Whether it’s advice about cats, dogs, or kids, one suggestion is common: ignore bad behavior. That can seem like a good plan and sometimes it works, but sometimes it backfires. Is “ignore bad behavior” good advice, bad advice, or just one piece of the puzzle?
Why Ignore Bad Behavior?
Many behaviors are motivated by consequences, meaning what happens to you because you did something. You make a new recipe for dinner and your family says “thanks, that was amazing!” and you start browsing recipe websites. They don’t notice and you don’t put in that effort the next night.
Our dogs value our attention and will work to get it. By petting them when they nudge your hand, you’re encouraging them to do that more in the future. The advice to ignore unwanted behaviors relies on the idea that not rewarding a dog with attention will teach them not to do a behavior. Some people are also concerned about teaching their dog that they can “get away with” using aggression or other problematic behavior to get out of situations (like nail trims). Would it be better to just ignore this behavior and press on?
What’s the Problem?
If behavior is motivated by consequences and ignoring your dog takes away a desirable consequence, why shouldn’t you do it? The first reason is that your dog may not care. If your dog isn’t motivated (in that moment) by getting your attention, then ignoring them wouldn’t help.
The next issue is that your dog may be trying to meet a very important need like the need for social interaction or a need to escape discomfort or fear. In both of these cases, ignoring your dog’s behavior will still leave them with that unmet need. They will continue to display whatever behavior they hope will get them what they need. A dog who hasn’t had enough social interaction will continue to annoy you; a dog that is fearful will continue to run, growl, or even bite.
Lastly, but no less important, ignoring a dog can build frustration if the dog doesn’t know any other way to behave or has been rewarded for their behavior in the past. Frustration can lead to an increase in the behavior and may also increase the risk of aggression. Think about someone banging on a broken vending machine!
To Ignore or Not to Ignore: That is the Question
Ignoring bad behavior can be a helpful tool, but to be effective it should be used only in particular situations and along with other steps.
Don’t Ignore It
If your dog’s safety is at risk because of their behavior, never ignore it.
Not Motivated by Attention
Ignoring any behavior that isn’t motivated by attention won’t do anything to change the behavior. For example, a dog barking at passersby while watching out a window. Your attention has nothing to do with why your dog is doing this, so ignoring them won’t solve this issue.
Growling, showing teeth, and biting are all ways of your dog saying “I’m uncomfortable or scared.” Ignoring this behavior will not help them feel safer or change the behavior. In fact, when signs of stress, including aggression, are ignored and the dog is still in the situation, they are likely to escalate their behavior.
(Note: This doesn’t mean you should punish aggressive behavior though. Check out this post on how to stop unwanted behavior for more on the topic.)
When You Can Help Them Choose Better Behavior
Simply ignoring a behavior leaves your dog on their own to decide how to behave. A fairer method is to show your dog the behavior you want from them. Set up your dog’s environment and routine to help them make good choices from the start. Be ready to redirect problem behavior before it starts. For example, if your dog struggles to meet new people, either from excitement or fear, make a plan ahead of opening the door to guests.
Before They Know What They Should Do
If you’re trying to stop a behavior, choose a clear goal for what your dog should do instead. Spend some time teaching your dog this behavior and rewarding it, before you think about ignoring their bad behavior. An example would be teaching your dog to sit, before asking them to sit to greet people. Only when they start to connect sitting to getting the attention they want should you start ignoring their jumping up.
Consider Ignoring It
Once you get through all of that, ignoring problem behavior can have its place. If you’ve identified that getting attention is a motivator for your dog’s behavior, you might be able to ignore them in these situations and get the result you want:
First Time Behaviors
Occasionally your dog will suddenly try a new, “naughty” behavior. Maybe they’ve just discovered that shoes could be interesting toys. Don’t add to the fun by giving them lots of attention or chasing them around the house. Instead, calmly swap the shoe for another toy or tasty treat with as little extra fuss or attention as possible. Now get proactive and use management (like putting shoes away in closets) to make sure that new behavior can’t become a habit.
They Have Something Else to Do
Make sure you are truly providing enough attention, enrichment, and exercise for your dog. Ignoring a dog that only gets attention when they demand it is unfair and unlikely to work. Provide your dog with plenty of mental and physical stimulation each day (exactly what that means will vary by dog) and appropriate activities to choose when you can’t pay attention to them. Only then can you even consider ignoring their demands at inappropriate times.
You’re Ready to Reward
If your dog is likely to quickly switch to a more appropriate behavior and you are ready to reward that behavior, then ignoring them can help make it clear what the correct choice is. If they don’t make the right choice fairly quickly, you may need to spend more time teaching your dog what you want from them.
The best ways to change your dog’s behavior are through proactive management of the environment (don’t let a bad habit take hold!), by giving them plenty of outlets for all their mental and physical needs, and by identifying the behavior you want and rewarding it. If you do ignore bad behavior, do so fairly and watch for frustration or signs of stress. Better behavior can be just around the corner!
If your dog has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.