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The Importance of Teaching Dogs to be Independent – Part II

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In the first part of this series, The Importance of Teaching Dogs to be Independent – Part One, we discussed broad concepts about teaching puppies and dogs skills that build confidence and promote independence. (In a nutshell, force-free training, enrichment, giving choices, and encouraging dogs to be dogs are key elements.) However, even with the basic groundwork in place, there are situations that can present more of a challenge for certain dogs and the people who love them.

Situation #1 – Adjusting to a new schedule:

Foremost on many people’s minds right now is how to train a dog to stay home alone if you are heading back to the office after working from home for several months. That’s such an important question that there’s an entire previous post devoted to it. To review:

  • Practice. Consider implementing actual dress rehearsals of what ‘back to work’ will physically look like – right down to the “costume changes.” (Work-clothes vs heading-out-on-adventures clothes.) 
  • Every dog is different. So each should be treated as an individual. Dogs with a learning history of, “Oh, yes, I remember when the humans wore those different outfits and left me alone. That’s cool. I guess we’re going back to that routine again” might do better than dogs who have never been left alone in your home (“quarantine puppies,” etc.). But you never know — and we shouldn’t make assumptions without concrete data.
  • Go slow. Err on the side of caution and ease back into routines, no matter the dogs’ learning histories. Assume they might even freak out a little at being left alone again or for longer days. So, go slow; ease them back in gradually. Again, invest some time each day for practice. Leave your pups alone for short periods at first, lengthening the amount of time slowly, so they have a better chance to adapt more easily to the new schedule.
  • Be on the lookout for early signs of stress, so you can try to intervene before the situation escalates. Brushing up on reading your dog’s body language and getting fluent in dog-lish will really help out here.

Situation #2 – My dog hates being outside alone:

First, try to examine the situation from your dog’s point of view. Remember that not all attention seeking behavior is inappropriate. Sometimes our pets truly need us to pay attention! If we haven’t taught and learned specific cues, they only have a few ways of communicating their needs in a manner we notice and respond to (barking, pawing, whining …). The most important thing here is to make sure they’re not scared, hurt, sick, hungry, or thirsty. Are they left outside all day long? All night long? Do environmental factors play a role? Is it too hot or cold?  Too wet or dry? In these cases, it’s the situation and environment that require modification, not your inquisitive canine’s behavior.

Next step. Do some detective work. It will be easier to plan for helping your dog enjoy the great outdoors if you can determine why some dogs don’t like being outside alone in the first place.

  • Fear factor. Is it scary for them? Are they fearful? Is it just in your own yard or anywhere outside your home, as in agoraphobia? If your dog is scared for some reason, you’ll want to find out why. Strange noises? Did something happen that caused them to be afraid? If so, it’ll be best to work with a certified professional force-free trainer for help.
  • Doggy Psych 101. Is it the outdoors or is it that you’re not with them? Do they have FOMO (you are home, indoors, and they crave your company and companionship)? Or are they genuinely scared to be alone? If your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, then once again, your path to helping will involve seeking professional guidance. Otherwise, you can work on making time away from you (almost) as fun and stimulating as time with you. (Read on for tips.)
  • Are they bored? If your dog is bored in the yard, you can take measures to create a positive association with the space so they learn to love it. Make it like their own private amusement park — scavenger hunts, puzzle toys, a digging pit (as long as it’s in a safe area), shallow water features they can splash in without drowning themselves (it’s okay/advisable to check on them from time to time). In this context, so much fun happens in the yard . . . and they’re playing on their own!
  • Is it punishment- or banishment? Train it before you need it. Avoid a Cinderella scenario. Have you banished your dog to the dungeon (yard) because you have company and your pup doesn’t know how to greet guests politely? Rather than punish, or even ignore, unwanted behavior, you always have the (more productive, ethical, and humane) option of teaching a replacement behavior. For instance, why not use positive reinforcement training to teach your dog to greet people nicely? Do a bunch of dress rehearsals in preparation for the big event.

Situation #3: My dog doesn’t like being left alone at night:

Once again, first determine why, by asking many of the questions presented above. Go through the variables and look at things from an inquisitive canine’s point of view. Alone, as in a separate room of the house? Outdoors vs. indoors? Humans home but the dog is left outside to sleep? Is pup bored, frightened or lonely? Here too, are we dealing with a FOMO-type circumstance or is it separation anxiety-related?

  • Rinse and repeat. After you’ve assessed the situation and made the appropriate management adjustments, you can then move on to developing a training plan. As above, first, make sure their physical and mental needs have been met. For dogs who are bored, provide an enriching (but not overstimulating for nighttime) environment for them. Next, desensitize them slowly to being left alone in small increments, so they get used to it. If they do better with a light on and maybe soothing noise in the background, do what you can to create a tranquil, relaxing space for rest.
  • “Me time.” If your dog is frightened when you’re out of sight, you’ll want to work with a professional trainer to develop a more specific plan to help with resolving fear issues. Desensitization is a process to help teach the dog to enjoy being all alone sometimes, rather than fear it. Remember, dogs are social animals; they prefer company. However, with guidance, you can condition them to appreciate a little “me time” occasionally. This time might involve happily being on their own with interactive food toys and games, taking a nap or pondering life (awake but lying down, looking out into the world) or exploring in their own backyards (provided it is safe for them to be on their own in the yard). As being alone for brief periods during the day becomes less of a source of anxiety (and actually enjoyable), being alone at night should get a little easier too.

Ultimately, while it’s great when dogs “check in” with us, it’s also nice to see them being independent, showing us that they know how to make these life choices. You’ll know they are good with being alone when you’re heading out the door and you ask them if they’d like to go with you and they stay put — as if they’re saying, “Nah, I’m good right here. Bye!” It’s almost as if they want us to know, “We’re good right now. Go on and do your own thing.” What a gift! And please don’t feel unneeded. After work -or when the guests leave -or first thing in the morning, you’ll be unleashing adventure and harnessing fun – together! (If that’s what your independent, inquisitive canine chooses, of course.)

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