The Being Alone Skill
(Note: this article does not contain advice on how to treat clinical “separation anxiety,” but rather tips on how to help your pup learn how to cope with being confined or separated from you)
"She follows me everywhere. It’s so endearing!”
It is indeed endearing when a dog, especially a little puppy, practically attaches herself to our heels as we walk from room to room. “I need you!” she seems to be saying. It’s very reinforcing to our self-worth, makes us feel relevant and needed… and who doesn’t want to feel relevant?
We need to build a strong bond with our dogs that’s based on mutual trust, kindness, and understanding. We also need to help them feel safe in all situations, which means practice being alone. It’s unhealthy for a dog to feel like she needs open access to you.
Confinement skills may, in fact, be THE most important things we need to teach our dogs. It should be at the very top of the list of skills to teach. Yes, it’s a “skill” and not something that we can expect to come naturally. This means that we have to intentionally train it.
A tethered dog who settles to watch the action from on a bed nearby, a pup who happily chews on a project in her crate while her family eats, a dog who works diligently on a puzzle toy in the gate area nearby…. these are dogs who are easy to live with, experience less stress, and are more adaptable to change. They are less likely to learn how to jump on the kids, chase the cat or harass the family at the dinner table. You won’t have to withstand a barking frenzy because your dog is upset you aren’t paying attention to him. It’s a win-win-win-win-win.
The effort it takes to teach confinement skills is worth it. Totally worth it.
“Oh, he doesn’t need his crate anymore. He’s completely house trained.” Please don’t throw the crate out when your puppy is housetrained. It has value way beyond house training. Besides, you now have an adolescent, and you’re going to need it even more!
What are the benefits of teaching separation?
Out of curiosity, I did a bit of googling to see what parallels there are between raising kids and raising dogs when it comes to this subject. JACKPOT! You may as well replace “child” and “kid” with “dog” here because the following from www.childpsych.co.za is SPOT ON. My notes are in italics.
Reasons why kids should play alone It promotes problem-solving skills
Kids determine their own course and develop important problem-solving abilities. For example, if part of a toy gets stuck somewhere, kids have to find a way to get it unstuck on their own.
It builds confidence
By solving problems on their own and developing a sense of mastery and control, kids gain confidence.
It encourages creativity
Playing alone helps to develop creativity and imagination. During solitary play, kids set the scene and have to figure out a way to entertain themselves. This can also help to avoid boredom in the future.
It develops social independence
Solo play develops a strong sense of independence in kids. They don’t have to be around other people at all times. As they grow up, this social independence will help them feel more comfortable in any situation.
It boosts independence
Solo play develops the powers of persistence and completion. Being solely in charge of situations means kids think things through and follow through on decisions independently.
How to encourage independent play Create space
Create a safe and comfortable space for your child to play alone away from any distractions. [for dogs, this can be on supervised tether, in a crate, in a separate room, a pen, etc. Make it comfy and attractive for your dog.]
Offer a variety of toys
It’s no secret that kids can get bored quickly. So, it’s important to make a variety of different toys available for your kid. [a wide variety of food-dispensing toys can be made at home or purchased. Natural chews are excellent projects. We want your pup to think of being confined as the opportunity to settle down and read her favorite book. Cardboard boxes filled with paper and treats are great projects].
Don’t get involved
You may be tempted to look over your child’s shoulder from time to time. But independent play should be completely free of any involvement or distractions. [Exactly! This is why object projects, whether food-dispensing toys or chews are excellent. If you are using treats, toss them into the confinement area when your dog isn’t looking. We want her to think they are just growing from the floor!]
If you have a pup who already has some good alone-time skills, keep up the good work! If you have a pup who doesn’t have any, start slow, in short sessions. Make departures and arrivals neutral but blend them into your life. If your pup has “panic attack” like behavior or is self-harming, contact a professional. Solitude may at first cause a pup frustration and annoyance, but it should not be scary.
Diana Logan, CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge-Assessed
Pet Connection Dog Training, North Yarmouth, Maine | www.dianalogan.com | 207-252-9352