How to Manage Attention-Seeking Behavior In Dogs

Remember the kid in your third grade class who shot spitballs, talked during quiet times, and seemed to delight in making the teacher crazy? Remember how he continued to goof around even when his antics landed him in detention?

Now fast forward to when your dog chewed the heel off your new shoes, stippled the coffee table with teeth marks, engaged you in a 20-minute game of keep-away with your socks, snagged your sweater while pawing your arm, and dropped a slobbery tennis ball into your lap all in one evening. Notice how he kept misbehaving even when you hollered, chased, and scolded.

These two characters have something in common: They want someone to pay attention to them. Dogs, like people, are social animals, and they thrive on interaction with their loved ones. The most important person in your dog's universe is you. He needs you to interact with him, and if he feels neglected, he'll look for ways to get your attention. Just a minute ago my Lab, Lily, dropped her hedgehog toy on my foot, then laid her head on my leg and nudged me. She wanted me to stop whatever I was doing and do what she wanted to do.

I'm not suggesting that we do nothing with our dogs except play fetch and scratch their ears, but our dogs need to learn to entertain themselves with damage-free activities when we're busy. They also need a certain amount of positive attention from us. (How much and what sort of attention a dog needs will vary by breed, age, condition, and personality.) Although most dogs want to please their people, they aren't born knowing how. It's our job to help them learn.

Train and Maintain

Dogs of all ages benefit from positive obedience training. Even if your dog is a proud graduate of a training class or two, he needs to stay "in training" and be rewarded for doing what you ask. If your puppy or dog hasn't had basic obedience training, make it a priority. A good-quality positive reinforcement class will usually meet once a week for several weeks. You may want to enroll your dog more than once—no one can learn everything in six weeks. Sure, it takes up some time, but it's a small commitment compared to the many years you'll spend with your dog, and you'll both benefit from what you learn.

Keep Learning

Make short training sessions part of your everyday life. Have your dog sit or lie down and stay while you prepare his dinner. Teach him some tricks. Read books, articles, or blogs about training and try new things. Continue educating yourself and your dog!


A tired dog is a good dog, so make sure your dog is getting enough exercise. How much exercise a dog needs will depend on his breed, age, condition, and energy level. Don't send your dog to the backyard and expect him to exercise himself—remember that he wants your attention!


If your puppy or dog is prone to misbehaviors, a responsible person needs to supervise him when he's loose in the house or yard. If he isn't trustworthy, confine him in a crate or another safe place when you can't watch him. (Please limit crate time to no more than four hours.)


Be sure your dog has toys that engage his body, mind, and mouth. Safe chew toys can prevent unwanted chewing and thievery. Dogs do have individual preferences, so if your pup doesn't like one kind of chew toy, try a variety until you find one that he likes. You can give the unused toys to a friend or donate them to a shelter or rescue group.

Pay Attention

Don't reinforce unwanted behavior if your dog is being a pest, but do pay attention to him. Remember that he really just wants your love and attention. Will a quick one-minute snuggle really disrupt your schedule? Usually it won't. If it will, then use the training you've been practicing to redirect your dog's attention, and find some time for him later.

What did I do about Lily's nudging? I told her to lie down, which she did, with a long, sad sigh. Then I took my hands off the keyboard and rubbed her belly just for a minute—just long enough to say, "Yes, I see the love in your eyes." Then I handed her a Nylabone and she happily worked on it while I finished typing this article. It's the least I can do for the love of a dog.

Sheila Webster Boneham, PhD, writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, much of it focused on animals, nature, and travel. Sheila has published 17 nonfiction books about animals, six of which have been named best in their categories by the Dog Writers Association of America and the Cat Writers Association. In addition to her own dogs, Sheila has fostered many rescue dogs and cats, and helped found two rescue programs. Sheila trains and competes in several canine sports, and her dogs have served as therapy dogs in schools, hospitals, libraries, and nursing homes. In addition to her Aussies, Sheila has had at least one Labrador Retriever in her home since 1988, and in November 2012, she and her husband adopted a 12-year-young Golden Retriever.


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