Does Ignoring Bad Behavior Really Work?

Not usually and not by itself. And contrary to popular belief, “ignoring” behavior doesn’t play a huge part in positive reinforcement-based training. There is a lot of confusion about ignoring, so I’m going to have a go at clarifying a bit.

Have you seen this asserted in discourse? “Positive trainers just ignore bad behavior”? It’s a natural misunderstanding in a world that still tends to equate training with punishment. If you assume that a positive reinforcement-based trainer never does anything to diminish behavior, ignoring is all you’ve got left. So the statement can result from an honest misunderstanding, or it can be a rhetorical tool used to make positive reinforcement-based training look silly.

But it’s incorrect. Ignoring undesired behavior is not a major standalone tool in the R+ toolbox. Actually, we try to prevent undesired behavior from happening in the first place and we interrupt it if it starts. (Do people really think anyone would stand by while a bouncy dog knocks over grandma?) Behavior that gets rehearsed becomes stronger, so letting it go on without interruption runs counter to our purposes. Let’s say you walk into the house on Monday and the dog jumps up. You walk into the house on Tuesday and the dog jumps up. You walk into the house on Wednesday and the dog jumps up. What do we think the dog is going to do on Thursday when you walk through the door? 

However, sometimes we deliberately ignore behavior as part of a training plan. We do it in a controlled way in combination with reinforcing a different behavior. I’ll talk about that too. There are some perils there because ignoring is harder to do than it sounds. But it’s pretty safe to say that “ignoring” is rarely used by itself, in spite of the stereotypes.


Ignoring Flynn in

4 Reasons Ignoring Undesired Behavior Doesn’t Often Work By Itself

  1. Removing our attention from a behavior in the hopes that it will go away makes the assumption that attention is the sole reinforcer of the behavior. That’s often not the case. Jumping up is the classic example. Some trainers tell you to just ignore the dog when he jumps on you. The problem with lots of dogs is that they enjoy the physical sensation of jumping on you, whatever your response (or non-response) may be. With these dogs, you can even turn around, as is sometimes recommended, and they will gladly jump on the back of you instead. Also, some dogs (and these two groups can definitely overlap) are simply over-aroused. Jumping up is a natural and common behavior for dogs. Using ignoring as a puny attempt at discouraging it usually won’t get you far.
  2. If the behavior is maintained by attention, we usually can’t hold out long enough when we try to ignore it. Let’s say your dog barks at you to get to sit on your lap on the couch. You always eventually cave. One day you decide you have had enough. You are tired of the barking and never going to cave again. Can you do it? Even after your dog is clearly confused and has his feelings hurt because he has been trying to get your attention for 45 minutes?  He just wants to sit on your lap, after all, and you both enjoy that! If you last 46 minutes and then cave–you haven’t won. Those 46 minutes work against you because you have just taught your dog to be more persistent. And even if you do outlast your dog and don’t cave…how about other members of the household? Can they do it? Forever? Finally, how is this fair to your dog? He is doing the very behavior that gained him access to your lap before. And now, with no warning, it doesn’t work.
  3. We think we are ignoring but there is bootleg reinforcement. This is kind of an offshoot of #1. The undesired behavior may not be self-reinforcing but there’s an uncontrolled reinforcer available. Let’s say I’m working on “stay” with my dog. She breaks her stay and wanders up to me while I studiously ignore her. Meanwhile, she comes and gives my new shoes a good sniff all over. How handy that I am ignoring her! She has just been reinforced with new, interesting smells for leaving her stay.
  4. Ignoring by itself gives no guidance about what behavior is desirable. When we seek to change behavior, we need to teach a new behavior to take the place of the old one. If we leave that up to the animal, we may end up with one that was more problematic than the original. So rather than relying on ignoring what we don’t like, it is more effective and generally more humane to teach a different behavior separately and help the dog practice first. When we seek to eliminate a behavior that we see as a problem, we are intervening in something that was functional to the animal. To be fair, we should guide the animal to a new behavior. And we must make sure it pays as high or higher in reinforcement (euphemistically speaking) as the original.

