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Originally published Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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Barking for attention

Talking Dogs: Pet-behavior writer Lisa Moore says an owner should withhold attention while her dog is barking to curb the new noisy habit.

McClatchy Newspapers

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Sandy has adopted a dog from an animal shelter.

The 8-month-old Chihuahua mix is feisty, bright and a lot of fun. In addition to having been taught a few tricks by his mom, Sebastian has come up with a few tricks of his own, and one in particular is causing Sandy some distress.

Sebastian becomes frustrated when Sandy turns her attention elsewhere: the computer, the newspaper, the television, the telephone, etc. It seems Sebastian wants her total attention, all of the time, and has developed a habit of barking at her to get it. Everything she has tried to correct it — scolding him, putting him outside, shaking a noise can at him — has failed.

The reason her attempts at correcting the problem have failed is because they all result in giving Sebastian some form of attention, which is what he is seeking in the first place. Dogs will settle for negative attention over no attention at all, and Sebastian is getting some satisfaction from his incessant barking. Fortunately, there is a way to extinguish this behavior.

Luckily for Sandy, this is a relatively new behavior, so it will be easier to overcome than a habit a dog has practiced for months or years. First, she must outthink Sebastian, and set him up for success when she needs to focus on things other than her puppy. Fortunately, there are lots of options here. The first is to dedicate 15 minutes before sitting down to her computer for intense play and activity with Sebastian; the goal is to really wear him out. Once he is clearly spent, give him a few minutes to recover, allow him access to water, and then place him in his crate — in another part of the house. Then Sandy can focus on her computer. Chances are that Sebastian will voice his complaint at this turn of events for a few minutes, but he is safely contained in his crate, and Sandy can ignore his pleas for attention. He will give up, and will eventually fall asleep; Sandy is only to release him from his crate when she is ready, and he is quiet.

Another option is to give Sebastian something special to keep him occupied while Sandy's attention is focused elsewhere. Attaching him to a leash, and then placing the handle of the leash under a heavy piece of furniture in the room Sandy is in makes it impossible for him to get to her and directly demand attention. Leaving him with his own special project like a Kong or similar toy with some peanut butter in it or a chew bone should be adequate to keep him focused and on the task of enjoying his goody, rather than barking.

Under no circumstances should Sandy pay attention to Sebastian when he is barking to get her attention. This means no eye contact, no talking to him and no physical interaction. Sandy should take care to wait for silence, and then reinforce it with attention and praise. This way, Sebastian learns a new trick: Silence and patience eventually results in the attention he is seeking.

Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column is an occasional feature. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto CA 95352.

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