The term imprint refers to a dependent relationship between an animal and a parental figure. This is most clearly seen in ducks when ducklings follow around their mothers during their early years. This consistent need to be beside and in sight of the parental figure is what is called imprinting.
In a canine and human companionship, you often see this type of behavior during early years and it can get incredibly frustrating. Is your dog simply bored? Will this subside on its own and what is your best approach to dealing with this issue? What can you do to change this behavior?
The Root of the Behavior
The most common cause of this behavior is simply boredom. Your dog just does not have anything better to do than to follow you around. This is relatively simple to address and should be checked first. If the behavior persists, then it is likely a different cause and some more complex approaches may be needed.
To insure it is not boredom, make sure they have some toys and things they enjoy that they can partake in without you. Chew toys and the like are commonly used and an easy way to see if they are following you around for just something to do.
This may also be a learned behavior. Your dog may have been taught very passively and it was probably not any intentional training you have done on purpose. Perhaps when he was young you wanted him around a lot more and so he is used to spending a large amount of time with you and believes that this is the best way for him to behave still.
Some degree of separation anxiety is common in these cases and can come from a variety of factors, being bored, the environment, or past trauma or neglect.
Animals who have been neglected before need a long time to adjust to changes and will often follow you around closely if there is someone new in the house, or if you moved, etc. This should subside with their increased comfort with their environment and treatment.
Some breeds are more needy than others. If your Chihuahua follows you around it may just be a product of their breeding. So-called ‘purse dogs’ are bred to remain close because they have had the features that small dog owners had favored over hundreds of years. This also increased their safety, which kept them alive from predators that would easily be able to eat a small dog.
Encouraging the Behavior
After giving them other ways to entertain themselves, take note of when they are following you around. If it is only during the times of day you eat, then the root cause may just be that they follow you around because they get some food from you at those times, whether dropped or specifically given.
Giving them a comfortable area in the home removed from the hustle and bustle of the house for them to relax in can really reduce the anxiety of dogs. Many pet owners use the kennel for the convenience of it and it is often loved by the dogs themselves.
Playing classical music and low tempo music can often calm the dog, but the largest impact will come from you. If you are high strung and stressed, your dog will be too. They empathize with their human companions very well through your body language. If you worry, they worry. Reducing your stress may be the cure to theirs. Contacting a behavioral psychologist can give you much more insight into why your dog follows you constantly and help you discern the best path forward to treat the behavior. Dogs suffering from disabilities are often much more needy and rightfully so, as they need you to assist them in their daily lives. This is most commonly seen in newly deaf or blind dogs.
Other Solutions and Considerations
The worst mistake you can make when dealing with this behavior is to give them a treat to occupy some of their time. This reaction will teach your dog that the best way to get a treat from you is to pester and bother you. The reaction will, over time, grow in rate and frequency as this behavior gets continuously reinforced.
This same principle applies to fetch and other games requiring your direct involvement. If they follow you around and you play fetch with them, that will tell them you want them around constantly to play fetch.
Instead of a treat, give them a toy they like to use without your involvement. Their favorite stuffed animal or chew toy goes a long way to keeping your dog busy. This will give them something to do to entertain themselves and they will happily go on their merry way to play.
A trainer can teach them signals that instruct your dog to go play on their own without you, and this is often considered the most convenient solution.
Overall, this behavior is not typically a sign of any medical condition or health concern. Anxiety and boredom affects dogs just like it does humans. Finding other things they can do with their time will alleviate this issue and provide your dog something they love just as much. Like any co-dependent relationship, a little time gives a lot of perspective.