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Action Prompting - Part 1
You are sitting at your desk and your dog comes up to you and bats your arm or leg with their paw. They want something from you: food, attention, play. Initially you don’t really think about what happened but you love your dog and so you respond. Before you know it, pawing at your arm or leg has become a frequent behaviour that your dog uses to get your attention. What was once a cute behaviour is starting to become annoying and those toenails can hurt!
Welcome to action prompting. All dog owners have some variation of the above story and dogs quickly figure out that these behaviours work!
I have split this topic into two parts.
This post will discuss what it is and what you can do about it. The second post will talk about the steps you can take to address the challenge and teach your dog a more appropriate way to calmly ask for what they want.
Action Prompting is when your dog does different things to get your attention or to get you to do something else when things aren’t going the way they want.
Some common examples are:
Bumping your food pouch or your hand
Pawing at your arm
Going to the back door because they want to go outside
Stealing things (socks, the remote, napkins)
Dropping a ball at your feet
Barking at you
Jumping on you
Nipping or mouthing your hands, arms, cloths
The ‘witching hour’ – the time of day (usually after dinner) when your dog likes to run around and just can’t seem to settle.
There are two underlying reasons that drive action prompting.
Your dog wants a specific (usually exciting) outcome in that moment. They may think that your presence is important and that it is going to lead to something exciting. Bumping your food pouch with their nose or dropping a ball at your feet are examples of this.
They are wearing their disco pants with their brain geared toward excitement/high arousal in that moment. Jumping on you, or the “witching hour” are examples of this.
Ignoring the behaviour may lead to an increase in frustration which leads to more arousal, which leads to more frustration. It becomes a vicious cycle and both you and your dog are left feeling frustrated.
Barking at you is a good example of what can happen if you ignore your dog’s action prompting. Barking can be a symptom of inappropriate high arousal. Something caused your dog to bark, the barking increases your dog’s arousal, increased arousal increases their awareness and frustration, which in turn, increases their arousal. It becomes a vicious circle. If you ignore your dog when they bark at you in the hopes that it will stop, it won’t because of the cycle of increased arousal, increased awareness/frustration.
If your dog continues to rehearse a specific action prompting behaviour (ex. bumping your hand to be petted), and if their behaviour produces the expected outcome (you pet your dog), you will get more action prompting because your dog becomes more of what they do every day.
Action prompting isn’t always something inappropriate or something you dislike. You might like it when your dog rests their head on your arm to ask to be petted and that’s okay.
Piper, for example, will come and sit beside our Lazyboy chair when I am in the chair because she wants to be petted. I like that so when it happens, I pet her. As a result, it has become a frequent behaviour.
When it comes to action prompting, you decide what is and is not appropriate.
Once you recognize when your dog is action prompting and you decide if you want the behaviour to continue or to stop, you can begin the process of changing both the behaviour and the underlying emotional state.
There are four strategies that you can employ to address this struggle:
Provide a Consolation Prize
Ditch the Routine
Reinforce the behaviour that you want
In my next post, I will delve into the four strategies you can use to resolve action prompting along with a variety of examples.
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