Ignoring behavior

The Difficulties When We Do Need to Ignore

Sometimes we make a training plan that includes reinforcing another behavior to replace the one we don’t like. In that case, we will try to set things up so that the original behavior doesn’t happen. But sometimes it does happen, and that’s when ignoring it can help our progress. But we are still not out of the woods. Ignoring is tricky.

Most of us are confused about what “ignoring” is.  Even when we do need to ignore a behavior as part of a training plan, it can be devilishly hard. When we are talking about behaviors that are driven in part by attention, almost any little scrap of attention will do. Dogs read us so well.  If a dog is jumping on you and lands a scratch, you might yelp. That’s not ignoring. If a pushy puppy is about to bother your older dog while you pay attention to him, you might push the pup away. That is not ignoring either, and she might even interpret it as an invitation to play.  Even looking at the dog can help maintain behavior. A trainer friend shared the following with me:

Almost all my owners with dogs who demand attention can’t stop looking at the dog. They may be able to stop talking, but it’s very hard to stop looking. What works for me is to give them a visual target.  I have them look at me or look at something like a magazine.

At the point where she encourages “ignoring,” she has already helped the owner teach the dog some alternative behaviors that get heavily reinforced. She also teaches the owner how to ignore effectively. Ignoring the old, demanding behaviors is part of a plan. But it still takes a conscious effort to get it right!

Failing to Reinforce is Not the Same as Ignoring

Just a note: when we are teaching a new behavior and do not reinforce an attempt by the dog that fails to meet criteria, that is not the same as ignoring. In most cases, our attention is still fully on the dog. Yes, our attention can be mildly reinforcing. But its power is dwarfed by the reinforcer we are using for correct responses. Attention plus food or play is much stronger than just plain attention, which is why we use food and play to train in the first place.

When Ignoring Is a Good Thing

Some dogs come into our households so fearful that ignoring them can be humane and beneficial. It does go against our every instinct. If we have adopted a dog from the woods, a puppy mill, a hoarder, or an abuse situation, we want to shower him with love to make up for past hardships or abuses. But if the dog is not accustomed to human attention or is traumatized, this is not generally a good solution. Ignoring can be humane and actually engender trust. Please see my posts, “Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog,”  “Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe,” and the attendant photo gallery, “My Dog’s Safe Place.

I used to have a little feral-born cat named Arabella. She loved my other cats and was comfortable with me, but hid when anyone else came to the house. Then my sister Gail, whom Arabella had never met before, came to help me when I had surgery. Within 24 hours, Arabella came out of hiding and was acting like her normal self. She hopped up on the bed to see me or sit with the other cats even while Gail was right there. I remarked on it, and Gail said she simply never made eye contact with Arabella. After that, I noticed Gail consistently turning her head and looking the other direction when Arabella was around.

The process of helping an animal feel safe is a challenge when the animal is traumatized. But removing the pressure of your attention can be helpful in many cases.

All right, back to ignoring as an attempted training method. Does anyone want to tell any embarrassing stories about behaviors they tried to eradicate by ignoring? Or any successes wherein ignoring was part of a well-planned, humane, and effective training plan?

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Photo copyright Marge Rogers 2016. Thank you to Marge, Alanna Lowry, and Flynn for the photo!

38 thoughts on “Does Ignoring Bad Behavior Really Work?

  1. I just love your blog. You’re a great champion for positive dog training! I also wish people would realise this works outside dogtraining as well…

    1. Thanks Karianne! You don’t know how much different makes sometimes to hear that!

    2. So – I have a dog that repeatedly barks for attention when I am sitting on the sofa watching tv. It smy fault for giving in when she was a pup and playing with her. What should I teach her to do instead? I try to ignore it and will reward her when she is quiet and not focussing on me, and try to settle her with a chew toy, but it doesn’t stop her barking once the ‘attention’ of the reward has stopped – what am I doing wrong?!

