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Attention: the most valuable resource in shortest supply

by: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

I have long considered attention and interaction with a favorite human to be a prized resource for most dogs who have a good relationship with their person. After all, there is a limited amount to go around. Any of us can feel stretched thin at times with our busy lives full of work and responsibilities. With the exception of aloof or semi-feral dogs, I personally believe that most household dogs likely want more actively engaging human interaction than they are receiving. One of the common complaints that I hear from owners are that their dogs won't stop xyz behavior(s) to get attention. I have used this quality to my advantage both with my own dogs and with clients. Different types of play with the pet parent, massage, petting, or other attention can be a high value reward for many dogs. The rules of supply and demand apply and a limited supply means it may be more highly sought after by buyers (the dog). Massage and petting can be a great calming reward, whereas rough play can be an excellent reward when we was a dog who is both highly aroused and owner-focused, such as with agility.

I was reminded of the high value of attention recently working with my youngest dog, Gilgamesh. Our 3 year old Nederlandse Kooikerhondje, Beowulf, is on medication to control high cortisol from an endocrine issue which can result in mood swings and hunger at times. One day out of the blue, Beowulf pushed in and commandeered Gilgamesh's food bowl during dinner time. Gilgamesh was taken by surprise -- as we all were -- and gave a short, growly bark in response with stiff body, muzzle puffed and eyes hard. We monitor the dogs when they eat and were quickly able to take back the food bowl for Gilgamesh without further incident. Beowulf has a tough time with hunger and moods due to his medical condition although he had never behaved liked this before and he has not since then. Recently, his difficulties had been made worse with pain issues in his spine, which is suspected to be IVDD. Of course, Gilgamesh did not quickly forget how easily his brother was able to take away his food when he had his guard down.

I noticed during meals soon after this that he began watching the other two dogs closely which he had never done in the past. They were each several feet away and were paying him no attention. At the end of meals, they usually wait for one another to finish so they can trade bowls. They eat the same food but like to lick each other's bowls. They also trade bully sticks and other special chews midway through eating them. It has always worked for them without incident so I do not intercede. It is something they mutually agree upon. However, Gilgamesh appeared nervous during meals when the other dogs would wait several feet away for him to finish his meal. Our 11 year old female Kooiker, Bones, approached a little closer and waited a few feet away. Gilgamesh first froze and gave her whale eye. She seemed oblivious to his communication. His muzzle flared out and he growled. She seemed confused and did not acknowledge him, but she moved away when I called her. She was not accustomed to this behavior from him as he has no history of food aggression. He was not nervous around the siblings in other contexts with bully sticks or other chews. He was only nervous with the food at meals.

I began working with him by keeping him separated from the other two dogs with baby gates during meals. I dropped small pieces of meat in his bowl when they walked by or approached the gated area. Gilgamesh quickly caught onto the game. Within a few meals we were doing this without the baby gating. I began reducing the rewards, but Gilgamesh had other ideas. He stopped eating his food when I would put it down on the floor. He would leave his food bowl completely and come over to me.

I wondered...could he be sick? Had he grown to dislike his food? We had never seen him refuse food since bringing him home two years ago at 10 weeks old. He ate kibble just before or after meal time when it was offered as a reward for behaviors. His energy level was normal, as were his stools. He had not eaten any unusual foods recently, and he does not socialize with dogs outside the home. For these reasons, I did not think he was sick and I did not think it was an issue of disliking his kibble. I made his food more interesting by putting it in a snuffle mat, but he still showed some lack of interest. I started pointing at his food and offering a little encouragement. He showed even less interest in his food with the next two meals, requiring more and more encouragement to get him to eat with each meal. I tried an alternative. I walked away after putting his food bowl on the floor far away from the other dogs. He followed me wagging his tail, leaving his bowl unattended.

Dogs figure out consequences quickly, what gets them what they wants and what does not. Gilgamesh quickly caught on to this with meal times, too! He enjoyed the attention he received from me during training to help him feel comfortable at mealtimes. He learned that we would give him more attention -- uninterrupted by the other dogs -- if he was slow to eat during meals. The initial training worked so there was no more growling or other aggressive displays when other dogs passed or approached. To put an end to this new "game" of eating slowly for attention, we started consistently putting down his food bowl on the floor at meal times and pretending to do something else while standing within three feet of him. At first, he approached us with his tail wagging shortly after the bowl touched the floor. I pointed at the bowl just once each meal and tapped it with my foot, saying "Go on!". Lo and behold, after about fifteen seconds he began eating. Slowly. He left his bowl sporadically during the next few meals to seek attention, but I did not give him attention until he was finished. With each meal, his eating improved. At the end of the meals we gave him lots of attention since that was what he wanted in the first place.

Often times with meal time issues, owners become concerned when their dog is picky or slow to eat and bring out a tastier food. Dogs learn that if they delay eating something better that will eventually appear. In this case, that "something better" was attention from me. Dogs are very keen observers about what results from their actions. Next time your dog is befuddling you, ask yourself, "What does he get out of doing (insert behavior here)?"

In Gilgamesh's case, he does not think he ever gets enough attention. He is fortunate enough to rarely be left alone at home without either me or my husband. We do some training and activities with him every day. I sometimes thinks he wishes he were an only dog, but undoubtedly, he would miss the playtime and companionship of his brother and sister. He wants to enjoy the other dogs but he wants all the human attention for himself! Summer time has been challenging since he does not get one-on-one time in the agility ring with me. It is too hot to train outside. He loves rough play with me that I use as one of the rewards, and I think he misses the close way we connect and communicate on the course. He craves time on the course with me. This issue with the meal times where he ate slowly and even rejected food for attention made me aware that he needs more of that special attention from me, uninterrupted by the other dogs. How can you maximize your attention to deepen your relationship with your dog? Consider how you can add it to your daily routine, for modifying arousal, and as a training reward.

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