6 Reasons Why Ignoring Isn’t Working

Last week I wrote an article on dogs jumping up on people and in it I listed one of the solutions is to ignore a dog who is jumping on you. It’s a common recommendation that you’re sure to find in a lot of articles out there about jumping and other attention-seeking behaviors. But why do I often hear, “I tried ignoring and it didn’t work” if it’s such a common recommendation? Let’s get into 6 reasons why ignoring your pet’s behavior might not be working:

1.There needs to be more consistency.  

Consistency is key when changing any behavior. This common problem can happen in two ways. The first is that some people in the pet’s life do consistently ignore the behavior and other people do not. This looks like the following scenario: Philip sees Edith walking Fido and asks her if he can pet him. She says, “Okay, but he’s in training. Please make him sit first.” Fido jumps up on Philip to which Philip exclaims, “It’s okay! I love dogs!” and proceeds to pet Fido. Edith silently curses Philip under her breath. This is where teaching an “up” and “off” cue comes in handy. 

The second is that the same person is not consistent with how they respond when their dog jumps up on them. This is a scenario I’ve seen many times in classes and consultations: Debbie is sitting in a chair while Fluffy wanders around. Debbie tells me that she has a big problem with Fluffy jumping up on people. As we discuss the solutions– including ignoring– Fluffy wanders over and jumps up on Debbie’s lap with her front paws. Debbie absent-mindedly starts petting Fluffy. After a few moments Debbie looks at Fluffy, says to her, “Oh I should be ignoring you” and pushes her off of her lap. 

Let’s break down the above scenario from a behavior analysis standpoint to learn why it’s not effective. The first necessary piece of information for you to know is that the consequence to a behavior (what makes it happen or not happen again: reinforcer or punisher) occurs immediately after the behavior. So the consequence for Fluffy jumping on Debbie’s lap is being petted. If Fluffy is looking for Debbie’s attention she just got it! After that, Debbie remembers she should be ignoring but the way she goes about that is by giving her attention: looks at her, talks to her (tells her she should be ignoring her), and touches her to push her off her lap. Ignoring means to talking to, no touching, and for some animals no eye contact. And that goes for everyone there. If the person who’s being jumped on ignores the dog but another person pushes the dog off it doesn’t fly. 

Debbie isn’t alone! Her response is a pretty normal one. Humans on the whole are really good at noticing and responding to things we don’t like. A skill many have yet to develop is to ignore things we don’t like and to notice and respond to things we do like. Anyone can learn this skill! Debbie is simply on her learning journey towards becoming more proficient at ignoring.

2. It needs to be implemented longer.  

I will sometimes recommend a client ignore their jumping dog and a few days later I hear back, “It’s not working!” My answer is to keep at it for a few more weeks and then let me know how it’s going. The world would be a far greater place if bad habits we’ve had for years could be changed in just a couple days. We should award our animals the same patience as we do ourselves when we’re trying to change our habits (another skills that we can develop!) Additionally, know that the longer the habit has been in place the longer it will take to modify it. It’s much easier to teach someone to stop chewing their nails if they started yesterday vs. someone who’s been chewing their nails for five years. 

3. It will likely get worse before it gets better. 

What often doesn’t get said is that the behavior will likely get worse before it gets better, especially if you’re only using the ignoring tactic. This is because of something called an “extinction burst”. An extinction burst happens when a behavior that was previously reinforced is no longer reinforced so you try the behavior with more intensity. The common example comes from the human world: You walk up to an elevator and press the button. It doesn’t light up. Do you immediately give up and take the stairs? No! You press the button again. And again. And again until a couple minutes later you’re vigorously pressing the button. That’s an extinction burst. Because the button is no longer lighting up you escalate your button pressing behavior.

Extinction bursts happen when we start ignoring our pets’ attention-seeking behaviors. They don’t immediately give up. They try again. And again. And again and you will likely see an increase in intensity. Here’s the thing with extinction bursts: if you wait it out the behavior with start to go away but if you give up in the middle then the behavior will be worse in the future. Going back to the elevator example: if after a few minutes the button still doesn’t light up you do eventually take the stairs. Next time you try the elevator and the button doesn’t light up you might give one or two more pushes and then take the stairs. If that continues to happen you’ll eventually forego the elevator altogether. However, if in the midst of your button-pressing extinction burst the button lights up then your frantic button mashing was rewarded. Next time you’ll be more apt to vigorously press the button because it worked last time.

 Extinction bursts are usually the culprit behind the phrase, “I tried ignoring and the behavior got worse!” But if we stick with it (#2: implement longer!) then we should see a decrease eventually. Keep in mind that extinction bursts are frustrating to both the human and the animal. Because of this I always recommend teaching more suitable attention-seeking behaviors (ie: sit, down) in addition to ignoring the current unwanted attention-seeking behavior. That way we can tell the animal, “What you’re doing isn’t working, but this behavior does work to get my attention!” This makes it less frustrating for everyone and usually yields quicker results. 

4. Their needs could be better met.

All individuals– from humans to dogs to cats to fish– have needs. These needs can be universal like safety and shelter and they can be species-specific like chewing in rabbits. It’s hard to determine what those needs are for a completely separate species that doesn’t speak our language! And, it can be hard to meet those needs every single day in our busy lives. Sometimes we see attention-seeking behaviors as a product of unmet needs. Ignoring isn’t as effective in those cases because we first need to meet their needs. The nice thing is that when we do meet those needs better the unwanted behavior often resolves itself. 

Let me use my own dog, Oso, as an example here. After much trial and error I know that Oso needs the physical exercise equivalent to at least one hour in the yard per day (which involves him hunting critters), food puzzles daily, training sessions 3x/week, midday naps, and our regular-ish routine. How I know this is that if we don’t stick to this he drives me up a wall; he’s restless, whines, and starts getting into things I’d prefer him not to. When we do stick to this he’s a perfect cuddly angel in the evening. Let’s face it: I’m not perfect and there are days I can’t do all of this. If the weather is bad then he can’t be outside as long. If I’m super busy he doesn’t get his three training sessions that week. If we have people visiting it’s not his normal routine. And boy can I tell when all this happens! Oso is a prime example of someone who’s attention-seeking behavior is worse when his needs are not being met. 

5. It’s a self-reinforcing behavior. 

The recommendation of ignoring your pet’s behavior relies on the assumption that it’s an attention-seeking behavior. The dog is jumping up on you or someone else to get your attention. But sometimes the reinforcement isn’t coming from getting attention. Sometimes it appears as if jumping is just plain ol’ fun or that the proximity to the human is good enough regardless of their attention. In this case ignoring won’t make much difference because attention it isn’t what was reinforcing the behavior in the first place. This is where I like to use the “teaching a jump to target” solution discussed last week. They get to jump up but not on a human. It’s great for dogs who think that jumping is just plain ol’ fun!  

6. It’s an anxiety-based behavior. 

I frequently see jumping up as an anxiety-based behavior due to the type of dogs I work with (it probably doesn’t happen as frequently in other dog populations!) Often this looks like: Fido is investigating the room and knocks something over. Fido runs over to his human, Melinda, and jumps up on her while displaying fearful body language: ears back, tail lowered, pupils dilated. In those moments the dog’s body language often relaxes when his human acknowledges him so it appears that while this is an attention-seeking behavior it’s also a comforting behavior. In these cases we need to address the anxiety first. We often won’t get very far if we just address the jumping itself. 

7. Bonus! It’s a recommendation to change the human’s behavior, not the pet’s. 

Dog trainers aren’t really dog trainers; we’re human trainers who know a lot about dogs. There are plenty of recommendations that are made to train the humans instead of their pets. After all, how humans relate and interact with their pets is part of the big behavioral picture. For instance, when a dog is growling I recommend people to simply ignore it and walk away. (Sound weird? We’ll go more in-depth on this in a later post.) That recommendation is not so much about modifying the pet’s behavior. I fully expect the dog to continue growling in those scenarios. That recommendation is to keep the human safe and to make sure they don’t escalate the situation. So in this example ignoring is working but we’re paying attention to the wrong species! 

Now what?

Ignoring can be an effective strategy for modifying attention-seeking behaviors but, as with any strategy, there may need to be some troubleshooting along the way to make it more effective. 

  • Is there an attention-seeking behavior your pet has where ignoring isn’t working? Which of the above do you think is the culprit?
  • What behavior would you rather have your pet do instead of the unwanted attention-seeking behavior? Start teaching and reinforcing the heck out of that! 
  • Talk to your trainer or behavior consultant if you’re still having trouble. They’re there to help you troubleshoot!

Happy training!