Addressing Attention-Seeking Whining and Barking in Dogs
Excessive vocalizations in dogs
Excessive whining and barking in dogs can sometimes be triggered by a strong desire for attention. This attention-seeking behavior is not unusual in dogs and it often has a history of reinforcement. What dogs are likely to crave extra attention from their owners? As social beings, most dogs are eager to gain attention as much as they can, but some of them crave far more attention than others. Let's take a look at what type of dogs may be affected by a predisposition for attention-seeking whining and barking.
Dogs with Medical Problems
In some cases, this attention-seeking whining is accompanied by extra clingy behaviors, such as following the owners everywhere, anxiety when the owner is away and nervous pacing. At times, this can be triggered by underlying medical causes. Dogs who have experienced loss of hearing or poor eyesight, may feel vulnerable and the owner's presence makes these dog feel more secure. Some dogs may also excessively vocalize as they age and develop the first signs of canine cognitive dysfunction.So when these dogs are not getting attention or are left alone, they feel lost, anxious and vulnerable. Dogs who whine while they are eating often have a mouth or dental issue. Excessive whining and barking for attention should warrant a veterinary visit, just to make sure everything is fine in the health department.
Dogs with Anxiety Problems
Some dogs simply feel lost when they are away from their owners and not receiving attention. Underlying insecurity and anxiety makes these dogs crave more attention than others. It's as if these dogs are half dogs that cannot live with their other half, their owners. When left alone, or not receiving the amount of attention they crave, these dogs will whine, in a similar way puppies do when they are seeking their mom. It's as if these dogs were stuck in a phase during which puppies become distressed when separated from their mother. From an evolutionary standpoint, these distress whines had an important function as they helped mother dog locate the stranded puppies.This whining is then reinforced from getting mom's attention.
Dogs with Needs Not Met
Why is your dog vocalizing? Make sure his needs are all met. Does he have access to water? Was he fed? Is he too hot or cold? Does he need to go potty? We often think about food, water and shelter as primary needs, but often forget that dogs also have other important needs such as exercise, social interactions and mental stimulation. It's unjust to leave a dog in the home all day without being exercised and expect him to just quietly lie there until we return home. Several dog breeds such as huskies, Weimaraners, German shepherds and lap dog companions easily become depressed and will bark if they are lonely for too long. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety will bark and be in distress when left alone
Dogs with a History of Being Re-homed
Many re-homed dogs who have gone through the trauma of staying at the shelter appear more susceptible to develop anxiety and cravings for attention. Too many changes, the inability to control the environment and lack of stability may trigger insecurity, confusion and frustration. In some cases, these dogs were actually surrendered for their anxiety and excessive whining in the first place. Newly adopted dogs may fear abandonment and develop dysfunctional hyper attachments to their new owners. This over bonding causes them to not feel safe when left alone. Once they find a home with people that love them, they will resort to those whining strategies they used when they were pups when they are separated from their owners.
Dogs of Certain Breeds
Some dog breeds were selectively bred to work a good part of the day alongside humans and some were pampered lap dogs and feet warmers for aristocratic ladies. These dogs may crave extra attention from their owners and may suffer a whole lot if left alone during the day. Yet, no black and white statements can be made. So for every clingy Great Dane or Dalmatian, you'll find several independent ones, and for every overly attached Keeshond or Weimaraner, you'll find other specimens who thrive even if they aren't showered with attention all day. Even within a litter, variances between puppies and their behaviors can be quite significant.
Dogs Undergoing Recent Changes
Some dogs develop anxiety and excessive whining when they undergo changes. If you worked at home all the time, and then suddenly start working out of the home, this change may be too drastic and your dog may develop separation distress. Your dog may start whining when you start getting ready for work. Some dogs develop anxiety if they feel insecure in their environment at home because when left alone something scary happens such as a plane flies too low or construction workers cause excessive noise.