      1. I’m going to ask for some professionals to weigh in here, Alex. If I can’t lure anybody, I’ll hazard a couple of general thoughts, but you’d do well hearing from someone with more experience than I.

      2. Hi, Alex.

        That is a great question and I’m glad you asked. 🙂 You are not alone. I have a lot clients with dogs that have attention seeking behaviors. We tackle those behaviors a few ways.

        1. When we have a behavior we want to diminish, we want to have another behavior to fill in its place. In other words, teach the dog what *will* work to get your attention. One of the first things I start teaching new clients is a default sit behavior. I want the dog to learn to sit automatically (without being told) when there is something he wants. We then incorporate that behavior into all the “life rewards.” Dog wants to go out the door? He has to sit (without being told). Then the door opens. Dog wants his leash on to go for walk. Dog has to sit. The reward/reinforcement becomes getting the leash on. Dog wants you to throw the ball. Dog has to sit and you throw the ball. I think of this as a way to give the dog a voice – a way to show them what does work when they want something.

        2. While I love to give my dog attention, there are times I can’t or I prefer to do something else. Even if my dog asks for attention politely (see #1), it’s just not going to happen. I teach dogs to “settle.” I teach settle as skill, like sit, down and come. It is one of my favorite behaviors to teach. I make sure my dog’s physical needs are met and try to set the dog up for success. I don’t teach “settle” first thing in the morning. 😉 I generally teach it after the dog’s energy tank has been drained with physical and/or mental exercise. I put the dog on-leash (inside) to limit his choices and make it easier for him to be successful. I attach the leash to my belt or run it under my foot and then do e-mail or watch television. If the dog sits I give him a piece of kibble. If he lies down, I give him 2. I focus on something else – my computer or the tv. I work very hard not to look at the dog while I’m doing this. I reinforce the dog periodically throughout this time. When my puppy Zip came home, he ate his dinner one kibble at time while I watched the evening news and he settled at my feet. Here’s what this looks like at my house –

        Disclaimer: dogs are crepuscular (more active at dusk). If you’ve been at work all day, you’re dog is going to need and want some attention and exercise when you get home. Also, it’s almost impossible to give advice without meeting the dog, taking a thorough history and observing the behavior. These are just general guidelines and some of the things I do with my clients. We also teach impulse control and a host of other things that all support what we are teaching. If you try the above and still are having difficulty, find a positive reinforcement trainer locally and get a fresh pair of eyes on the behavior. As Eileen mentioned in her post, sometimes we are giving the dog attention without even realizing it. Good luck!

        1. On dogs there is a saying, that the only thing two trainers can agree upon is that the 3rd one is wrong.

          However, I’ll buck that trend, as I love everything that Marge just said.

  2. “Nailed it”, the largest part of the communication breakdown between people and dogs is lack of clarity. Lack of clarity equates directly to lack of physical contrast. Human physical interaction with dogs is generally too ambiguous, the result of human conceptual language and atrophy of a “moving brain”. Great article, thank you!

  3. You ignore the jumping. Dog eventually stands on floor on all 4 feet. You touch and love, click and/or treat.(new behavior created)- dog stands when person greets her…

    1. Works for some! But my trainer friends caution me that with some dogs you can actually get hurt while doing the ignoring routine. With determined jumpers they are a bit more proactive about preventing the behavior. Thanks for the comment. You have outlined well the idea of reinforcing an incompatible behavior.

  4. This is a very informative article. I also find ignoring to be one of the most effective techniques for noise reactivity as well. Fireworks, thunderstorms, etc cause some of our fosters to become very fearful(like a lot of other dogs), once I started carrying on like nothing was wrong, I noticed a marked decrease in fear and anxiety. Do you have similar experiences?

