Dogs are a highly social species, and most love attention and affection from their owners. From the moment they come into a home, dogs learn to obtain attention in a variety of appropriate — and inappropriate — ways.
Why do Dogs Whine?
Some of the more common nuisance behaviors in dogs, such as jumping, mouthing and whining, are unintentionally shaped and maintained by attention from owners. When dogs whine, their owners are likely to pet them, invite them up into their laps, push them away, talk to them or sometimes reprimand them. (And remember that negative attention is still attention, after all!) One of the most important tools in the dog owner’s toolkit is the use of timeout from attention for unwanted behavior. Owners must train themselves to avoid providing attention to a dog that is whining to get it.
Before implementing any behavioral intervention, you should first discuss the whining with your veterinarian. It is important to rule out any medical condition that might be causing the whining. Before implementing a timeout from attention for whining or any other behavior, you also must be certain that it is attention-seeking behavior.
For example, if your dog whines when you clip her nails, she may be communicating that she is hurt or uncomfortable with the procedure. Although you certainly should address this whining in its own right, a timeout from attention would not be an appropriate strategy in this context.
Some dogs also, for example, use a whine to request being let outside to urinate or defecate. If your dog whines for this reason and you implement a timeout, you may return to a puddle on the floor!
If you are not certain that your dog’s whining is being used only as a request for attention, seek the assistance of a board-certified animal behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist or certified dog trainer who can accurately assess the function of the whining before you attempt to address it.
How to Treat Attention-Seeking Whining with Timeouts
If the behavior is indeed attention-seeking behavior, a timeout should be implemented as follows:
Each and every time and as soon as your dog whines at you, say “No” in a short, firm voice (not yelling) and turn away from her for 10 seconds. Don’t say your dog’s name — only the “No.” Your timeout must occur 100 percent of the time, must be implemented by all family members and must be done immediately. A timeout that is delayed by even several seconds will lose its effectiveness.
Avoid looking at your dog, touching her or talking to her for at least 10 seconds during the timeout.
Each time she whines at you during the timeout, silently reset your 10-second clock. Do not repeat the “No”; simply go back to 1 and begin silently counting again. This will ensure that it has always been 10 seconds since the last whine before you return to her.
After 10 seconds without any whining, return to whatever it was you were doing before the timeout began. If you were playing with her before the timeout, continue playing. If you were doing your taxes when the timeout began, return to doing your taxes. In other words, don’t follow timeout with a play session or any other attention if you weren’t already playing with her before the timeout began.
You should not be angry during the timeout. Keep your emotions cool and calm. The timeout is simply a teaching tool, not a way to get revenge on your dog or make her feel bad. The goal is to teach your dog that whining will not produce attention, while appropriate behavior will.
Never use a timeout with your dog without also having a plan in place for the reinforcement of good behavior. That means you should always be looking to provide attention to your dog when she is being appropriate throughout the day. Dogs offer so many good behaviors every day that too often go unnoticed. We must catch these behaviors and reward them with praise, affection and play, or our dogs will learn that good behavior brings them nothing from their owners.
This is especially important when you begin using the timeout for whining. You don’t want to provide your dog with less attention overall throughout the day; you simply want to be sure you are giving that attention only while she is being quiet and not while she is whining. To do this, provide attention to your dog for being quiet at least 10 times a day. That is, find her when she is walking toward you quietly, chewing a toy or sitting silently by your feet. Go to her at these times and provide a few minutes of attention, praise, belly rubs or toy play. In this way, she gets your love and attention for doing almost nothing at all!
Written by Megan E. Maxwell, PhD