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Perhaps your dog has always been a clingy pup. Maybe she is a rescue with some trauma in her past that makes her stick to you like glue. Then there are the dogs that are always after you to play with them. Why can't they just entertain themselves sometimes? We have many reasons for wanting our dogs to be more independent. There is nothing like the joy of watching a nervous dog finally strike boldly out on her own, following a scent or chasing a butterfly. Dogs naturally want to be independent, so teaching them is more like reminding than it is instructing.
Teaching your dog to be independent requires changing her attitudes about the environment and strangers. It probably won’t happen in one session or even in a couple of weeks of training. Although you may see breakthroughs, your dog is likely to slide back into her old dependent ways when faced with a new situation. Many repetitions are required, in a variety of situations, in order for your dog to learn to be independent enough to creatively respond to new things instead of depending on your guidance in everything.
The time and effort are worth it, both because it is fun and exciting to see your dog learning to react to new things with independent interest and curiosity, and because the skill of independence will allow your dog a joy and autonomy in life that otherwise would have been lost to her. Dogs of all ages, breeds, and dispositions can learn to be independent, but each dog is an individual, and our patience is the most important element in teaching our dogs to think for themselves.
The first thing you will need to do is to define your goals for your dog. Think of situations in which she now behaves dependently and how you would like to see her behave to fully embrace those situations. Does she cower behind your legs at the dog park instead of playing with the other dogs? Does she bark or growl nervously from your side instead of meeting new people? Maybe she pushes her slimy tennis ball against your hand every second while you’re watching TV, even after an hour of playing ball outside and a twenty-minute jog. Think of as many situations as you can.
Next, make a list of everything you can think of that your dog hasn’t done, that you could conceivably do. Be creative. Have you gone to your local stores that allow dogs? Do you have dog-friendly friends who would be willing to babysit for an afternoon? Is there a dog park you haven’t tried, maybe at a beach within driving distance, or one that offers swimming or an agility course?
Finally, think of those things your dog reliably loves in life. Gather her favorite treats, toys, good juicy bones for chewing, and a comfy but portable bed or blanket.
The Bring a Friend Method
Choose your friend
This can be any dog that your dog can coexist with. They don’t need to best buddies or accustomed to playing together, they just need to be able to share a space peacefully.
Watch and learn
Take the two dogs to a new environment and let them explore without interference. Your dog may initially stay close to you as is her custom, but hopefully she is watching the other dog and getting curious.
Don’t point things out to your dog or direct her behavior in any way. Don’t encourage her either to stay with your or to wander. Just be calm and act interested in your own pursuits. Ignore the dogs as much as possible.
If you have been at this for some time and your dog will still not leave your side, you can try tying a lead from your dog to the other dog. It is best to use a harness on the leading dog, and a neck collar on your nervous dog, so the leading dog can more easily influence their direction.
Observe the dogs together, ensuring that no one is panicking. For some time they will likely compromise between being close to you and wandering off, but hopefully the leading dog’s influence will win out and encourage your clingy dog to be more independent
The Picnic Method
Pack your goodies
Pack all of your dog’s favorite things and go with her to a brand new place. Try to avoid anywhere she has had a bad experience or has a known aversion to.
Home is where the stuff is
Lay out your dog’s blanket or bed, and pull out some goodies. Start with the least interesting stuff, and if your dog is not absorbed by it then work your way up to the really good bone.
Pretend the two of you are at home, just hanging out. Be consciously calm and relaxed and let your relaxed energy radiate to your pup.
Eventually, your dog will become curious about something in this new environment and take steps away from the home blanket. Don’t react. If your dog looks at you, just keep doing what you were doing and act calm and relaxed.
Time to explore
As your dog explores the new environment, when she encounters something scary she will likely bolt back to you and the blanket. Don’t react to this, but just allow your dog to regain her confidence in the safe place until she is ready to wander off again.
Protect the safe place
If anyone follows your dog back to her blanket, whether it is a dog or person, prevent them from following her onto her bed. This must be a safe place for her to feel like she can retreat to and develop confidence.
The more places and situations in which you do this the more independent your dog will become. Eventually, you will rarely need the blanket when you go out because your dog will be independent enough to not rely on her safe place.
The Substitute Human Method
Maybe it’s you
While it’s hard to admit when we are negatively affecting our dog’s behavior, sometimes the relationship we build with our dog can actually be too strong.
If your dog can’t stand to be away from you, you can build independence by teaching your dog that other people can stand in as her person when you aren’t there. This is inherently going to be stressful, but taking it slow can reduce the stress for you and your dog.
Start by teaching your dog that other humans bring good things. Have your accomplice give your dog all kinds of yummy treats and play with her, everything your dog loves best, while you move around the room.
When your dog is focused on the other human even when you move out of her line of sight, it is time for you to start briefly exiting the room. Start with 30 second exits and then extend them as your dog becomes more comfortable. When you come back into the room, do not greet your dog or react to her in any way.
Start leaving your dog with your accomplice for hours at a time, and have your accomplice walk your dog and take her to places like the dog park. When your dog feels comfortable with that human, get another to help you. Eventually, your dog will learn that good things can still happen when you aren’t together, and will become more independent.
By Coral Drake
Published: 12/13/2017, edited: 01/08/2021