How Owner Attention Increases Whining
It quite often takes a dog predisposed to developing over attachment and an owner that reinforces attention-seeking whining behavior, for hyper attachment to set in. However, even dogs who aren't predisposed to this may develop over attachment, given the correct circumstances. The owner's role in this case is providing negative or positive attention every time the dog whines. The following scenarios are some common dog/dog owner interactions that pave the path hyper attachment behaviors.
The dynamics are similar to a small child who cries and is comforted by his mother every time. The child soon learns that every time he cries he is picked up. The mother at some point decides to ignore the crying and no longer picks the child up, but the child's crying increases so much that in order to longer listen to him cry, the mother gives up and holds the child once again. Soon, a pattern establishes and the parent is stuck with an overly needy child.
With dogs,the same dynamics may take place. The dog craves attention, barks or whines and the owner looks at the dog. Looking is already a form of attention. Walking up to the dog, opening the door to let the dog in, talking to the dog and petting the dog further reinforce the vocalizations. Soon, the dog understands the equation that whining, bring attention. It doesn't take long for dogs to understand this, as after all, reminiscent of puppy hood, the puppy used the same strategies to get attention from mother dog. From a learning theory standpoint, the whining behavior is positively reinforced by the attention. This means that the whining behavior will repeat and increase in frequency.
Dog owners often do not realize that dogs may also appreciate negative attention. The dog who has been left alone all day while the owner is at work, will likely not mind being scolded for whining as at the same time, the owner is looking and talking to the dog which the dog dearly craves. To better understand this, imagine being a big fan of a famous rock star. You would literally do anything to get his attention. Since he is walking by the crowd and he cannot notice you, you decide to climb over a gate and wave at him. He finally sees you, but makes a negative remark to his bodyguard about what a nut you are.Yet, despite the negative comment you are happy he actually noticed you and made a remark about you.It was thrilling to see him make eye contact with you. And you would likely do this again in the future. As in positive attention, the dog gains reinforcement from your reaction. This explains why your dog no matter how much you scold him or push him away, may continue whining or barking to get your attention.
So if your dog appreciates positive attention and doesn't respond to negative attention (something I don't really recommend applying), hold your horses before thinking about using harsh punishment-based techniques or investing in a no-bark collar as these do nothing to help and they actually may exacerbate the underlying anxiety. So your next step is learning about strategies to reduce excessive attention-seeking behaviors by going to the root of the problem and employing force-free techniques..
A Thought on No-Bark Collars
The sale of no-bark collars makes punishing a dog for vocalizing look acceptable; after all, if they are on the market, there's nothing wrong in using them, right? And because you just push a button or the bark collar remotely delivers shock on its own, it may appear like a more humane option, but let's remember that even if we are not the ones actively administering the correction, we are the ones who purchased the collar in the first place and put it on the dog. To add insult to injury, the companies selling such collars often advertise them by sugar coating what they do. Many claim that the collars deliver "static corrections", "harmless electric stimulation" or "gentle taps." Don't be fooled by these terms! Truth is, if they are meant to reduce and stop barking behaviors they must be severe enough to accomplish such. You wouldn't stop speeding if you received candy instead of a hefty speeding ticket! So before purchasing a no-bark collar ask yourself the following questions: Why is my excessively dog barking? What is my dog trying to communicate? What alternatives are there to no-bark collars?
Excessive vocalizations in dogs may stem from various reasons. By better understanding why the dog barks excessively, we can take better approaches to reduce excessive vocalizations in dogs. Quick fixes such as no-bark collars is like only treating the symptoms of a disease and doing nothing about the weakened immune system which is causing disease in the first place. I love this statement by dog trainer and behavior consultant Jonathan P. Klein "Barking, as is the case with most 'bad' behaviors, is merely a by-product of a bigger issue. If the root cause of a problem isn't addressed the behavior is sure to continue." As a trainer and behavior consultant, I 100 percent agree with such statement.
Some Tips on Addressing Attention-Seeking Whining in Dogs
In order to effectively address attention-seeking whining in dogs, you will have to take care of the underlying cause. Does your dog have a medical problem? Is your dog exercised and provided with enough mental stimulation? Is he left home alone for too many hours? Are you unintentionally rewarding excessive vocalizations with positive or negative attention? The following tips will help reduce attention seeking whining in dogs.
