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Help with personal space

Ask a Trainer!


Nina R. of Tehachapi writes, "My dog Jackson, a Jack Russell terrier mix, follows me everywhere; he might as well be my shadow. He can't even be in the backyard by himself without scratching on the door to come back in. How do I resolve this problem?"

Dear Nina,

Because we love our dogs so much, we want to keep them close to us. It feels good to know they need us; and, of course, there's nothing sweeter than snuggling up with our furry buddies on a cool Sunday morning. However, if we fail to designate boundaries between us and them, our relationships with our dogs can enter into unhealthy (i.e. codependent) territory. A dog who cannot be anywhere, comfortably, but glued to his human's side, might embody what I'm referring to.

The good news is, you can nurture Jackson's emotional independence by working on one simple exercise, which is asking him to respect your personal space, fully expecting that he does so, and interacting with him when he's calm versus when he's anxious or overly excited to see or be near you. Consciously practicing separation from Jackson, and then using "togetherness" as a reward for having "endured" that separation, is a good way to do this. A simple example of this would be to have Jackson lie on a designated bed or mat across the living room from you, while you sit on the couch, get comfy, and flip on the TV (for example). After a few minutes, as long as he is calm and has stayed where you asked him to stay, invite him to come up on the couch and snuggle. If he gets up before you've OK'd it, and launches himself onto the couch to be next to you, simply put him back on his "place", and try again. Do this repeatedly until he stays until you've invited him to come and be next to you. The next morning, ask him to hang in his kennel, or in a cordoned off room, (perhaps with a delicious Kong-full of wet food or peanut butter), while you get ready for work. Let him out once he is calm and satisfied with being in his own space, doing his own thing – not if or when he is whining to be let out. Reward with tons of praise and pets! When you get home in the evening, and Jackson goes bananas the minute you walk in the door, ignore him for a good five minutes. Refrain from petting him, or scooping him up in an embrace, as he frantically bombards you in search of attention. Instead, wait until he is calm and not pursuing attention, then let the love fest begin. In other words, reward the behavior you want from him, versus that which you wish would stop.

The absolute keys to the success (or failure) of these exercises are consistency and follow-through. If you enforce your personal space boundary enough times, Jackson will learn that he gets attention from you, not for desperately demanding it, but for being cool, collected, and comfy in his own skin and his own space.


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