    1. Actually I haven’t. With a clinically sound phobic dog and another that teeters on the edge of it, their fears have little to do with my response. While it’s possible that a dog could get reinforced for some attention soliciting behaviors in a storm scenario, I do think the “ignore” suggestion tends to diminish the reality of the fear for many dogs. My dogs’ fears appear to lessen if they can be close by me and we perform our “storm” routine. But if my attention were an additional stressor to the dog, for example, if the dog didn’t know me very well, I would certainly limit my interactions. That could be the way with your fosters, or it could be that their fears have not been extreme and that the problem was more one of novelty. Just some thinking out loud.

      1. I see your point, perhaps “ignore” has the wrong connotation for what I was referencing. In my experience(with dogs that are just noise reactive, not noise phobic) increasing attention during fireworks/thunderstorms creates a positive feedback loop that leads to higher stress levels:

        Ex: dog:”oh crap loud noise” *looks at human
        human: “oh baby its ok, everythings fine” *showers dog with attention
        dog:”im getting more attention than usual, i should def be stressed out about something being different”

        So what I meant by “ignoring” is not doing anything differently than I would normally be doing. I think that you are absolutely correct about the level of fear in any particular dog being a major factor in whether that course of action would be effective, I’ve only had mildly noise reactive pups that showed improvement using my “carry on like normal” method.

        1. Yes, I think the big factor is…it depends! It’s good to notice what works for which dogs. Thanks for the comments!

  5. Excellent points, and well-written. I often tell people to ignore the behavior you don’t want – but as you wrote with such clarity – that’s only a small piece of the actual training. Sometimes we do more than we think we are, and we’d better be aware of what those things are, and communicate them to our students. I work with horses. Their equivalent of jumping up on you for attention can put you in the hospital. Thinking through what you do want and managing the situations are essential!

    1. Absolutely! I was just writing in another comment about the animal hurting you while you try to ignore it. Dogs can certainly do it too! I don’t even want to think about what could happen with a horse. Yes, it calls for good planning, doesn’t it?

  6. I’m curious now, in the case of jumping up, how your approach would go! I know the old “request a sit” mantra but if a dog is way over threshold even asking for an alternate behaviour like sit probably wouldn’t help. What more can you do than turn your back in this case? Leave the room for a few minutes and then try again? But they’d probably just fail again… not the greatest setup! So how to train this slowly in a way that raises the criteria gradually? I feel like it’s a hard thing to ease into since people are constantly coming into houses. Maybe crating and management is the only way for everyday life? You should write a post on how you’d handle a dog with a severe jumping up problem! I’ve read a lot of articles on this but they all gloss over a lot of the tricky details, and any trainer I’ve spoken to in person just encourages the “turn your back” approach, which, I agree, isn’t all that efficient. We’ve managed the “go settle on your mat” alternate behaviour but looking back I can’t even remember how we managed to train it. And even now you can tell it takes immense mental effort for her to stay in place, she’s just vibrating with repressed excitement. In order to release her we have to give her a food toy so that she focuses on that instead of immediately running to the guest as soon as we release her.

    1. It actually sounds like you have done very well with your dog, Rose! This is mostly out of my league. I write in generalities and am fed a lot of examples by my trainer friends, but I rarely write a plan (for a real or nonexistent dog), for fear that it would be taken as a recipe and misapplied. But in extreme generalities: The components I would probably draw from would certainly be mat work (practiced a whole bunch separately), and the use of a baby gate or tether to keep the person from getting mauled (and preventing the dog from practicing the behavior.) The way the tethering method works (and of course your dog needs to be taught to be OK with a tether first) is that the person the dog is excited about only approaches when the dog is sitting (or some other criteria). If the dog jumps up from the sit, the person immediately moves back (negative punishment). This is for excitable dogs who adore jumping on people to greet them. The better the person’s timing and the firmer their criteria, the faster the dog can learn. Congratulations on the progress you’ve made!

