Why Your Dog Won't Leave You Alone
If you live with an attention craving dog it can be a challenge to deal with and become quite stressful as you don’t get any time to yourself. In this guide we’ll aim to teach your dog how to settle down so you can relax around them. We’ll tell you what causes this attention seeking behaviour which causes dogs to misbehave, and we’ll give you advice on how to overcome these issues.
So you’ve had a long day at work, you’ve come home and cooked tea for the family, tidied and put your kids to be - it’s time to relax right? Maybe not. It isn’t uncommon for people to have their evening relaxation time ruined by a dog that constantly has to have your attention or to be laid on you.
If you find yourself getting annoyed and short tempered at your dog most evenings, or shutting them in another room to escape from them then this is for you. One of the issues though, is that it’s easy to become annoyed at this behaviour but you might actually encourage it by reacting, as we’ve mentioned in our Guide to Puppy Time Outs.
Related Article: How To Implement Puppy Time Outs
Let’s start by looking at what the signs of an attention seeking dog are.
There’s a few breeds of dogs prone to being very needy and attention seeking. These are breeds such as Labradors, Huskies, Yorkshire Terriers, Bulldogs and Dalmatians. There’s a number of ways in which dogs can try to grab your attention and unfortunately, most of these aren’t as cute as that thing they do when they nudge you after you’re done stroking them but they’re not quite done being stroked yet - you know the one.
These negative behaviours include things such as:
Clinging to you
Some dogs will nudge you endlessly, some will excessively lick you, some will struggle to get comfortable and will keep adjusting themselves while they lay on you. Other times dogs may just pick up anything they can get in their mouths and move them around - pillows, shoes, tv remotes etc.
Some dog owners don’t mind this level of interaction. They’re quite happy to spend their entire evening, every evening, interacting with their dogs. But not everyone feels this way, it’s important to have some time for yourself to relax properly.
If you’re meeting all of your dogs needs for interaction and play time, food and exercise and your dog still won’t leave you alone, then we’ve got some tips to help you start getting your peace time.
The clingy dog/Separation Anxiety
Some dogs built an attachment to one particular person in the household. They’ll follow them everywhere. Whereas, some other dogs are pretty chill around all family members and can relax on their own no matter what other people are doing and might only wake up if they hear their favourite person. This varying behaviour comes in two parts, part one being the personality and the breed which might make them naturally inclined to be more needy than the average breed, these are ones such as mentioned above.
Part two of this though is upbringing and taught behaviour, as well as your dog potentially having separation anxiety. If your dog does have separation anxiety this could result in stress when alone and even escape attempts that result in injuries. Separation anxiety is most common in shelter and rescue dogs as they’re constantly worried they’ll be taken back to the shelter. It can also develop when there’s a change to schedule, such as longer working hours for their humans and more time left alone without anything to break the boredom. Another top cause is the loss of a family member either through passing away or moving out.
There’s a whole lot of behaviours that come from separation anxiety such as toilet accidents while their human is out of the house, barking and howling, chewing and biting and general destructive behaviours.
Treatment for separation anxiety includes counter conditioning. This is the act of swapping out anticipation for something unpleasant with anticipation for a good experience instead. This means that you’ll have to give something pleasant to your dog only when they’re about to experience this separation. This could be a new toy or could be some benefit that they get only when they’re separated. You could also offer dog puzzles to keep them busy for a while or a kong treat filled with something delicious each time you leave the house. Instead of associating you leaving with the feeling of loneliness, they’ll associate it with getting a tasty treat or a special toy to play with.
If the separation anxiety is more severe, then it can take longer to break this behaviour and will often include desensitization. Desensitization is the act of leaving the house regularly for short time periods that will not induce separation anxiety, and then slowly over time building up the time you are gone. By gradually building up this time your dog will start to become better at dealing with being alone for longer periods.
If your dog is always up and doing something such as pacing and they can’t relax, often this can stop family members relaxing too. If they’re constantly shifting position and can't seem to relax or stay in one place or position then this could be stress or worry or it could be that they are uncomfortable or in pain. If this is a new behaviour then it’s likely to be pain related - check them over, move their arms and legs, apply pressure to their paws and check for any sensitivity. Try to work out if there are any spots on their body that seem to cause distress to your dog to identify the issue. This issue may be worth a trip to the vets to double check.
Barking could be its own topic for an article in it’s own right. One of the factors leading to barking can be attention seeking, however there’s a whole lot of others. So barking may or may not be a relevant issue here. The key thing here is to check if your dog is barking at you when you’re ignoring them. If they are then this can usually be tackled by the cue to “settle”.
