Do It By Myself... a game!
I thought I'd write this up as a blog as I find myself referring to this game a lot lately! This a game designed to build independence and reinforce your dog for thinking and making decisions away from you. My theory is that many dogs struggle with owner absence because without the owner present, there's no one giving instructions or direction and many dogs find that worrying! By playing games where the dog is encouraged to choose to take themselves away from their owner, and in doing so find something nice to do that gives them that 'feel good' we all get from solving problems and earning reward, we can help them learn that its safe to be alone. You'll need a puzzle toy that your dog can easily do, that does not cause frustration - if you aren't sure you'll need to watch your dog do the puzzle and see how much help they need, whether they bark at it, paw it around or flip it about in annoyance, if they do, pick something easier. I recommend a snuffle mat or similar 'treats hidden in the pile of the fabric' type toy, you can buy these, make them or use a deep pile shaggy bath mat if you have a smaller breed. If you have Nina Ottoson style puzzles that you know your dog can do without frustration, these can work nicely as well. Step one is to set up your puzzle in a room, ideally you'd have a pet cam in there so you can see how this goes. Let your dog see where the puzzle is - the object is not to find a hidden puzzle! You and your dog go to another room, you sit down and release your dog to go back to the puzzle, and watch what they do next*. Your goal is that your dog happily trots off to where they know the puzzle is, completes it without frustration and then comes back to find you right where they left you. In which case, hurrah, you have a dog who has been reinforced for choosing to be away from you and engaging their brain in something constructive. IF your dog rushes the puzzle, dashes back and forth between you and the puzzle, brings the puzzle back to you, or won't leave to do the puzzle at all... then you need to make the game easier by bringing the puzzle closer to where you are, I'd suggest just around a corner so you can still see your dogs bum as their head is doing the puzzle... Or you need to make the puzzle easier. If your dog is bringing you the puzzle because its easy to carry, try using something that isn't easy to carry (but again beware building frustration, so try moving it nearer first!). For tiny puppies we can play this game with their food bowl, but here we'd start pretty close by, just one end of the room to the other, and then just around the side of the sofa or doorway and so on. For dogs who are ace at puzzles we might make the puzzle harder or choose a room further away. Do note that it is the dog who must leave you, and you stay put - this is NOT a set up to allow you to sneak off whilst your dog is not looking, you need to stay in place so that when your dog is finished and they come to find you, you are still there. That builds security! If you vanish, you may well cause your dog to panic. * Please note that you may have to lead your dog away from the puzzle after you set it up, and you may initially need two people to do the set up. Ideally we avoid frustration but as you aren't taking your dog away and making them wait ages to return to the puzzle, it doesn't matter if they are a bit wound up to start with as long as theres no serious frustration/stress over this. If this set up is likely to cause your dog to use aggression to prevent them being removed away from the puzzle and you can't find a way of setting up so that the dog leaves you rather than you leaving the dog, do not play this game!