By Dr. Karen Becker
Some of you reading here today have dogs that are, shall we say, extremely bonded to you. They follow you from room to room all over the house. When you stand still or sit down, they immediately put their body in contact with yours. You’re never in the bathroom without an audience. The small ones are constantly, literally underfoot; the larger guys trot behind or next to you, an adoring look on their faces, as you move about.
“Velcro dog” behavior can be charming and lovable, but there are times when it can also be annoying or even dangerous. For example, a tiny dog at your feet trying to follow your every movement is a trip-and-fall accident waiting to happen.
Another potential issue is that clingy canine behavior can progress to or be a feature of separation anxiety, which in many dogs is a serious emotional and behavioral problem.
Most Velcro Dogs Are Made, Not Born
According to veterinarian Dr. Joanna Pendergrass in an article for PetMD, “Clinginess is often a learned dog behavior.”1 Needless to say, they learn it based on how we respond to them when they follow us about. If we reward them in some way (e.g., with a treat or a scratch behind the ears), the behavior will very quickly become imprinted.
“If we give puppies constant attention when they’re developing,” says Pendergrass, “they can become fearful of being alone and subsequently never want to leave our side. Dogs can also become clingy if we change their daily routine.”
Other reasons for clinginess can include the gradual loss of vision, hearing or cognition in older dogs, as well as illness or boredom in dogs of any age. Anxious dogs are often clingy, and because our canine companions are so attuned to our moods, they can also become clingy when they sense anxiety or stress in us.
“As if all of these reasons weren’t enough,” writes Pendergrass, “some dog breeds are prone to clinginess. For example, lapdogs, like Shih Tzus, tend be needy dogs. Also, working dogs, who are trained to be dependent, can become clingy.”
Clinginess Can Progress to Separation Anxiety in Some Dogs
While clingy dogs and those with separation anxiety share certain behavioral characteristics, the major difference between them is the way in which they handle being apart from their humans. In a nutshell, your Velcro dog wants to be as close as possible to you when you’re home but doesn’t have the canine version of panic attack when left home alone.
Separation anxiety is what triggers panic attacks in affected dogs, causing them to engage in behaviors that can be destructive and self-harming. It’s important to understand that dogs with true separation anxiety aren’t “acting out” because their owners are away — they’re feeling overwhelming panic they have no control over.
Unfortunately, clinginess can progress to separation anxiety in some dogs, so it’s important to keep a close eye on your Velcro pup for any signs of nervousness or panic when left alone. If you suspect your dog’s clingy behavior is moving in the direction of separation anxiety, it’s important to address the situation right away.
How to Discourage Your Dog’s Clinginess and Encourage Independence
The best approach to managing Velcro dogs is to help build confidence and encourage their independence while you’re at home with them, which will increase their ability to manage any anxiety they feel when you’re away. Pendergrass suggests increasing physical exercise and mental stimulation, creating a special space where they can hang out instead of trailing you around the house, and desensitization.
• Increase your dog’s daily exercise — Engage your dog in at least one rigorous exercise session daily. I can’t stress enough how beneficial intense exercise is for not only anxiety, but boredom and behavior problems as well.
If you’re concerned that your dog’s clinginess is heading into separation anxiety territory, go for a strenuous exercise (or ball playing) session before you leave the house. A tired dog gets into less physical and mental mischief when left alone.
• Stimulate her mind — Keeping your dog’s mind active is also critically important in preventing undesirable behaviors. Boredom is the breeding ground for all manner of “bad dog” behavior. In addition to daily activities to engage her brain, your dog should be continuously socialized throughout her life with frequent opportunities to interact with other dogs, cats, and people.
Regular training sessions are also a great way to keep her mind occupied and strengthen the bond you share with her. Nose work, which encourages her to use her natural hunting instincts and scenting abilities, can be a great way to keep her mentally stimulated. Even allowing your dog to have 10 minutes a day of sniff-time in a natural setting will enrich her senses and fulfill her need to experience the world through her nose.
And don’t overlook the value of treat-release and food puzzle toys, which not only challenge your dog’s mind, but also provide appropriate objects for her to chew. I find the Treat & Train Manners Minder a great tool for this purpose.
It’s also a good idea to rotate your dog’s toys regularly. If you leave all of them out in a big basket, she may lose interest in them quickly. A better idea is to leave out one or two and put the rest away. In a day or two, swap them out. Also be sure to play with your dog using her toys; rigorous, engaging play sessions several times a day are a great way to her pent-up energy and bond with her at the same time.
• Create a special dog-friendly space — This can be a crate (with the door left open) if your dog is crate trained (which I highly recommend), or a corner of the room outfitted with a comfy, nontoxic dog bed, perhaps an earthing mat or grounding pad, and a favorite toy.
Use positive reinforcement behavior training to teach your dog to respond reliably to a verbal cue such as “Go to your crate,” or “Go to your special space,” and give him the cue when you notice he’s obsessing over your every move.
• Desensitize your dog to your movements — If your dog is made of Velcro, she’s acutely aware of the movements you make as you prepare to leave the house, such as putting on your “outside” shoes, pulling on a coat/sweater/hat, grabbing your car keys, etc.
Pendergrass recommends “normalizing” these movements by performing them when you’re not planning to leave the house. Once these movements no longer signal to your dog that you’re leaving her, she’ll pay less attention to them.
Needless to say, the goal is always to prevent clinginess in the first place, which is best accomplished by asking a prospective breeder what socialization steps are taken with the litter as a part of your pre-purchase interview process. Good breeders know puppies should already have a month of focused, intentional, diversified socialization prior to going to their forever homes. Obviously, this is impossible if you rescue pups.
Once puppies reach their new homes, positive socialization must start immediately and include several opportunities for new experiences on a daily basis for the first year of life. Creating confident puppies that feel safe being alone is the best way to avoid this situation later on.
For adult dogs, if their extreme clinginess persists after you implement these suggestions, or you’re concerned it’s progressing to separation anxiety, it’s important to make an appointment with your integrative veterinarian and/or a veterinary behaviorist.