Before we look into the Settle Cue we need to understand what it is our dogs need from us and ensure they’re getting those needs met. It’s easy to decide what we want from a dog but sometimes owners forget that their dog has a range of needs too, these are:
The need for food and water
The need for a good amount of exercise
Training + Learning
We need to ensure that these needs are all being met before we can teach our dog to settle. These tasks do not have to fill a whole lot of time for you, so juggling your job, raising children and meeting your dogs needs don’t have to fill your day. For food and water, supply them with this before you leave and when you come home from your day at work. Exercise could be going for a walk or it could be part of play time depending on your breeds needs. Play time could involve playing fetch or running from one person to another to get hugs and treats.
This would also come under bonding time which you can also incorporate within training and learning. When teaching your dog new tricks or behaviours, we fully recommend praising successful behaviour rather than punishing failed attempts or bad behaviour. The key is to reinforce the good, and ignore the bad.
Once you know all of your dogs needs are met you can then start training them to settle.
The Settle Cue
Many of the traits we’ve mentioned here, including the barking but also just in general not leaving you alone or licking and pawing at you, constantly wanting to lay on you etc. can be solved by the “settle” cue. This cue will give you time to sit and watch tv at night and relax while your dog is quietly settled too.
Dogs have different social standards from people and your dog’s idea of relaxation may not be appropriate for life in the house. This may mean that their idea of relaxing is actually playing with their human for the whole evening as they’ve been alone and bored for most of the day. The fact is, your dog may not want to relax at all in the evenings. He might prefer you to play with him, or entertain him instead. And sometimes you might be willing to do that.
But there is no reason why you should entertain him every evening if you don’t want to. The good news is, provided you have met your dog’s needs for exercise and interesting activities, you can have the dog you dreamed of.
You can have a dog who lies quietly on your hearth rug or in his basket whilst you watch TV. But you will first need to make a few changes, and we’ll explain these below.
Teach a dog to settle – the principles
Most dog owners inadvertently reward attention seeking behaviors so that these behaviors escalate over time, even just eye contact is enough for your dog to understand that bad behaviour will get your attention. Sometimes it seems that this bad behaviour happens quite suddenly, in truth this behaviour has been learned and engrained over time. This is why we say you should enforce the good behaviours and completely ignore the bad ones.
People often don’t want to punish or frighten the dog and are at a loss to know how to stop this horrible pattern of behavior. Fortunately you can break this habit by retraining a new and nice behavior in its place. The ‘Settle’.
The key to success for this behaviour is a combination of:
providing the dogs with his own resting place in your living room
preventing the dog from rehearsing attention seeking behaviors
rewarding the dog for increasingly long ‘settles’
restricting the dog’s access to you during training
Many people now treat their dog as a full member of the family, with all the privileges that entails. Including free access to all the rooms in the house. So the final part of this combination is one that some people struggle with, it's your dog's access to you.
But this step is vital, because what you are about to undertake is a training process, and the key to good training is the reward. You are the best reward your dog can have. Every time you enable your dog to practice his annoying habit of pawing at you or barking or nipping at your fingers, you reinforce the habit and make it stronger. You’ll need to build up the new behaviour gradually, step by step. And that means restricting the dog’s access to you during your special ‘relax time’ in the evenings. And getting past any feelings you might have about this being unfair.
Restricting access to shared living space
In their efforts to love and care for their dogs, people sometimes forget they have rights too. You have a right to relax in your living room. In fact, you need to relax at times, in order to be a balanced human and a good parent to your pets and children. Dogs need exercise, food, and company. If your dog has been exercised and fed, he needs to learn that having your attention and company on an evening comes with restrictions and obligations from him. He must behave appropriately in human company, and allow you to relax if he wants to be in your company.
When problem behaviors develop, his evening living room privileges may need to be rescinded for a while so that the dog is only allowed access to shared relaxation areas while he is relaxing too. This is also what makes puppy time outs so effective in behaviour training.
How to restrict access
The best and easiest way to restrict your dog’s access into your living room until he has learned how to behave there, is with a dog gate or baby gate. You can also get extendable dog barriers to go across an open plan room. If your dog jumps over the barrier you may need to crate him, or shut him in a different room instead. But this is pretty unusual.
Most Labradors do not attempt to get over this type of gate. And can still see and hear the family through the barrier. The “settle” behaviour is essentially a down/stay behaviour. But one where the dog can assume any position he likes as long as he remains calm and isn’t interfering with what you are doing.
