaging with them.

So, that begging for food is likely to continue (and then certainly will if you give in and provide the table scraps).

If your dog demand barks and you come up to them and try to engage with them to figure out what they want, a reinforcement was just applied. Your dog wanted you to pay attention to them, and you did it!

So, that demand barking is likely to be repeated and/or increase in frequency.

See the pattern?

Even when you may not think you are reinforcing a behavior, you just might be… With your attention!

This is something we much too often do unintentionally, but being aware of and thinking about it can help make it happen less often! 🙌

So, what’s the alternative? ⏬


interruption redirection and reinforcement are key to improving poor dog manners

While ignoring can be the right thing to do, sometimes it’s not plausible.

In many cases, you will need to interrupt the behavior and redirect to the desired behavior, then reinforce that behavior.

For example, let’s look at jumping. Here’s what you can try.

You walk in the door and your pup starts to jump up on you. Instead of putting your hands down to push off your dog or saying ‘off, off, off’... Try turning your back. Attention is removed.

Then, quickly redirect your dog to what you do want them to do! Let’s say it’s settling on their place/mat (this is a great alternative behavior for hyper door greetings).

You guide them to their place, and when they’re there and starting to settle… REWARD like crazy!

This redirection and reward for the right behavior must be immediate, AND the reward should be very very high value. So it might not be a normal treat but you may think along the lines of a bully stick, frozen Kong, or tasty piece of jerky (my “jackpot” reward when practicing this is Salmon Jerky, my dogs go nuts for it).

providing high value treats can help reinforce good dog behaviors

Is this easy? Not necessarily! But, it will dramatically help improve the jumping up on guests and you. It takes time, patience, and most of all, consistency!

While these examples have been overly simplified, the principles are key.

When unwanted behaviors occur, try immediately interrupting that behavior, redirecting to the desired behavior, and rewarding the desired behavior with something of extremely high value, like treats, to your dog!


Before we finish, a fun 1-question survey! 👇

Being aware of what reinforces our dogs is the first step to making sure we aren’t “misusing” it!

Challenge yourself over the next few days to pay attention to when your attention might be reinforcing your pup’s “bad” behaviors.

And when undesirable behaviors pop up, try to interrupt, redirect, and then reward the correct and desirable behavior!

If you’re looking for more in-depth training techniques, be sure to sign up for 30 Day Perfect Pup with Zak George!

It’s a 100% free (no credit card required) online video course that covers behaviors like teaching yes & no, leave it, leash walking, potty training, and more. Sign up for free here!

Have a funny story about your pup demanding your attention? Why do you personally think your dog enjoys your attention? I’d love to hear in the comments!

PS- Learn tips for getting a dog's attention on you here.


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