  7. My dog was always in the kitchen while I was preparing absolutely anything! The process was that he would come in, I would send him out and when he went out he would be treated. Then I realised that I had created coming into the kitchen as part or the exercise. So I started to ignore him when he came into the kitchen. If he was in my path I would just push past him as if he wasn’t there. Before too long he realised that he wasn’t going to get anything (and I had to be sure stuff didn’t fall on the floor so he could) and so he had to think of doing something else. Soon enough he would back out of the kitchen and sit quietly. If I left it a bit longer he would drop and relax. When I knew he had been sitting for a bit I would reward him. I left it long enough so that he didn’t associate the treat with coming into the kitchen, but sitting quietly outside the kitchen, that gained him his reward.

    1. Good problem solving! Sounds like you did a good job of ignoring too. (I had another half a post about actually how to ignore; maybe I’ll put it together into a Part 2 sometime.) I want to point out for others: one of the reasons this worked nicely is that the dog was already used to being treated outside the kitchen, even though it was part of a behavior chain. So he had a nice big clue as to what to try when it turned out that he was invisible when in the kitchen.

  8. What a wonderful article, Eileen! I am one of those who had been confused for many years about “ignoring”; this is a great explanation of the subject. Plain old ignoring certainly didn’t work for jumping up, either for our anxious girl Habi who needed reassurance (now I drop down to her level when she starts to panic) or for our boisterous boy Obi who wanted attention (and eventually realized that sitting-for-greeting was much more effective, once we started strongly rewarding sits).

    We did apply ‘ignoring’ successfully after adopting counter-surfing Obi, by using it as you recommend – combining it with teaching an alternate behavior. It was REALLY hard to NOT react when we accidentally left something out and available (though he quickly trained us to keep clean counters), but as I think you (or Robin J) pointed out, getting mad would only teach him that taking food while people were around was a bad idea – it would encourage “sneakiness”.

    So we kept clean counters to avoid rehearsing surfing, ignored any mistakes (while gritting our teeth), and spent weeks dropping treats into his dog bed outside the kitchen. As he learned that treats were available there, the kitchen became much less attractive. Now, if he sees me standing at the counter with something delectable, he beelines for his bed.

    I must admit that I was skeptical of this approach, but it worked amazingly well. Though we still occasionally forget and leave things on the counter, it’s been years since he’s taken advantage of the opportunity.

    1. Wow, really good job with the countersurfing! I really had a shock when Clara got tall enough to countersurf, because it turned out that even if I kept no food within reach, just scoring a random item I had left up there was enough to maintain the behavior. I basically manage countersurfing at this point; she rarely has opportunities anyway, and I tend to be able to predict “risky times.” I really like how you describe your different approaches with different dogs. That’s why training recipes can have such a down side. Who knows what is driving the behavior for any individual dog one reads about on the internet? Glad that you know for your dogs. I love how your dog beelines for his bed! Thanks so much for this great comment. I think it will help some other folks out there.

    1. Add to that – the embarrassing story: I was called in to start training on an overly exuberant mastiff/pitbull type dog. He was not happy about being left alone during the day, although I hesitate to call anything “separation anxiety” unless I have footage of the behaviour, and the owners wanted me to help them train him so that even the gf could take him for a walk. Right from the get-go for some reason this dog decided I was just the sexiest thing alive. I had entire bitches at home, however, neither were anywhere near being in season. Apparently he had never been like that with any of his owner’s friends or other visitors. I was absolutely unable to do ANYthing with him. Even sitting at the patio table, pulling my legs and body in tight under it to try and describe to his owner his first protocols in getting the dog trained, resulted in the animal hauling his very fit and strong male owner out of his chair to come under the table to hump my leg, or whatever part of my anatomy he could get to. This dog was 60kg, and whilst I am not a petite person (I’m just under-tall for my width), he was doing some quite considerable damage. I suggested to the owner that before I came next time that he get his dog neutered. I never heard from them again.

      1. Oh, thanks, Ann! What a great story. What better example of the hazards and inefficacy of ignoring in some situations! I don’t envy you that visit!

