Most common in puppies, but also exhibited by dogs of all ages… separation anxiety can affect both the lives of our dogs and of us as their owners. Do you own a puppy or dog who cries, scratches, barks, or toilets in the house when you leave them alone? Do you dread leaving your companion alone because you know you’re going to return to a bomb site? You are not alone!
Dogs are sociable animals and as such being alone doesn’t come naturally to them. They have evolved from living in family groups and enjoy the company of their own kind and of us as their family unit. So puppies need to be trained to be able to cope with being on their own. It is an essential life skill which is just as important to teach as the usual commands of ‘sit’, ‘wait’ and recall. However, for some dog households, teaching their pup to cope with being alone isn’t as much fun as teaching them the other more interesting commands and tricks! Some families will naturally have children at home in the afternoon after school or even a stay-at-home-mum who can provide company for the pup. However, for those of us who work a full working week and have a pup at home for periods of the day, it is even more important to teach them to be able to cope with this.
My recommendation is to get your new puppy used to your daily routine from the moment you bring them home. The earlier you get them used to watching you leave and then return throughout the day, the quicker they will realise that you leaving doesn’t mean you are leaving them forever! When I first brought my pup home at 10 weeks of age I didn’t leave her side for a second… I just wanted to be with this teeny bundle of cuteness 24/7 and play with her, cuddle her and even just watch her sleep! Big mistake as I found out the first time I attempted to leave for half an hour to go to the shops. As soon as the door closed she started whimpering, crying, scratching at the door and when I returned she had left me a nice deposit by the back door for me to clean up and greeted me in what can only be described as a state of desparation. I very soon realised that my puppy wasn’t used to me not being with her all the time and that I needed to do something about it… after all, I had a life which required me to leave my own front door at some point in the not so distant future!
I started very gradually by leaving her in the living room while I stepped into the bedroom and listened to her scratching and barking at the door. I did this for 5 minutes and then stepped back into the living room and despite her jumping all over me in sheer delight that I hadn’t emigrated abroad, I completely ignored her. I turned my back each time she jumped up at me and I stood very still. Once she had calmed down I praised her calmly and gave her some attention. I continued this several times every single day and increased the time by approximately 5 minutes each time and I noticed that within a few days, she had stopped scratching and barking at the door. Essentially I wanted to teach her that when I left, I always returned. I wanted to teach her that when I left, it wasn’t a negative thing and that when I returned it was no big deal.
Dogs pick up on our emotions more than we think and if I had returned and fussed all over her, it would have reinforced to her that I missed her too and that she had a reason to panic when I left her the next time. So as hard as it was, I had to stay strong and teach her that it was all no big deal. I made no fuss when I returned and I made even less fuss when I left… I just simply walked out of the door.
As I started to increase the length of time I left her, I began to leave her things to occupy herself with. I scattered treats around the living room, I hid chew sticks under the sofa cushions and I filled a kong with peanut butter which I had placed in the freezer so it would last longer. There are many things you can use to help your puppy cope with being on its own and to divert their attention away from your furnishings and onto something more delicious.
If you try this method and notice that your puppy isn’t coping, then go back to the duration of time apart which your puppy was comfortable with and start to build it up again from then. You should be increasing the time by half an hour over a few days, so it is a slow process and one which you shouldn’t rush. It also helps if you take your pup for a walk before they are to be left alone as this ensures they are tired and it gives them a chance to relieve themselves beforehand too.
And even if you are home for most of the day and don’t need to leave your puppy then just think… there will be one day when you will need to leave them and then how will they cope? Of course we take on dogs because we want their company, but find me a person who is able to spend 24/7 with their dog and I’ll be surprised! I’m a dog walker and even in my job I leave my pup alone for periods in the day.
So my key points for helping to prevent separation anxiety are:
- Build it up slowly! Increase the time by 5 minutes and repeat spontaneously several times every day
- Make no fuss when you leave and make even less fuss when you return
- If your pup becomes concerned then take a step back, reduce the time they are left alone and then start to build it up again
- Turn the radio or TV on so your pup has some background noise
- Give your pup something to do in your absence (frozen kongs are great as they last a long time and hiding treats for them to find exercises their minds)
- Do not punish your pup for toileting or chewing whilst in your absence… they won’t remember what they have done and they certainly won’t learn anything from being told off for it minutes/hours later. Also, you don’t want you pup to be anxious when being left alone and then also worried about being told off when you do return
- Once you are able to leave your pup for longer periods, ensure they have had a walk so they are tired and have had a chance to relieve themselves. You may choose to use a crate but always ensure they have access to water… this is a requirement by law