How to Train Your Dog to Be Independent

How to Train Your Dog to Be Independent
Medium difficulty iconMedium
Time icon10-30 Weeks
Behavior training category iconBehavior

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Bring a Friend Method

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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

The Picnic Method

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Substitute Human Method

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

By Coral Drake

Published: 12/13/2017, edited: 01/08/2021

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Cocoa and Bear

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American Pit Bull Terrier

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Two Years

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Question

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I have two dogs, both pit mixes. They have grown accostomed to sleeping with my husband and I. However, we are starting to lose sleep as they sleep all over the bed. My husband has allergies as well. I would like for them both to sleep in their own spaces. They were crate trained at one point but we haven't used them in a long time. Any advice on getting my older dogs to sleep outside of the room would be helpful.

Nov. 28, 2023

Cocoa and Bear's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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Hello, I would recommend returning to crating pups at night and correcting the barking, since the were already used to the crate in the past. Teaching them to sleep in the crate in the other room should make this transition ultimately quicker and easier. Once they have been sleeping in the crates well in the other room for at least six months, if they are not destructive and are fully potty trained, you can try doing away with the crates then. The initial use of the crates should help with building independence at first though and it needed until a new long-term habit is in place. 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. If pup doesn't bark when crated during the day, only at night, then just work on the Quiet method and skip the Surprise method practice during the day, then address nights the way I outline below either way. 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. With two dogs, you could get a longer loud period if they play off of each other, or they might keep each other company and it be shorter - it's hard to know until you start. You will need to stay very consistent for this to work - expect pups to protest and for you to have to correct a lot the first couple nights. You may want to pretend like you are all 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. If pups are protesting the crate during the day too, don't skip practicing the Surprise method when you are home, some also, but don't give food at night. Ultimately, every ones relationships being healthy and rested is better for pup too. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

yesterday

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Lilli

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Jack Russell Terrier

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8 Weeks

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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 :)

Jan. 31, 2021

Lilli's Owner

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Alisha Smith - Alisha S., Dog Trainer

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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!

Jan. 31, 2021


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