Teach your pup it’s OK to be alone
Getting a new puppy is full of challenges. Some more obvious than others.
While toilet training and feeding schedules tend to dominate the attention of most new pet parents, there are some developmental milestones that often get overlooked.
One of the big ones: teaching your puppy to be alone.
Learning that their pet parent isn’t going to be around 24/7 is sure to come as a shock for most puppies. For some, the ordeal may even lead to separation anxiety. Which is why it’s so important that you take the time to help your pup adjust to being left alone.
There are several steps you can take to do this. And here to help lay them out is Clinical Veterinary Behaviourist and Paws pal Dr. Charlie Edmonds.
But before I get to that, let’s take a look at what separation anxiety is and why puppies get it.
Separation anxiety is a form of emotional distress that some dogs experience when separated from their primary carer (usually their pet parent).
Separation anxiety can stem from a range of different emotional triggers including:
Fear of being away from their pet parent
An unsettling sound, like a loud bang or fireworks
Poor socialisation and training (learn how to socialise your puppy here)
A yearning for more of attention
The mild symptoms of separation anxiety usually manifest as ‘appeasement behaviours.’ These are behaviours that dogs show when they are feeling stressed or uncomfortable and include licking their lips outside of meals times, excessive yawning, rolling on their back or shaking their body as if they’ve just had a bath.
Because of how common some of these behaviours are, it can be hard to tell if they’re signs of stress, or if your pup is just going about his or her regular habits. As a rule of thumb, when performed on their own, these behaviours are nothing to be worried about. When performed together or in excess, it’s probably a sign that your pawed pal is feeling ill at ease.
As for the more extreme symptoms of separation anxiety, these are much easier to spot. The big ones include barking, whimpering, restlessness, weeing or pooing inside, and sometimes even vomiting.
Never leave your puppy alone for any length of time that will cause them to panic. Of course, this will be different for each puppy. For some, it could be two minutes. For others, it could be two hours.
For adult dogs, the maximum time they should be left alone is 3-4 hours.
Dogs are a social species - even from birth they will cry out when separated from their mothers - so any form of isolation is likely to cause some level of distress.
Just how much distress they experience will largely depend on you. As the pet parent, it’s your responsibility to help your pup build the confidence to tackle those stints at home alone with total fearlessness.
It’s going to be a long and bumpy ride. So strap yourself in tight, try to negotiate some pawternity leave from your boss, and follow these 3 steps:
For most puppies, the first bout of separation anxiety will occur on their first night as a result of being separated from their mum and littermates. To help soothe the pain, position their bed in your room and let them sleep close to you for the first few nights.
Once they’re feeling a little more settled, start shifting their bed further out of the room each night, until eventually you have it positioned in the area of the house where your puppy will permanently be snoozing.
If you’re using a crate, one way to make this transition easier is to cover the sides with a blanket. This will make it less likely for your puppy to notice that they’re gradually being shifted away.
Begin by training your puppy to sit calmly in their bed. Of course, for boisterous pups, this will be tricky. But with some good ol’ fashioned praise (and a few cheeky treats) you should be able to get them there within a few days.
Once you’ve reached a point where your puppy will settle happily in their bed, start increasing the distance between you and them. Begin by taking a few steps back and gradually build up to the point where you can leave the room without your puppy becoming distressed.
After this, start increasing the amount of time you spend out of the room, beginning with 30 seconds and working up to several minutes.
When your puppy’s reached the point where they feel comfortable being left alone in a room, it’s time to move onto real deal: leaving them home alone!
Once again, you're going to employ baby steps, starting with leaving the house for a few seconds at a time and then gradually working up from there. If your puppy seems distressed when you return, reduce the length of time you’re spending away and work your way back up at a slower pace.
Lastly, try to avoid making a big song and dance when saying goodbye or coming home to your puppy. I know this won’t be easy. But any out-of-the-ordinary behaviour could draw more attention to your coming and going, causing your pup’s anxiety to skyrocket.
The cause: Your puppy’s watchful eye! In the short time you’ve been living together, your clever little pup has picked apart each of your habits and joined all of the dots. From putting on your coat to kissing your partner goodbye, you best believe they know what’s coming next.
The best fix: Break down all of your puppy’s expectations about you leaving. You can do this by acting out all of your normal departure cues (putting on your shoes, picking up and holding your keys) without actually leaving the house. By showing your pup that these actions don’t always lead to separation, they’ll eventually learn to tolerate them.
If all else fails: You may need to seek professional help. The best way to do this by speaking to your vet about getting a referral to a behaviourist.
The cause: Your puppy’s insecurity. If your puppy appears visibly upset every time you come home, it means they are not yet comfortable with being left alone for such long periods of time.
The best fix: Dial down the time you spend away and go back to basics. Once your puppy becomes comfortable being left alone in small bursts, you can start to build back up again.
If all else fails: If you need to return to work before your puppy is ready to be left alone, you may want to consider enrolling them in doggy daycare or arranging a puppy sitter.
The cause: Your puppy doesn’t feel comfortable in their own skin. Since bidding farewell to their canine mum, your puppy’s every waking moment has been jam-packed with cuddles, kisses, and copious amounts of affection. Without a wink of time to just be on their own, your pup’s never had a chance to learn how it’s done.
The best fix: Establish a safe space (like a crate or bed) where your puppy can go to be alone and encourage them to use it by positioning their food and water there. Whenever you notice them using the space, back off and try to let them be for a while.
If all else fails: In the scenario that your puppy simply cannot cope with being left alone, speak to your vet about getting a referral to a behaviourist.
Use a pheromone diffuser Plug-in pheromone diffusers release synthetic pheromones that mimic the chemicals that puppies’ mothers release around the time of the birth. When used in the home, they can help settle your puppy and alleviate some of their stress around being left alone. Plug-in pheromone diffusers (like Adpatil) can be purchased from online retailers like Amazon and MedicAnimal.
Take things SUPER slow Helping your puppy build up the confidence to stay home alone takes several weeks. By laying a strong foundation from day one and taking things at a snail's pace, you will eventually get there..
Provide pleasant distractions Giving your pup food puzzles or treat-stuffed kongs when you step out the door is a great way to alleviate their stress around you leaving. Just so long as you don’t make a habit of it. If used too often, your pup will begin to associate these playful deviations with you leaving and their effectiveness will wear right off.
Between all the toilet training, vaccinations, and puppy classes it can be easy to let other areas of your pup’s development slip through the cracks. Common among these is separation anxiety. While taking the time to strengthen your pup’s sense of independence mightn’t seem like a huge priority now, your efforts - no matter how time-consuming - will pay off in the future.