- With your vet's help address the underlying medical problem. Senior dogs with signs of canine cognitive dysfunction may benefit from the drug Anipryl.
- Find a dog behavior consultant to guide you through behavior modification.
- If your dog's exercise and mental stimulation needs aren't addressed start implementing changes. Go on walks, engage your dog in games, encourage foraging, use interactive toys, implement fun training sessions. A tired dog has less energy to engage in excessive whining.
- Don't make a big deal when you leave or return from an outing or are out of sight. Act neutral. When you are absent, your dog will likely vocalize a lot, and when he sees you don't return, he will feel helpless and frustrated. Making a big deal with highly emotional displays when you return only reinforces his needs to make contact with you and confirms in his mind that good things happen only when you come home.
- Desensitize your dog to pre-departure cues. Put on your jacket, grab your keys and then sit on the couch. Repeat several times and then start putting on your jacket, grabbing your keys and leaving for a a few seconds and then coming back inside. The goal is to teach the dog to see pre-departure in cues in a different light. For more on this read:" using desensitization in dog separation anxiety."
- You want to minimize the transition from the positive energy when you are present to the quiet silence when you leave.The objective is to decrease the contrast between your presence and your absence. You can accomplish this by leaving "white noise" on such as a radio or TV. Keep the radio and TV on though even when you are home or turn it on hours prior to your departure, to prevent turning the radio or TV a cue you are about to leave that may trigger anxiety.
- Don't reward the whining with attention. If your dog whines when you leave the room, make sure you return only when your dog is quiet. If your dog is quiet as you walk in the room and starts whining, take some steps back and wait for quiet again. If your dog whines when you are eating, don't feed him table scraps when he whines. Your dog whines when he wants to be pet? Don't pet him when he whines, instead wait for silence and pet him then. You want to reinforce silence instead of actively reinforcing the whining.
- Be aware of dog extinction bursts. This is where attention-seeking whining intensifies before reducing. Since your dog was used to getting attention when he whined in the past, he will intensify the whining once he notices you start ignoring it. Keep up ignoring the whining and rewarding silence and soon the whining should gradually reduce.
- Teach your dog coping strategies for dealing with frustration triggered by separation. Install a baby gate and have brief sessions during which you are away from the room and your dog cannot follow you. Unable to follow you, your dog may get frustrated and start whining. Find replacement behaviors for the whining. Encourage playing with an interactive toy such as stuffed Kong during your brief absences. You want your dog to learn that every time you leave the room something good happens. Return to the room when your dog is done emptying the toy and act neutral. Repeat several times.
- Use feeding time to your advantage. Leave the room where your dog is separated from you with a baby gate, and start making noises that signal meal preparation. Don't worry, your dog knows those noises way to well! Those noises include opening the food bag, opening the fridge, picking up the food bowl, mixing up things. Prepare his food, and if he is actively whining when you are away, stop making those food preparation noises. When he is quiet continue making food preparation noises. If he continues being quiet walk towards him with the bowl. If he whines, freeze and take a few steps back. When he's quiet continue walking in his direction. He'll soon get the idea that quiet makes you walk towards him. Place the food bowl down and then leave so he can eat. Come back when he is done.
- Reward your dog's non-whining behaviors. If your dog whines most of the time, mark with a clicker or a verbal marker those precious moments of silence or when your dog engages in other more acceptable behaviors. Your dog usually whines when you leave the room and instead decides to lie on a mat? Mark the wanted behavior and immediately reward. If you mark wanted behaviors and ignore the whining/barking, those moments of silence and whining replacement behaviors should increase in frequency.
- Severe cases of attention-seeking whining may need the intervention of a dog behaviorist (a board certified veterinary behaviorist of Certified Applied Animal behaviorist) who may prescribe anti-anxiety medications along with behavior modification.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.