By Cheryl Lock
That second shadow that’s constantly beside you isn’t a figment of your imagination — it’s probably your dog.
As anyone with a furry friend will already know, dogs are often inclined to follow their owners everywhere they go and to watch their every move, but there’s actually more to this behavior than meets the eye. “When dogs follow their owners, there can be several scientific explanations, depending on the dog and the individual situation,” says Mary Burch, PhD, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Director.
We tapped a few experts to find out the scientific reasons behind why your dog might be following you, how to recognize when this behavior has gone too far, and what to do if it has.
Why Your Dog Is Following You, Scientifically Speaking
If your dog follows you around constantly, you’ll likely either find it incredibly endearing or you’ll be tired of almost tripping over him all the time. Either way, it helps to understand some of the science behind why your dog might be constantly at your side.
- Imprinting. Early ethologist Konrad Lorenz showed how baby geese imprinted on him — or came to recognize him as a parent or other object of trust — by following him everywhere, including into the water. “Puppies can imprint on people, as well,” said Burch. “The imprinting period for puppies is between three and 12 weeks old.”
- Reinforcement. Often dogs will follow their owners if their bond is paired over time with a great deal of reinforcement. For example, “if a dog learns that good things — such as dog food, pats and fun activities — come from a particular human, they may be more likely to follow that person,” says Burch.
- Breed traits. Some breeds, especially those that have been bred for centuries to work with people, are more likely to be what Burch calls “Velcro dogs” (or those that stick by your side).
- Companionship. Perhaps the most obvious reason, some dogs simply prefer the companionship of their human friends. “Over the process of domestication, natural selection has shaped dogs to become companions for humans,” said Laurie Santos, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University. “Domesticated dogs are now ‘bonded’ with humans in some of the same ways as human children. In this sense, our bond with dogs is one that has evolved over the course of domestications.”
Indeed, the science behind the companionship between humans and dogs is varied and vast. In fact, “research has confirmed that … the modern dog is actually better at understanding humans than even our most closely related primates,” said Oscar E. Chavez, DVM, a lecturer and adjunct faculty member at Cal Poly Pomona University.
How All This Following Benefits Your Dog
With all the time that your pet spends following you around, you might wonder if she’s actually getting anything good out of it. “The human/animal bond works both ways,” says Burch. “When a dog spends time with a person, the dog is likely to come in contact with reinforcement — things the dogs likes, like food rewards, petting, fun activities, and companionship.”
The time that your dog spends studying your every move also helps her to understand you better, says Chavez, which can help her better interpret the meaning behind your actions.
“Given all the research to support a unique adaption to understand human gestures, language, and tone, it’s no wonder that dogs often look like they are studying our movements,” he said. “They’re watching our every move to see if we give them clues as to our intentions, or to catch us communicating with them. In this way they could anticipate that it’s time for a walk, or see that you are getting ready to leave, or perhaps that it’s dinnertime. They’ve become the animal kingdom’s human language experts — both physical and spoken language.”
The Human Benefit
Humans also benefit from being close to a dog, says Burch. “A loving dog prevents loneliness, and when a dog wants to do things such as play and exercise, the person can benefit from the activity,” she said. “Dogs who want to be near us make us feel loved, and everyone can benefit from a healthy dose of unconditional love.”
It’s not just your amorous feelings that improve when you’re around a dog, though. “Several studies have now shown that even brief interactions with dogs reduce anxiety and improve mood,” says Santos. “Dogs can also improve our health — they improve our heart health, keep us exercising more regularly, reduce stress, and even can help detect diseases like cancer.”
In addition, dogs’ uncanny ability to display understanding of our cues is the catalyst for our bonding to them, and may even be why we’ve evolved to where we are today. “As they saying goes, dogs are our ‘best friends’ because they understand us and we can communicate with them,” says Chavez. “Many researchers believe that it was this ability to understand our wants and wishes that helped humanity to thrive in the agricultural revolution. Without the dog, we may never have herded sheet or cattle, or worked entire fields. It is unlikely we would have been able to feed our growing populations. Without dogs, there may be no modern day.”
How to Tell if Your Dog’s Following Has Gone Too Far
While it’s healthy for a dog to look to his owner for commands and cues, it could be unhealthy when a dog cannot stop following or looking at his human. “This is especially concerning if the dog has chosen only one particular human to interact with and is fearful or avoids all other humans,” says Chavez. “In these cases, the dog may be improperly socialized with people, or might be overly bonded to one person. These dogs are at risk for developing social or separation anxiety, fear aggression, or other behavioral problems.”
For example, Chavez works in an office where co-workers are allowed to bring their dogs in, and he remembers one in particular — Sneakers — who was exhibiting these signs. “Sneakers was extremely attached to his pet parent,” he said. “Over several months Sneakers would come in and sit next to Samantha’s station exclusively, and barely move or interact with anyone. We all knew not to look at Sneakers directly, as it could frighten him.”
After a while, Chavez and his co-workers started giving Sneakers treats any time he would venture away from his owner to explore. “This happened for a few weeks, and he kept getting rewarded for interacting for others,” Chavez said. “Today, Sneakers will jump up on certain laps and has become much better socialized. Patience, time, consistency, and some favorite treats help greatly.”
If you think your dog may be suffering from anxiety when you aren’t around, Burch recommends leaving a dog interactive toy to help divert your dog’s attention from your absence, or leaving a radio or television playing when you’re out of the house. If those distractions don’t work, you could try desensitization, a behavioral solution to separation problems.
“The owner should leave for a very short period of time, like seconds, then come back in the house,” she said. “Over many trials, the length of time the owner is gone is extended,” until hopefully your dog gets so used to the idea of you being gone, it no longer bothers him.
For extreme cases of separation anxiety, consult your veterinarian; a more targeted approach may be needed.