The Importance of Teaching Dogs to Be Independent — Part I

As a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), I frequently face questions about clingy puppies and Velcro dogs. Devoted pet guardians want to know how to help their dogs have confidence and learn to be more independent. Certainly, some are concerned that their pets may be experiencing separation anxiety.

Fortunately, not every pup that struggles to see the value of “me time” is truly, clinically suffering from separation anxiety. For those who are, the safest, best approach is working with a certified professional. But, any pup can get a bit stressed at times if no one’s home or no one’s paying attention to his needs. In this two-part series on shaping confident, independent puppies and dogs, we’ll explore training and management options (with an emphasis on fun and games!) that will set you and your Inquisitive Canine up for success. In Part One, you’ll find general tips for life skills and confidence building first in puppies, then in adult dogs. The second part will address specific situations such as being outside alone, being alone at night-time and will review tips for preparing for transitions like back to school or heading back into the office after working from home.

To begin, let’s say you’re the proud pet parent of a new puppy – or are planning to be. As with most things, preparation is key. Plan ahead. Ideally, consult with a force-free trainer and start thinking about the skills you might want your pup to learn, so you can help your new family member start off on the right paw.

  • Teach your puppies well. Puppies are like sponges, learning everything they can to get more — or less — of what they want. Use this time to your advantage by lovingly teaching them what you want, what you expect, and the skills they will need to be able to thrive in our human world.
  • First things first. Keep in mind that not all attention seeking behavior (whining, pawing, mouthing, jumping) is for emotional needs (“I’m bored!”). First make sure they’re not scared, hurt, sick, or have a biological urge that needs to be met — hungry, thirsty, need to potty, for instance. If you want these needs to be communicated differently, those cues can be taught in time.
  • Good ol’ Life Skills (aka: Manners, aka: “Obedience”) can work wonders. Think about how many times and places you want your puppy to “sit” instead of jumping up, running around, barking etc. Take the time to teach these skills, and in a variety of locations. My favorite go-to outline for list of skills are those that Therapy Dogs need to learn. Love on a Leash outlines their requirements here.
  • Build Confidence. Explore enrichment toys for meals and treats. Chew bones are great, just make sure that they are safe and don’t cause tooth problems (check with your vet). Puzzle toys are problem-solving toys, which help build confidence. Remember, besides scavengers and predators, dogs are problem-solvers — if we don’t give inquisitive puppies “problems” to solve, they’ll find their own — sometimes this can backfire. We all have stories… (Care to share in the comments below?)
  • Socialize them so they learn to like other people and dogs — and other animals too. This way, they’re not always relying on you for everything fun, interesting and stimulating. It’s important that these brand-new interactions are positive and not scary. Consult with a force-free trainer if you have any questions about puppy socialization.
  • Gradually teach them to be alone in a safe place. Start with small amounts of time with you in the same room, but with pups in their own beds. Then move on to you being in another room of the house, building up to longer periods of time with you out of the room and eventually, with you out of the house. Go slow and steady, so puppy learns to trust being home alone. (More on this process in previous and future posts.)

Now, what if you’re not starting from puppyhood? Can adult dogs still learn new life skills? Can they “unlearn” old habits? Of course! As you’ll see, much of the approach to teaching adult dogs to be more independent is very similar to teaching puppies.

  • Think outside of the bowl. The emphasis of meal delivery should be with training or food enrichment toys. We know that bowls have their place, at times, but when possible,  feed meals outside of the bowl. It doesn’t have to be for every meal, but food can be used to allow them to use their predatory skills in a safe and productive way. As with puppies, popular activities such as enrichment toys/interactive food toys/scavenger hunts and games where they have to figure out how to get the food out can help promote independence.
  • Reinforce behaviors you want to see repeated. Reinforcing “independent” behaviors such as playing on their own and just generally being by themselves can also help. If they are constantly pawing at you for attention, do your best to ease up on returning the attention they’re seeking. You don’t want to be cruel or rude, but encourage them to spend time by themselves — even if it’s just in a dog bed in another room, or even the same room- just not your lap or at your feet. (At least all of the time! We get it – we love and appreciate the companionship too!)
  • Teach (and learn) alternative behaviors. If your dog is always in your lap, teach them an alternative behavior such as resting in their bed. Of course, you’ll still want to bond with your dog, but be aware of your own behaviors. It’s nice to have an interruption now and again, a furry reminder to step away from the computer and take a break. However, constant coddling can likely result in an increase in your dog relying on you – for everything – all the time.
  • Dogs are problem solvers. So, give them the opportunity to solve problems on their own sometimes. For instance, let’s say a toy is under a piece of furniture just out of reach. But you can see that if your inquisitive canine attempts at a different angle or uses their body in a different way, they could reach it. Let them figure it out — be their cheerleader! If you just go and get it, your dog has just trained you to do the work for them. Give dogs opportunities to grow and thrive on their own. Constantly hovering, fixing things for them, “doing their homework” for them, and being a “helicopter dog parent” interferes with their own thought processes and problem-solving skills. Trust your dog! They can do it!
  • Give dogs choices. As humans, we gain confidence through life experiences. We learn from them and grow. Being allowed to make decisions and have control over our own choices is what helps us to develop confidence. Even though dogs aren’t human, they are sentient beings, with emotions and a zest for life. Based on this, I would say that giving dogs opportunities to make decisions and have control over outcomes will help them build confidence as well. Even if your dog is well past being a puppy, continue to teach “life skills” that encourage decision making under different circumstances.
  • Unleash adventure! Allow dogs to learn on their own too. Encourage exploration (as long as it’s safe for them and others). Consider “hunting” games or sports that allow them to be dogs — meaning, the types of activities where humans aren’t telling them what to do all of the time. K9 Nose Work, herding, and tracking encourage dogs to use their doggy skills. We are there to give them a ride and make sure they don’t get injured (and marvel at how perfect and brilliant dogs can be).

Teaching skills for confidence and independence are essential to your pet’s emotional and physical wellbeing. However, remember to enjoy your quality time together too. There’s no substitute for unleashing adventure and harnessing fun with your Inquisitive Canine.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this article, where we troubleshoot specific situations that can be challenging for some pets and their people.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Teaching Dogs to Be Independent — Part I

  1. NormanWilkes says:

    Yes thanks, I’m looking forward to part II of this article!

    1. Thanks, Norman! We’re thrilled to hear you enjoyed the first installment. Part II will be launching soon! Cheers to you and your inquisitive canine.

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