To Look, or Not to Look?

You have probably heard many people say that “A dog is a man’s best friend,” or “I like dogs more because of the unconditional love they give.”  If you have had a dog before, you know that both of those statements are pretty close to true.

We bring dogs into our families, and give them unconditional love as well.  However, while giving endless love and attention to our pups may seem to be the natural thing to do, it could mistakenly lead to some surprising issues.

Too Much Attention?

If you think about it, what is the fastest way to make your dog’s tail wag?

More often than not, just looking at your dog and giving them attention will get their tail wagging, which we all know is a good sign.  In fact, the most important part of bonding with your dog is to teach them that attention from humans is welcome. Just glance at a well-socialized dog and 99-100% of the time, they will joyfully wag their tail.

On the flip side, have you ever noticed what happens with your dog’s tail when you scold them? Maybe your dog dug through the trash, had an accident in the house, or even chewed on your shoe when you weren’t looking! As humans, we naturally default to doing what we would with another person- look them in the eyes and scold them. However, scolding your dog might actually encourage the bad behavior you were trying to stop!

The problem is dogs are so intensely bonded with us that it is hard to make something, such as attention from you, seem “bad.” This means that you cannot treat your dog like a child and try to scold, reprimand, or punish your dog if you want to teach them a real lesson.

Understanding Primal Motivators

There are three basic motivators for dogs- food, attention, and fear.

The first one is a pretty obvious motivator for both dogs and humans. If you don’t have food to eat for the day, you’ll be hungry and grumpy (hangry?), it’s clear that all animals need food to sustain life. Which is why food and treats are great ways to reward good behaviors!

The last two motivators, attention and fear, are intertwined so closely that if we are not careful, we can inadvertently reward our dogs with attention when we scold or yell at them!

How NOT to Punish

Of course, being dedicated to positive training methods, we do not want to cause our dog fear and trigger their fight or flight state when trying to correct bad behaviors.  You do not want your dog associating you with yelling, being mean, dirty looks, etc. Besides, acting angry all the time doesn’t make for a healthy relationship!

The real problem is that if you treat your dog like we sometimes do with children, and yell or reprimand them after the fact, the punishment happens so much later that your dog may not understand why you are upset. Instead of learning to stop that behavior, they may just learn to fear you or look guilty/sad when you are yelling.

Oftentimes the bad behavior continues because your dog hasn’t made a connection between the behavior and the scolding, so even as we try to punish and scold, they never learn the right lesson.

Why You Shouldn’t Scold Your Dog

When you think about if from the dog’s perspective, any attention from you- even negative attention- can be rewarding! How many times have you given your dog a dirty look for doing something bad, scolded them, or said their name in anger, and their first reaction is to start wagging their tail again?

By scolding or yelling at your dog when they do something you don’t like, you could be making bad behaviors worse by accidentally rewarding your dog with more attention for being bad!

For example, say your dog starts barking loudly and you want him to stop, so you look at him and yell his name. There goes that tail and the dog wins your attention! He just learned that when he barks, you say his name and he receives more attention.  This is especially an issue for demanding dogs who quickly learn that barking gives them what they want.

Stopping Unwanted Behaviors

What do we do instead? At Zen Dog Training, we challenge our clients to re-program their natural tendency to treat their dog like a badly behaved human. Instead, we teach them to use their attention as a training tool that can be given or withdrawn depending on the situation.

As much as we reward good behaviors by giving attention (e.g. noticing our dog and saying “Yes” or “Good boy” when they stay calm when visitors arrive, chew on appropriate toys, or go to the bathroom outside), we can remove our attention from behaviors we want to stop.

This doesn’t mean just ignoring your dog when they are bad.  It also means removing your attention on cue from certain unwanted behaviors, which can decrease how often we see those behaviors. In fact, many puppy behaviors are best corrected by withholding attention (e.g. begging during dinner, play biting, jumping on visitors).


We call this kind of training “Shunishment,” and it’s an important part of our training plan. It’s a family-friendly way of noticing behaviors you do not want to see and systematically taking away attention in order to reduce demanding behaviors.

 Shunishment techniques work on several levels.  Your dog will quickly learn that if they make the wrong choice, they receive less attention and are ignored.  In many families, especially where there are children in the home, just recognizing that negative attention can be rewarding (and teaching family members how to ignore rather than encourage unwanted behaviors) can quickly speed up the training process.

In order for these kinds of techniques to work, owners must first set up an environment for success where a shunned dog can be isolated. They must clearly signal when their dog has crossed the line and be consistent with rules.

Keep in mind, though, that this is just one training option and there are many undesired behaviors that may require other training solutions to help eliminate them.  We teach a variety of techniques including Interrupting, Refocusing, and Management, as well as how to set up Teaching Moments where owners dedicate time each day to creating situations using their environment to help eliminate unwanted behaviors.

If you think you and your dog can benefit from our tools and solutions, feel free to contact Zen Dog Training today!