  9. Such a tremendously good post and a great reminder. I love your blog and come back to it again and again for your thoughtful, science-based articles, which help me think about my two reactive rescues in a fresh and compassionate light. Thank you!

  10. I agree that sometimes ignoring can be a good thing. However, I suggest it’s not just eye contact but total body language. I never deliberately avoid eye contact, as your total body language when doing so can actually make things worse. Instead, I just don’t focus on the dog/cat, unless they show a soliciting response. This also serves to show them that nothing scary follows a very brief eye contact, which will normally happen even by accident while living together in the house. With the last feral cat, it took several weeks of very briefly and gently soliciting her attention before the first time she responded.

    While ignoring is not likely to engender trust, very mild and brief stimuli with nothing bad happening may very well do so, and we sometimes call that part of desensitization. Each time I bring in a scared dog to work with 3 training dogs, that’s just what they do with the new dog, until the dog is ready for more. Within just a few hours, they are often able to walk right by the new dog, who is then visibly calmer.

    1. This is a good point, and a good description. Thanks Gerry. I actually cut out about 800 words from the post where I operationalized the different types of “ignoring.” I’ll consult back here if I publish it.

  11. Well said, as always.

    I haven’t attempted to extinguish a behavior by ignoring it since about October of 2014, only a couple of months after I adopted Nala. She’s a quiet dog, and she has never been much of a barker–but she has always expressed her needs through squeaking, an absurd little sound coming from such a big dog! She came with the habit of staring and squeaking at me when she wanted to go outside. When we first adopted her, it bothered me not at all–this was in August, and she rarely wanted to go out in the heat except to do her business and hasten back inside. But as the weather cooled off and the squirrels resumed their activity, she developed a habit of sitting, squeaking, going out, coming in, staring, squeaking–I couldn’t get a single thing done, and even experimented with leaving her out there alone, only to discover that she would wait by the door pathetically until I came to WATCH her stare at squirrels. After a week or two, I had had it, and I decided to ignore her squeaking after one nice, long trip outside per day, so that she would relax while I studied.

    Needless to say, I taught her to bark and bounce at me. Classic extinction burst, but I didn’t have the strength to wait it out. Especially since now Nala was confused about how to get my attention, and escalating ever more quickly to barking!

    I fixed it, I’m happy to say! I did two things–I went back to rewarding the less intense version of the behavior (that initial approach, stare, squeak). And I started doing a structured relaxation protocol after we came in, recognizing that the behavior was probably caused by her spike in arousal from chasing squirrels and adrenaline junky-ness more than anything. Eventually I transitioned that to her cuddling with me on the bed when I studied. And that’s why now, every time Nala does some thing fun, when she finishes, she squeaks and wags at me to get on the bed and cuddle her. 🙂

    1. I hope it’s OK to say that I laughed out loud when I saw that you knew the exact date of when you last tried to extinguish a behavior by ignoring it! That sounds like you, and the whole story is SO Nala! Thanks for sharing. Good job with your solution.

      1. Of course it’s okay! I think it’s pretty funny, too. Single event learning, a day that will live in infamy: the time I taught my dog to demand bark sat me.

        I should probably admit that I did attempt to negatively punish the barking exactly once, sort of. Not exactly. The first time she actually barked at me, I got up and walked out of the room–partially because I knew I could not merely ignore a potentially self-reinforcing attention getting behavior, but mostly just to collect my thoughts. Then I sat in the bathroom with the door shut for fifteen seconds thinking the following: “WHAT HAVE I DONE. THIS WILL NEVER DO. You know what I really liked? The squeaking. Okay, new plan.”

        1. A trainer friend of mine who shall remain nameless taught her tall dog to countersurf as a senior. She has an excellent protocol for countersurfing prevention (a magic mat at the door of the kitchen) that she teaches every dog in her house, so he had never countersurfed in his whole life with her. Then when he was old she started laying out his food for him to find as enrichment. Put some of it up a bit too high and….

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