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How to Reduce Handler Dependency

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

What is Handler Dependency?

Handler Dependency refers to a dog who struggles with working independently or at a distance from the handler. This can take the form of anxiety when working independently, or a propensity for “checking-in” excessively while working.

Handler dependency can create a lot of issues in competitive dog sports and activities including protection training, scent detection, tracking, agility, and advanced obedience skills.

Handler dependency is more prominent in dogs that struggle with confidence, and view their owners as their safe space and a source of their confidence. Some dogs who are handler dependent may appear really confident when in close proximity to their handler, then suddenly become anxious when separated from their handler.

How to Reduce Handler Dependency

There are a plethora of activities that require a dog to work independently, that you and your dog can practice at home. The more your dog practices independent skills, the more confident your dog will become while working independently.

Teach Your Dog To Go Away From You

Select a few simple tricks, skills, or tasks that require your dog to go a short distance from you to perform and then return to you for a reward once they have performed the task correctly.

  • Go Around a Cone or Object

  • Go Touch a Floor or Wall Target

  • Go Jump Over a Low Hurdle

  • Go Through a Tunnel

You can start any of these skills at a very short distance or even start by luring your dog through the behavior. As your dog begins to understand the task, you will begin to fade your involvement. From there you can start to add more distance.

Once your dog is able to do the behavior on verbal commands or hand signal (casting), work on continuing to increase the distance that your dog is able to successfully perform the skill!

By give your dog clear guidance to go away from you and perform a specific task, you are still indulging your dog’s dependency on you, but beginning to teach them how to work away from you. Don’t worry, we’ll begin to create some independence in the new few steps.

Teach Your Dog To Search

You should know your dog well enough to know what they prefer, toys or food. Most working breeds will probably be more driven for toys, so we will use a toy search as an example.

Ideally for this exercise your dog should know how to fetch and bring a toy back to you. However, as long as they will go get their toy, this exercise should still be effective. We want the dog to be able to bring the toy back to you because we want to perform this exercise repetitively to build reward history with the game.

First you will start by just playing a regular game of fetch with your dog like you would in your yard. You can start out by having your dog chase the toy as you through it and then bring it back to you.

If you dog is anything like mine, fetch may already be their favorite game, so we can move onto the next step.

Next, you want to hold your dog back using a collar or leash while you through the toy. As soon as the toy stops completely, tell your dog to go get it. This is where you are going to start to create your search command. “Search”, “Go Find It”, “Get it” etc…

For the next step in the game, you’ll want to go to an area that either has tall grass or a wooded area where you can through the toy but once it lands your don’t won’t be able to find it. You will hold your dog back until the toy has stopped completely and then let them go find it.

To add a little extra challenge to this step, before you release your dog, spin them around in a circle before you release them. It will make it harder for them to just follow the line of sight where they last saw the toy.

At this point, as your dog is looking for the toy, ideally we will see your dog start to use his nose more than his eyes. Don’t forget to use your search command.

Once your dog is really good at this stage, you can start your next session with your dog in the kennel, and place the toy out in the open area where you started the whole process. As soon as you let your dog out of the kennel or as you enter the open space where the toy is, tell your dog the search command. Your dog should be able to find the toy pretty easily.

From here you’ll repeat this stage, but gradually begin to place the toy in more challenging locations, where your dog can still ideally access the toy and bring it back to you. We’ll talk about how we create detection alerts and imprinting target odors or doing article searches in another article.

Free-shaping New Behaviors

Free-shaping is an excellent way to teach new behaviors. Freeshaping the the process of simply waiting until your dog performs the behavior or a close approximation of a behavior without any input from you as the handler.

When you are free shaping you should be completely silent and still and only using your marker when you want to let your dog know that they are getting closer to the desired behavior.

Ideally, you want to do free shaping in an area that is generally free of distractions. Some refer to this as a “Skinner Box” or “Option Limiting Device.” This will help your dog stay focused on the task at hand.

As your dog learns how to problem solve and figure out what it is that you want them to do while learning new tasks, they will build initiative and learn to think for themselves.

If you use this method to teach your dog lots of new behaviors, you begin to see your dog become more confident, take more initiative, and learn to problem solve new and more difficult challenges more easily and with less stress.

Teach Your Dog Tricks Using Props

While teaching your dog any new trick or skill will help your dog build their confidence, when we teach our dogs to manipulate objects, or to interact with new objects or use their bodies in new ways this will help them adapt to new things more quickly.

You can start with something as simple as teaching your dog to pick up novel objects such as a PVC pipe, a towel, a piece of wood… etc. The more items your dog picks up, the more comfortable they will be when picking up an item they have never held before.

You can also teach your dog to stand on unsteady or uneven surfaces. This will teach your dog how to balance and feel more secure on their own feet.

Teach your dog to climb up onto tall surfaces or platforms. You can even teach your dog how to climb inside of things like a large cardboard box or inside of a tub or tunnel.

There is a large assortment of dog-specific exercise and balance balls and stability devices that you can purchase or build at home.

Interactive Toys and Puzzle Feeders

Allowing your dog to figure out puzzles and problems on their own is one of the best ways to help your dog learn to work independently. And its as easy as putting their meal inside some type of puzzle or interactive feeding device.

You can start with something as simple and spreading some kibble on a flat towel and then rolling it up with the kibble inside. Your dog will quickly figure out how to unroll the towel to get at their dinner.

You can purchase any number of puzzle toys or there are plenty of DIY puzzle feeders you can make at home.

You can also use snuffle mats, or have your dog look for their food in the grass, however ideally you want your dog to have to work for their food and not just graze among the grass.

Find Activities Your Dog Enjoys

There are plenty of sports and dog activities that require your dog to work independently:

Dock Diving

Barn Hung

Lure Coursing / FastCAT


Protection Training

Find one or several that your dog really enjoys and go and have fun! The more positive experiences your dog has working with a dedicated goal independently, the more they will develop confidence in your absence!

Not all dogs love all of these activities, so be sure to pay attention to if your dog is really having fun. If you feel like you're trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, it might not be the right sport for your dog. The last thing you want to have happen is for your dog to have a bad experience.

Be Your Dog’s Source of Confidence

When you are first teaching your dog to work away from you, build up your distance slowly and gradually to ensure the greatest frequency of success. As you are able to tell your dog to perform behaviors further away from you and begin to expect them to perform the behavior until completion (like a search) your dog will need to become more independent in order to be successful.

If you are consistent with creating reward history with these skills, your dog should inherently become more goal oriented with each of these behaviors, even though they know that the reward will ultimately come from you.

In this way, you are still the source of your dog’s confidence to now go and work independently. When you give that search command you may begin to see your dog searching so intently that you may not even be able to recall them from their search until they have found the item.

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