Dogs that follow their human companions from room to room evoke a wide range of feelings from love (“He’s my little shadow!”) to annoyance (“Ugh, stop bugging me you creeper!”).
Sometimes tagging along is normal—a reflection of a dog’s natural sociability. However in other cases, the compulsion to follow you everywhere may be a sign of a more serious behavioral or physical problem.
Why Does My Dog Follow Me?
Dogs are social creatures by nature and design. The willingness to follow people may have aided the domestication of dogs from their wolf ancestors. Current evolutionary theory believes that wolves who were less fearful of humans thrived because they were willing to scavenge near human settlements (1). These wolf ancestors co-evolved with humans and may have followed our nomadic ancestors as they moved to different settlements or hunting areas, eventually becoming domesticated.
Humans also selectively bred dogs to emphasize traits we found appealing, such as hunting in partnership with people or puppy-like behaviors including dependence on and sociability with people. In a study conducted by researchers in Vienna, wolves and domestic dogs were equally proficient in cooperative tasks with human partners, but differed in how they cooperated with people (2). Wolves were more likely to initiate the task and lead their human partner while domestic dogs were more likely to wait for the person to start, and then follow. It appears, then, that domestication has created followers from leaders.
As for our own dogs, classical conditioning, or learning through association, has taught them that fun things—like walks or spilled food—are more likely to happen when people are present. Following people puts our dogs “closer to the action.” Even dogs that don’t normally follow people around the house may get up and trail their owner into the kitchen since person + kitchen = food.
Why Does My Dog Follow Me Into the Bathroom?
Most people view the bathroom as a private place where we go to be alone. Dogs, on the other hand, may think of the bathroom as a special room they want to explore.
For dogs, bathrooms are magical places with cool tile floors, a water bowl that is always full (i.e. the toilet), and special toys (i.e. the trash can and toilet paper rolls). So it’s not surprising that your dog might follow you into the bathroom.
Additionally your dog may have recognized that you are a “captive audience” when you’re in the bathroom. Since you can’t walk away from them, it’s a great opportunity to get your attention, which encourages them to follow you into the bathroom the next time.
Why is My Dog Following Me Suddenly?
A sudden change in behavior is more concerning since it may be a sign of a medical or behavioral problem. If your dog suddenly starts to follow you, he may be seeking attention or comfort because he is in pain or distress.
Some dogs will follow their owners if they have an upset stomach and want to go outside to the bathroom. Dogs that suffer from seizures may become needy before a seizure occurs.
Additionally, a sudden change in behavior could signal fear. Something in the environment may have suddenly scared your dog, such as a noise or even a brief spat with another pet. Alternatively, some nervous or territorial dogs will follow visitors in the house to “keep an eye on the intruder.”
Clingy, following behavior isn’t specific to one disease or behavioral problem. But if it occurs suddenly, scrutinize the environment and keep a close eye on your dog’s health to determine if there is an underlying reason for the change in behavior.
Does This Mean My Dog Has Separation Anxiety?
Many dogs that suffer from separation anxiety follow their owners around the house, but not every dog that shadows his or her owner has separation anxiety. Studies investigating the association between separation anxiety and following behavior have yielded variable results.
One study found no significant difference in the likelihood of following behavior in dogs with or without separation anxiety (3) while a different study determined that dogs with separation anxiety were 3 times more likely to follow their owner excessively compared to dogs without separation anxiety (4). However, in both studies, approximately 65 percent of dogs without separation anxiety followed their owners, indicating that following is a common behavior in dogs without separation anxiety.
The best way to determine if your dog has separation anxiety is to video record your dog when he is home alone. If your dog exhibits signs of distress such as excessive vocalization (barking, whining, howling), destructive behavior, house soiling, pacing, panting or difficulty settling down, contact your veterinarian to discuss your findings.
Tips to Help Stop This Behavior
If you need some alone time and want to help curb your dog’s following behavior, follow these five tips.
Observe your dog’s body language and behavior. If your pup seems happy, excited or relaxed when he follows you, he may simply be tagging along and looking for some action. However, if he appears fearful, frantic or uncomfortable, his clinginess may be a sign of a physical or behavioral problem, especially if this is a new behavior. Consult with your vet.
Don’t become frustrated. Don’t yell at or physically punish your dog for following you. Regardless of motivation, your dog is following you because he loves and trusts you. Reprimanding him will confuse him and increase his anxiety, which may in turn worsen the behavior. If you need some alone time, redirect your dog’s behavior by giving him something else to do other than bug you—like a puzzle or treat toy.
Create fun opportunities when your dog is apart from you. Offer a long-lasting treat or toy in a different room from you. Close the adjoining door or place a gate in the doorway to prevent him from bringing the toy into the room you are in. If your dog is especially bonded to one family member, play “good cop/neutral cop” by having other family members go out of their way to have fun with the dog (“good cops” play with him, take him on walks, offer special treats or feed him) while the preferred family member downplays their involvement (“neutral cop” is boring).
Facilitate and reward independence. Dogs are social creatures and may need encouragement to be independent. Provide your dog with a comfortable bed he will use. Each time he lies on the bed, reward the moment of independence by praising him and calmly placing the treat on the bed. Teach your dog to “stay” on his bed, gradually building up to being able to leave the room without him following you. When you come back, reward his independent behavior with a treat and praise!
Follow-up with your vet or trainer. If your dog continues to follow you despite your efforts, consult with your veterinarian or a positive reinforcement trainer. Your vet may be able to rule out medical causes or recommend calming products, especially if your dog seems anxious or uncomfortable.
References Cited in This Article
- Clutton-Brock, J. (2017). Origins of the dog: the archaeological evidence. In J. Serpell (Ed.), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People. (pp. 8-21) Cambridge University Press.
- Range, F., Marshall-Pescini, S., Kratz, C. et al. Wolves lead and dogs follow, but they both cooperate with humans. Sci Rep 9, 3796 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-40468-y
- Parthasarathy, V., & Crowell-Davis, S. L. (2006). Relationship between attachment to owners and separation anxiety in pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 1(3), 109-120.
- Flannigan, G., & Dodman, N. H. (2001). Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219(4), 460-466.