There are a couple of key ways of teaching this
Teach a dog to settle on a leash
One way of teaching your dog to settle is to have the dog on a leash. This prevents him from wandering off and keeps the focus on the tank and behaviour at hand. Simply sit in a chair with a book and a pot of treats which you can reach but the dog cannot. Start to read your book, holding on to the end of the leash, and wait for the dog to lie down and settle. Then give him a treat.
The first time getting him to settle may take a very long time! Once he has grasped what triggers the treats, it will all go much more quickly. After being given the first treat, the dog will almost certainly get up and bug you for another treat. You now have to ignore him again until he settles. Then he gets another treat.
In time, most dogs give up bugging their owner and learn that ‘settling’ is more rewarding.
Settle on a leash is a great method for a fairly calm dog, and for teaching dogs to settle outdoors or in public places. The problems with this method are that a dog which is pawing and scrabbling at you is difficult if not impossible to ignore.
Teach a dog to settle on a mat
This is not a suitable exercise for young puppies, but any dog over a year old should be able to lie down and relax for a good half hour or more. Training your dog to lie down and stay is not complicated. It’s important to pay close attention to increasing duration (the stay) before starting to train your dog. Using a designated mat or basket for the stay/settle in your living room, means you can keep the dog in a position where he cannot interfere with family members and practice his licking and pawing behaviors. Nor can he pick up cushions or shoes or run off with the TV remote.
In fact pretty much all he can do is lie down and sleep. And after a short period of training that’s exactly what will happen as a natural behaviour they have. If you don’t want a dog mat permanently in your living room use something cheap that you can cut up. Then you can make it smaller and smaller over time. This will eventually just become a point that they can go to and know that it’s their spot to sit or rest at. Eventually the dog will simply lie down anywhere you point and say ‘settle’.
The trick is to start with a very short stay of 30 seconds to a minute, then reward the dog on his mat/bed. After each training session in the living room with you, take him back out of the room while you relax. Each time you get him to stay in place during the session, try for a slightly longer duration. If they do not stay then do not reward or punish, simply keep trying. After a few attempts they should start to get the idea that when they stay in place they’ll get a reward. You can then start bumping up the time they spend staying on their mat.
Teach a dog to settle – training sessions
When you begin the training, have the dog wear a harness with a house line attached. This makes it easy for you to pick up the end of the line and guide the dog out of the room at the end of each session with you. Each session should be very brief to start with, though you can have several sessions during the evening if you want to.
Don’t be tempted to train all evening! You’ll just get fed up and so will the dog. Start with a few seconds – or whatever your dog can easily manage. Build up to five minutes over ten sessions or so, then start to increase times by a minute or two each session. By the end of a week you may be able to get a fifteen minute settle. If so well done – if not, don’t worry. Some dogs take a little longer than others.
Avoiding ‘spin off’ problems
You can bring the dog back into the room and repeat the ‘settle’ exercise as often as you like, provided he is behaving appropriately. Never let the dog into the living room when he is whining, scratching at the door or attempting to persuade you to let him in, in any way at all as this will be interpreted as a reward for bad behaviour.
This will quickly build another and equally annoying problem for you to deal with. Wait until your dog is relaxing in his crate or in your kitchen and then bring him in to join you. For the time being, only allow the dog in the living room to lie on his mat. Don’t be tempted to test him and let him loose in the room or to sit on the sofa with you too quickly. The longer this process takes the longer he’ll have to forget the freedom he used to have, so he’ll be set in this new routine.
I would wait until the dog can lie on his bed for at least half an hour before you attempt to allow him into the room freely as you did before. And if at any time he starts pawing at you or pestering you again, you can simply send him ‘on his bed’. If he can’t sit still on his bed, then remove him from the room again. He will soon learn that pestering you results in the more preferable ‘Bed time’ or it results in removal from the room and that will be the end of your problem.
You have a right to relax. If having your dog on your lap all evening, or letting him paw your knee or lick your face is your thing, that’s fine! If you prefer not to be poked, prodded and barked at while you watch your favourite TV program then that’s fine too. Make sure that your dog is getting enough exercise and fun, then teach him to ‘settle’ in his own place while the family is relaxing. The beauty of this training is that everyone benefits.
You get to relax, and the dog does too. He will learn surprisingly quickly that there is no point in leaving his bed, and eventually he will just stretch out on his side and sleep the evening away. In time, he will come to associate your living room, as you do - with rest and relaxation. Your only problem then will be to hear the TV over the sound of his snoring.
Thanks for reading! Here are some other articles from our dog section that you may find useful!