Ralph is going through his adolescent stage of puppyhood (I know, they grow up so fast, don’t they?) At eight months, he is a fully-fledged teenager and, as stereotypical teenagers do, he has started testing his boundaries. He chews the furniture, he bites, he growls. Weirdly, though, he tends to only do it when James is around.
James works from home most of the week, but on Tuesdays he’s in the office and Ralph is at home with me. Ralph lies on the sofa next to me while I work, at some point after lunch we go to the park for a walk, and then back home for more work and sleeping. He’s not an angel every minute of the day, but we muddle along just fine. When James is at home with Ralph, on the other hand, his day is very different.
Ralph has so much energy that James has to walk him first thing. Then they come back and Ralph won’t settle. He constantly paws at the door to go out in the garden, just so James will get up out of his chair. He barks and bites James to get him to play. And James is a thoroughly good dog owner – he has taken the lead (if you’ll pardon the pun) on training Ralph, playing with him, disciplining him when he acts up. James is definitely Ralph’s favourite out of the two of us. And yet he does just about anything he can to disrupt James’ day, whereas with me he’s as good as gold (most of the time).
So we asked a dog trainer what the problem was: why is Ralph so chilled with me, but with James he’s a nightmare? She said it boiled down to one basic difference…
When Ralph acts out, James reacts – and it makes sense to do so. Puppy books say that dogs often misbehave because they have too much energy, so when Ralph was smaller and getting into mischief James would take him for a walk, or do some training, or play a game. Even if acting up didn’t get James to have fun with Ralph, even if James just yelled or put him in his crate or gave Ralph a “look,” Ralph got what he wanted; James’ attention.
With me Ralph gets a lot of cuddles and belly rubs, but when he has acted out in the past I’ve generally ignored him. It wasn’t out of any higher knowledge or dog-rearing technique, it was just my natural instinct. I didn’t care if he chewed the sofa because it was free and I hate it. I didn’t stop him digging holes in the garden because it was too much effort to get up. When he threatened to eat something he shouldn’t, I’d often be too wrapped up in what I was writing to really notice what that thing was, and so he’d get bored and give up. It was essentially negligence on my part, but it did the trick. Ralph knows there’s no point trying to get my attention because I won’t give it to him, and so he focuses his efforts on getting a rise out of James.
But it makes no sense to me, because I can’t see why Ralph would bother. Why is James’ attention so valuable, even if it leads to James getting angry at him? Why would Ralph act up for just a moment, a second, of James’ time, when that moment isn’t even a positive one? Who would be so desperate for attention that they would behave terribly just to get it, in whatever form that attention takes?
Humans. We do that.
We post thinly-veiled statuses about how bad our lives are, just so people respond with curiosity. We annoy other people just to provoke a reaction, and we stay with bad boyfriends because that’s better than being with no one at all. We let our bad days make us super negative, complaining about everything so people know we’re in a bad mood and ask what’s wrong. Of course we don’t tell them what’s wrong, that’s not the point; we just want the attention.
It’s misery loving company. It’s wanting to know someone is here in the foxhole with you. It’s simply wanting to be seen and heard and noticed. Someone is listening. You’re not alone. Your feelings are valid. Who cares if they’re secretly annoyed with you for making a fuss? Who gives a damn about how they react, even if that reaction is negative? You have their attention, and that means that you matter.
First of all, let’s try to work on that. If we feel like we’re being ignored, if we’re feeling lonely or insecure or even just bored, maybe we need to be more open about that instead of throwing a tantrum or being passive-aggressive and rubbing everyone up the wrong way. Maybe we need to notice our attention-seeking behaviour, ask ourselves why we’re doing it, and then try to fix the core issue rather than getting a quick fix of other people’s time.
And with other people – because, let’s be honest, it’s easier to spot attention-seeking behaviour in others than in ourselves – we have two options: again, we can tackle the problem head on, and ask that person what they think is causing them to act out. Or, if that doesn’t work, we can do what I do with Ralph and ignore it. Don’t rise to it. Don’t react in the way they want you to, and eventually they’ll learn there’s no point.
But finally, and I think this is really the main thing, we need to remember that we do have Someone’s attention. When we’re not our best selves, I think that often stems from wanting to be noticed; to be seen and understood so that we feel less alone. But God sees you. God understands what you’re going through. In every low moment, He is right there in that foxhole with you. You have His attention 24 hours a day, seven days a week, forever and always, and maybe we’ll get better at remembering that the more we pay attention to Him.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti