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
Lilli
Jack Russell Terrier
8 Weeks
1 found helpful
Question
1 found helpful
Lilli
Jack Russell Terrier
8 Weeks

Hi,

My dog gets really whiny the second I go sit in the couch or eat my meal, as she’s not getting the attention. She’ll while and walk around for a bit, and then eventually lay down next to me, while whining. I’d like for her to have a little independence and be by herself, not whine when I done give her attention etc.

Thank you :)

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
257 Dog owners recommended

Hi there! I am going to give you some tips that will build her overall confidence. It is likely her behaviors will start to resolve themselves over the next few months. So patience is key! There are several methods you can use to improve your submissive dog´s confidence. 1. Work on obedience training. Daily obedience work, even when it is only for a short time, provides submissive dogs with a lot of confidence. Family members are proud of dogs that perform on command and dogs pick up on this feeling. If the obedience training is harsh, though, a submissive dog will just get worse. Find a positive reinforcement and reward-based training class in your area. If the trainer works with a discipline-based system, it is not appropriate for a submissive dog. 2. Socialize your dog as much as possible to make them adaptable. The sensitive socialization period for your dog ended when she was a puppy, about 15 weeks of age, but she can still be socialized as an older dog, it is just going to take a lot more work. To socialize your dog, take her out as much as possible, let her meet new people, let her meet your friends dogs (if they are friendly with other dogs), and let her run free at the dog park so that she will meet new dogs. (Some dogs will be too nervous to play at the dog park so this phase may only come later.) 3. Give your dog a job or get her involved in a canine sport. Most dogs are not able to "work", however, so in order to give them an activity to build their confidence, it is a good idea to get them involved in one of the canine sports. Flyball, agility, Frisbee, dock diving, and other activities may be available in your area. 4. Use counter-conditioning techniques to help her overcome fear. This is the best but also the hardest (for you!) of the methods available to treat a submissive dog. For each thing that your dog is afraid of, you have to train her to have a pleasant feeling. When a dog is no longer afraid of the situation, he is confident and no longer going to be submissive. If you decide to try to build her confidence through counter-conditioning, the first thing you have to identify is the trigger. What is stimulating your dog to be so submissive? If she is only afraid of one thing it is easier to train her; unfortunately, most submissive dogs are afraid of almost everything. Spend some time with your dog to become familiar with her fears. The next step is to teach him that the scary thing is actually a good thing. When she is exposed to the scary object, give her a tasty treat and let her relax around the object without any pressure. The final step in counter-conditioning your dog to face her fears is to expose her and not provide a treat or even notice that he is being exposed. If you need more help on using counter-conditioning, the animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell has a book that I have found to be useful. The techniques are great and will help your dog develop confidence but as with most behavior modification, takes patience and persistence. Please let me know if you have additional questions. Thanks for writing in!

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Question
Niko
Hound
7 Months
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Question
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Niko
Hound
7 Months

Recently my dogs crate was moved from our bedroom to the living room due my boyfriends allergies and inability to sleep with Niko in the room. Niko used to sleep through the night no problem, now he starts crying, sometimes yelling at 2:30am and 4:30am. I’ve lost so much sleep I don’t know what to do. We live in an apartment so I can’t ignore it; I try to give little attention as possibly but just show that I’m there till he calms down.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1101 Dog owners recommended

Hello Laura, First, work on teaching the Quiet command during the day using the Quiet method from the article linked below. https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-shih-tzu-puppy-to-not-bark Second, during the day practice the Surprise method from the article linked below. Whenever pup stays quiet in the crate for 5 minutes, sprinkle some treats into the crate without opening it, then leave the room again. As he improves, only give the treats every 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour, 1.5 hour, 2, hour, 3 hour. Practice crating him during the day for 1-3 hours each day that you can. If you are home during the day, have lots of 30 minute - 1 hour long sessions with breaks between to practice this, to help pup learn sooner. Whenever he cries in the crate, tell him "Quiet". If he gets quiet - Great! Sprinkle treats in after five minutes if he stays quiet. If he continues barking or stops and starts again, spray a quick puff of air from a pet convincer at his side through the crate while calmly saying "Ah Ah", then leave again. Only use unscented air canisters, DON'T use citronella! And avoid spraying in the face. Surprise method: https://wagwalking.com/training/like-a-crate Repeat the rewards when quiet and the corrections whenever he cries. Practice for a few days until he is doing well during the day. You can either continue what you are currently doing at night during this process or go ahead and jump into what I explain below for night time training - waiting until the day is good before starting the night or starting the night and day both at the same time. When he cries at night (in the crate - where he needs to be sleeping for now) before it has been 8 hours (so you know it's not a potty issue), tell him Quiet, and correct with the pet convincer if he doesn't become quiet and stay quiet. If you go straight to nights and days like this you will probably have about 3 rough nights, with lots of correcting before he gets quiet - don't give in and let him out or this will take much longer! But the overall process will go faster if you can stay strong. If you practice the daytime routine first while your husband sleeps on the couch for a few more days, then start the nighttime routine once pup understands the new rules, the night should go easier when you do make the transition. Either way you need to stay very consistent for this to work - expect pup to protest and for you to have to correct a lot. You may want to pretend like you are going to bed two hours early and read in bed with the lights off - anticipating having to get up a lot the first couple of hours to correct - so that you don't loose as much sleep. Choose whichever option seems less stressful for you ultimately and is something you can stick to. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Mia
Australian Shepherd
10 Months
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Mia
Australian Shepherd
10 Months

My dog Mia is a very sweet and curious dog - however she struggles with fear or anxiety when she sees many new things - particularly things on wheels. For example, she hates wagons, trash cans, rollerblades and skateboards. She's gotten used to bikes and strollers (unless they have a dog in them, then she HATES strollers) so is at least indifferent to those. We live in an urban area so it's not uncommon for her to be exposed to these new things rather frequently - which she was was as a younger puppy. But since sitting ~6 months old, she just seems so fearful of new things. We've worked on-on-one with a trainer to help with her focus on us, however I'd like some tips on how to continue to build up her confidence and independence so when she encounters new things she doesn't freak out. Right now we are scared her freak outs will result in her biting someone, were she to get off her leash.

Darlene Stott
Darlene Stott
Dog Trainer and Groomer
104 Dog owners recommended

Hello, I have an excellent guide for you to read with several good points on helping your dog to not be fearful. https://wagwalking.com/training/stop-being-fearful. When you have Mia near anything that causes her fear and she acts calmly, be sure to praise her highly and reward her for the behavior. You can also try distracting her with a favorite toy or activity when fearful wheels are nearby. Read the guide I listed above in its entirety - there is a lot to learn. The training will take several months, and I would suggest that you continue to work with the trainer if you are happy with the progress so far. Work on Mia's heeling skills when you are out and about; this will build upon her ability to focus on you:https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-poodle-to-heel. Enrolling Mia in dog training classes once she gains a little independence will also help her to build on it. Australian Shepherds love to learn and train - she can easily be top of the class. Training will help her to feel good about herself. Keep a positive attitude with her and praise her often. All the best to Mia!

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Question
Ta’Molly
Chihuahua
9 Months
0 found helpful
Question
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Ta’Molly
Chihuahua
9 Months

We have an issue with her following me everywhere I go and always needing to be right underneath me or holding her. If I am not there, no one can do anything with her and she just waits for me to get back. If I am there, she will go to other people and do things with them but if I am gone, it’s like all of her listening skills are gone and she gets super scared anytime someone tries to tell her something or doesn’t pay attention to them.

Darlene Stott
Darlene Stott
Dog Trainer and Groomer
104 Dog owners recommended

Hello, start with the Picnic Method in the guide where you submitted the question which is here: https://wagwalking.com/training/be-independent. As well, all of the methods here aim to help a Chihuahua be less frightened: https://wagwalking.com/training/not-be-scared. Dog training (Ta'Molly is the perfect age) will also help her gain confidence and assurance in herself. I promote training for everyone because it enables a dog to feel more comfortable in all situations. Interacting with dogs of all ages and sizes is the ideal way to help her be less dependent on you. Even having another family member take her to the training is a good idea. Here are a few commands to start with: https://wagwalking.com/training/obedience-train-a-great-dane. Good luck and happy training!

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Question
Milo
Yorkie
4 Years
0 found helpful
Question
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Milo
Yorkie
4 Years

My dog is 4 and I want him to be independent & not so very attached to me

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