Q&A: How to make my dog comfortable being alone?

I recently adopted a stray 10 year old shepard mix at the Humane Society. He is a wonderful boy but very clingy. He follows me from room to room and I have a small house and he is a big boy so he is literally always under foot. I did learn that his past he was mostly chained up outside and left to his own. He even will bark when outside on his lead to be let in. He doesn’t seem to want to be alone at all. How can I get him more comfortable so he doesn’t feel I need to be insight at all times? ~Carol Merten

Hello, and thank you for reaching out,

It’s wonderful to hear that you opened your heart and home to such a lovely dog. Sadly, not many senior dogs are adopted as many people are drawn to puppies. Senior dogs have so much to give and they offer the advantage of being calmer and their temperament is stable versus not knowing what you get with a puppy. Your dog sounds like he’s trying to adjust to his new environment. Many recently adopted dogs are clingy, especially during the first months. Some call this adjustment period: the “honey moon period.” They are trying to figure out their new routines and want to be on top of everything. You also mention he is a shepherd mix, and being part shepherd may also play a role in his behaviors. Shepherd dogs were selectively bred to work closely with their shepherds so they’re naturally predisposed to bond closely to their humans. On top of that, dogs who lost their owners, changed homes often or were surrendered in shelters often develop an over attachment because they have a strong need for stability. Not to mention, that sometimes dogs who are surrendered were given away because of separation anxiety, a condition that causes dogs to become anxious and even destructive when left alone. Here are a few suggestions for your “Velcro dog .”

Start with a Vet Exam

Since your dog is up in the years, I would first start with a vet visit. This is to just make sure everything is fine in the health department. Sometimes, senior dogs may be prone to some health issues that make them feel vulnerable so they want to stay as close as they can to their caregivers. Loss of eye sight and loss of hearing may cause a dog to want to stay close their caregivers because they depend on them to be their “eyes and ears.” It’s not uncommon for senior dogs to develop separation anxiety as they age because of this. Also, as some dogs age, they may also develop the first signs of canine cognitive dysfunction which can make them prone to becoming anxious when they’re separated from their family. Usually, though dog with a decline in cognitive function exhibit several other signs such as whining at night, aimless wandering, staring at objects etc.

Rewarding Brief Absences

Once medical reasons for clingy behaviors have been ruled out, you can then start implementing some behavior modification to get him adjusted to brief absences. Most likely, you will find that your dog likes to sleep near you or in contact with your feet. This is your dog’s way of monitoring you, so he knows when you are about to get up so he can get up and follow you too. Your dog may get up when you put your arm on an arm chair, put down the remote or a book or when you give any subtle indications that you’re about to get up. Here’s a game I play with clingy dogs that tend to follow me around. I call it “the destination no where” game. I start by repeatedly giving indications that I am getting up or about to get up but then I do not get up. I do this several times until the dog gives up responding to these signals as he learns that they are all “false alarms.” Then, I will get up and get the dog to follow me in circles aimlessly wandering around until he gets tired of doing that and then go back to my seat. After several times of doing this, I start rewarding the dog when he stays in his place despite me getting up. So I will get up, tell the dog to “stay” walk a distance and then come back and reward the dog with a treat or a piece of kibble. I do this several times, gradually increasing the distance I walk away each time. I then will give the dog a longer lasting treat such as a bully stick or stuffed Kong to get him occupied while I walk away to grab something. With time, your dog will learn that when you must walk away, great things happen. If you do this enough, he might even start looking forward to you getting up and leaving him briefly as it becomes a sign that he’ll be getting goodies!

For difficult cases, you may need to install a baby gate or some sort of barrier so he doesn’t’ follow you. Then, you would toss a treat and disappear for a second or two out of sight. Then once he’s done eating, you would toss another treat or two, disappear for a little bit and then repeat several times, gradually increasing the time you’re away of sight and using longer lasting treats. If your dog whines, barks during your brief absence, may sure you don’t come back or you’ll be rewarding those whining/barking behaviors! Wait for him to quiet down, even if for a second, before you come back. Reward silence with your presence. Your presence is a strong reinforcer so use it to your advantage to reward good behaviors.

Another great option is to feed your dog when you are momentarily away. Let him eat with his bowl at a distance from your chair where you’re sitting, then move your chair gradually farther and farther away, until he’s able to eat with you out of sight. In other words, you are always working on making all the goodies appear when you are a briefly away. Make sure you use high-value treats as they need to be able to distract him enough. You need to do this very gradually though. If you overwhelm him in the process, he may start associating the treats with you leaving the room and may no longer want them.

A great command to teach your dog is to “go to your mat.” This way your dog no longer sleeps by your feet controlling every your movement. Teach it by placing toys or favorite long lasting treats there so your dog enjoys them. Praise him when he lies there. Let your dog sleep on the mat also at night too. Also, teach your dog to play with interactive toys when you are away. Give him a stuffed Kong or a Buster Cube. Feed him his meal or treats inside a Kong Wobbler while you do your dishes or take a shower. Other games that encourage distance from you include hide ‘n seek and hiding your dog’s kibble around the house so he must be away from you, even if briefly.

For the barking outside, it’s not uncommon behavior. Not many dogs are happy of being left alone even briefly when their owners are inside. Most dogs rebel and want their owners out with them or want to be inside with them. Their frustration often leads to barking and destructive behaviors. You can try to give him a safe bone when you need to put him out, but it might not work if he’s not really into chewing it.

If your dog is struggling despite these tips, you may have gone too fast in the process or you may need to invest in some calming aids such as DAP diffusers or calming chews, but consult with a vet before adding any supplements. Severe cases may require prescription medications and a consult with a veterinary behaviorist. I hope this helps! Thanks for adopting a senior fellow and best regards!

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Adrienne Farricelle

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