How to Train Your Dog to Be Independent

Medium
10-30 Weeks
Behavior

Introduction

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.

Defining Tasks

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.

Getting Started

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

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Step
1
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.
Step
2
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.
Step
3
Don’t interfere
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.
Step
4
Extra help
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.
Step
5
Be watchful
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
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The Picnic Method

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Step
1
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.
Step
2
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.
Step
3
Act natural
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.
Step
4
Ignore success
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.
Step
5
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.
Step
6
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.
Step
7
Practice
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.
Recommend training method?

The Substitute Human Method

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Step
1
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.
Step
2
Separation anxiety
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.
Step
3
Baby steps
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.
Step
4
Brief separation
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.
Step
5
Substitute human
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.
Recommend training method?

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
zena
pit boxer
6 Months
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Question
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zena
pit boxer
6 Months

she don listen when we are not home she likes to run off and she is a little to frendly to dog that has attacked her before and she walks to strangers when we tell her to stay over all she just dont listen

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
233 Dog owners recommended

Hello Katrina, It sounds like you would benefit from attending an obedience class with her. Check out the article that I have linked below and follow the "Obedience" method. https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-doberman-to-listen-to-you Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Whiskey
Wirehaired Pointing Griffon
8 Months
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Question
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Whiskey
Wirehaired Pointing Griffon
8 Months

Whiskey will not leave my side. I have an acre fenced in yard and he will not go to the bathroom without me. I’ve tried leaving treats outside and toys he just cries at the window. If I don’t walk out with him he will come in and potty in the house. I am loosing my mind. Nancy

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
233 Dog owners recommended

Hello Nancy, I suggest working on teaching obedience commands and adding structure to his daily routine that generally builds independence. Work on staying on Place for one to two hours when you are in and out of the room. Work on Down and Sit Stay from a distance in the yard using a long leash woven around a tree behind her and then trailed to where you are to keep her from following you and allow you to tug her back into the correct position without having to walk back toward her - which would give her more attention for getting up. I suggest a fifty foot training leash for this (not retractable). Also, work on crate training with chew toys to help her learn to self-entertain and handle alone time. Teach her to stay in the crate when you are home with the door open, like a stay. She needs opportunities to learn to cope with being alone, entertaining herself, learning to self-sooth, and deal with her anxiety. Teaching her to willingly stay places away from you, such as in a crate with the door open forces her to choose to willingly obey and cope with being away from you instead of physically just making her do it - of she chooses to stay then she will learn more easily. Place: https://youtu.be/omg5DVPWIWo Crate: https://youtu.be/mn5HTiryZN8 Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Molly
Labrador Retriever
2 Years
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Question
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Molly
Labrador Retriever
2 Years

I failed to train her when she was a puppy, and she isn't good on the leash. I'm slowly training her, but haven't been able to go on any long walks if you have any suggestions for training her on the leash. But she is very attached to me, and her mom who we also own. She really enjoys going outside, but won't go out unless me or her mom go outside. She's also socially awkward with other dogs, what is the best way to get her to play with other dogs? She growls, and seems to be overprotective of me. The rest of my family are not good with dogs, so she only feels close to me and her mom.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
233 Dog owners recommended

Hello Brynnlee, If you mean that she pulls then check out the "Turns" method from the article linked below. Using a gentle leader or front clip harness she cannot slip out of can also help but you will still need to train using a method like the Turns method while she wears the device. Do not use a back clip harness (that can make pulling worse). https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-poodle-to-heel If she is afraid to walk because she is unfamiliar with a leash, then check out the article linked below for introducing the leash: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-your-puppy-to-accept-leash To build independence work on commands that require self-control and staying further away from you, such as staying in Place for long durations and being able to stay in it while you move throughout the house, a distance down and sit stay using a long back tie leash, and staying in a crate with the door open until released. Generally working on calm, self-control building commands can help build confidence. Place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omg5DVPWIWo Crate manners: https://thegooddog.net/training-videos/free-how-to-training-videos/learn-to-train-the-good-dog-way-the-crate/ To work on socialization around other dogs I suggest hiring a trainer who is part of a larger training facility where there will be a variety of dogs, including trainers' calm dogs to work on socialization carefully there, then in other public locations once Molly is doing well. Desensitizing her to other dogs from a distance is a good place to start to help her build a pleasant association with simply being around other dogs, then working up to heeling beside you while another dog walks parallel to you with another handler, then three second nose to nose greetings, then generally being calm around off leash dogs if she is doing very well while practicing obedience near them. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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