When you have a dog, you are used to having a shadow. Your dog goes into the kitchen with you when you make dinner, sits down next to you to watch TV, and crawls into your bed at night. It's all part of the dog owner experience. But when your dog still won't leave your side when you need to “do your business,” you may start to wonder why he or she seems to have no boundaries at all. Why is it that dogs don't seem to know that bathroom time is private time? The simple reason is that for them, it isn't. Here is what experts say are the evolutionary and psychological reasons why.
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The Root of the Behavior
First and foremost, dogs are pack animals. Their human family is their pack, and the house is their territory. This means that they need to patrol and protect it, and that means all of it, including the bathroom. Particularly the bathroom, in fact, if your behavior means what your dog thinks it means. When a dog urinates or defecates, he or she is marking the area with his or her scent. So, of course, your dog believes that is the reason you are in there. If you spend so much time marking that area, it must be very important. If you go into the bathroom alone, your dog believes that you are trying to protect the pack territory undefended. Not only is that dangerous for you, according to your dog, but it also puts the food, water, and square footage of the “territory” at risk. Of course, your dog is going to follow you and help you out! Your dog is also backing you up for your own safety. you are doing what you need to do in the bathroom, you are extremely vulnerable. Or, you would be if you were in the wild, and your dog can't tell the difference. He may be with you because his instincts tell him that you may be attacked by a predator while unable to run away.
Of course, part of the draw may be simple curiosity. Your dog is fascinated by anything you do and anywhere you go, and he may just plain need to know what is going on when you are in the bathroom. It is an interesting place in and of itself, especially because it is full of all kinds of smells. And you are in there too, which means that your dog is even more drawn to it. Your dog loves your company. That is part of why he or she stares at you when you are on the toilet. He just wants to connect with you. Most of the time, that's okay. If your dog can't seem to leave you alone at all, however, in the bathroom or elsewhere, he or she might be experiencing some separation anxiety. If this is the case, he or she might need some help being alone, if only for his or her own comfort.
Encouraging the Behavior
So, should you be letting your dog be in the bathroom with you? In terms of the dog's health and well-being, following you into the bathroom is no different than being with you in any other room of the house. If you really feel uncomfortable having your dog there, however, you can try training hi or her out of the behavior. Some owners have success by training their dogs verbally. By teaching your dog to “stay” or to go to a crate or mat, you may be able to give yourself a few minutes to do what you need to do in the bathroom. Another similar option is to keep some favorite toys out of reach and offer them to your dog when you need to go to the bathroom. The toys should only be available while you are out of the room. This may also work with treats if your dog is treat-motivated and will be sufficiently distracted.
If your dog is following you into the bathroom because he or she is following you everywhere, you may need to condition him out of this behavior. A good place to start is to desensitize your dog to the signal of you getting up out of your chair or headed for the door. Try getting up and sitting back down over and over again, then leave the room and walk in a circle before going back to where you started. Eventually, he or she may get bored and stop feeling curious about where you are about to go and what you are about to do.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If conditioning doesn't work, or if your dog seems truly distressed whenever you are apart, separation anxiety may be the culprit. If the anxiety is mild enough, try giving him or her a favorite shirt of yours or a beloved toy whenever he or she needs to be alone. A hidden-treat toy may also work, but if the distress is more severe, you may need to resort to more involved options. Counterconditioning works for many dogs. This involves short separations that gradually get longer over a number of weeks. Because this can be a delicate process, experts recommend that owners consult with a veterinarian or behaviorist before starting. These professionals may also be able to suggest whether medications can be helpful in the meanwhile.
Constant companionship can be one of the biggest mixed blessings about having a dog, no doubt about it. Your dog's presence in the bathroom may be your least favorite part of that mixed blessing. Just know that, as is often the case with difficult dog behaviors, your dog thinks that he or she is helping you! Be kind and patient if you need to correct the behavior, but don't feel like you need to "hound" him or her about it. More than likely, the dog is just being a good pack member!