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Is Your Dog Sick, or Do They Just Want Scratches? A Look Into Attention-Seeking Behaviors

By: Lizz Caputo

Barking, howling, jumping. As your dog ages, these behaviors become less and less cute. Let's explore whether your dog just needs some more quality time or whether there's an underlying illness involved.

dog ripping up toilet paper in kitchen

It can be endearing when a puppy reaches up to jump on you enthusiastically or whines when you say goodbye. But as they grow older, you expect these once "cute" behaviors to decrease. You certainly don’t expect them to excessively beg, nudge, howl, bark, or destroy furniture to get your attention. If you're dealing with these issues in an adult dog, they could be a sign of poor training, but they could also indicate illness or a need for medical attention. 

The question is, how do you decern between the two?

Let's explore attention-seeking behavior in dogs, why our soulful sidekicks may exhibit these behaviors, and some of the most common behaviors that can emerge. We also give a few tips on how to address and manage attention-seeking.

Why does my dog seek attention?

There are many theories to explain why dogs seek out the attention of their human companions. Boredom could explain one drive to exhibit these behaviors. Dogs are highly social animals, and most breeds enjoy physically and mentally stimulating activities. Attention-seeking behavior can be a response to insufficient exercise or lack of mental enrichment.

Some weird behaviors, like when a dog eats underwear or socks, may stem from an unmet psychological need, but can have serious physical repercussions like choking, explains Aisling O'Keeffe, MVB.

When your dog begins to behave unusually, it is crucial to figure out whether they are unwell or just in need of attention and respond appropriately.

Pawing and nudging

When your dog paws or nudges you with its nose, they are not just saying hi. They want to spend more time with you or may be expressing a biological need (hunger, a bathroom break, thirst, etc.)

Examine their body language. If they look relaxed and ready to play, take them to the yard to play or prepare a stuffed Kong for them. On the other hand, if they paw or nudge and their tail is tucked or they seem stiff or in distress, they may be ill or anxious, and you should seek guidance from your vet.

Whining and howling

If your dog cries or howls out of nowhere, try to determine if there are any obvious reasons for the vocalization. Like the aforementioned nudging, perhaps they need to use the bathroom, or their favorite toy is beyond their reach. Maybe you accidentally stepped on their paw or startled them. In these cases, there's no need for alarm.

If there’s no obvious reason for the howling, your pet could just be bored and vocalizing is their way to release pent-up energy. If that’s the case, make some time for a mentally stimulating activity. Husky and Beagle owners know that some breeds are simply more "talkative" than others.

If the howling persists beyond playtime or occurs when you're gone, they may be experiencing separation anxiety. In that case, we recommend consulting a reputable trainer. If they seem to be ill or in pain, consult a vet immediately.

Excessive barking

Excessive barking can stem from many underlying issues. Unfortunately, as much as our dogs may try, they can't truly communicate what is wrong in any given moment, so it's our responsibility as their caretakers to give it our best guess.

We're not talking about barking to say hello to strangers or to scare away that squirrel from your backyard. Excessive barking is often directed at you and is persistent.

Like howling, your pup might just want to spend some time playing. They may be bored and have developed a bad habit to pass the time. They also could be reactive, particularly if their excessive barking is directed at other dogs or people. In that case, a good R+ trainer may be helpful.

If barking persists, your pet could be suffering from pain or anxiety, in which case you need to consult a vet. They can recommend medications or give them a complete health check to rule out any health issues.

Chewing

Puppies often chew anything and everything, especially when they are teething. The behavior is supposed to wane as they grow older, but if it persists, it could be a sign of an anxiety disorder. You can start by spending more quality time with your pet, or offering them appropriate chew toys to release pent-up energy. If it gets worse or becomes destructive, you may need help from a trainer or vet.

Of course, your dog could exhibit attention-calling behaviors beyond those listed above. What’s more important is to realize that if the habits persist, despite your intervention attempts, a vet and trainer's help should be a priority.

Reach out to a vet if your dog displays any of the following signs, with or without the presence of attention-seeking behaviors:

  • Unusual weight gain or loss

  • Tummy issues like vomiting or diarrhea

  • Lethargy

  • Changes in appetite

  • Hesitancy to “go outside.”

Dealing with attention-seeking behaviors

Give and take. Companionship is a two-way street. Don’t let your dog do all the giving, and you do all the taking. Prepare some structured interaction time at least twice a day, and find special ways to show them love. Even just some quality 1:1 petting time can make a difference in your dog's mood.

Reward good behavior. Besides structured scheduled time together, reinforce good behaviors whenever you observe them occurring. When your dog is calm or quietly playing with their toys, praise them or give them a treat.

Discourage tantrums. If your dog throws a "tantrum", or an outburst of emotion, first rule out any health issues or immediate biological needs (bathroom, food, water). If there is no discernable reason for the emotion, discourage it by ignoring it or beginning a short training session to modify the behavior.

For example, if your dog is barking excessively, don’t join in the barking by shouting at them. This loud vocalization will only encourage and egg on the behavior more. Instead, ignore them and go about your business. Continue ignoring them until they are quietly seated or have laid down. Then you may treat or reward them with affection.

You may also want to distract them from the behavior. When the incessant barking starts, have them sit and give you a paw. Reward them for their obedience. Work through a session of their tricks for about five to ten minutes to mentally satisfy them and get their mind off whatever initiated the barking in the first place. That way, you are encouraging more appropriate behaviors.

A final word

Even if you have pet insurance, you can't rush your dog to the vet each time they exhibit attention-seeking behavior. That's why it's useful to learn how to discern whether your dog is actually sick or if they're simply just craving some one-on-one time, and how to respond. It’s better for your pocket and your bond.

Once you've done your due diligence and ruled out any health issues, you can focus on the problem at hand and get to the root of the behaviors. They may be in need of more extensive training, or simply just some extra cuddle time with you.


Lizz Caputo is a Content Strategist at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.

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