Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
How to Prevent Separation Anxiety in Puppies
It's important to prevent separation anxiety in puppies considering how widespread this behavior problem has become. Did you know that separation anxiety in dogs is prevalent in between 20 and 40 percent of all dogs that are treated by animal behavior specialists in North America? (Simpson 2000, as reviewed by Thielke and Udell 2017).
On top of being a widespread issue, separation anxiety is one of the leading causes why pet owners relinquish dogs to shelters. This is often due to the amount of household damage produced by affected dogs and the complaints of neighbors about these dogs' excessive barking.
Not to mention, separation-related distress is ultimately a welfare concern. These dogs are truly suffering as they become inconsolably worried and panicked when they are separated from their favorite person.
Affected dogs are often drooling, panting, pacing, vocalizing, engaging in destructive behavior especially targeted towards doors and windows, urinating and defecating indoors, refusing to eat when left alone, and even inducing self-trauma like licking or chewing or injuries in attempting to escape a crate.
The good news is that you can start puppies from the right paw if you intervene when they are young and growing. By inoculating puppies against potential problems from an early age, you can therefore prevent a lot of future headaches. As the saying goes "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
As in exercises for preventing resource guarding in puppies, you can therefore take several preventive steps for fostering confidence and independence in your pup so that he can grow into a well-adjusted companion.
Exercises for Preventing Separation Anxiety in Puppies
These exercises can play a primary role in preventing emotional issues such as separation anxiety and isolation distress. Making the crate or playpen a fun and rewarding place to be may also help prevent the onset of containment phobias. Hopefully, breeders will introduce pups to crates from an early age, to make life easier to new puppy owners once their puppies are sent out to their new homes.
As you unfold these exercises, it's important to always monitor your puppy to ensure he remains calm and relaxed and that you progress gradually going at your pup's pace. If your puppy at any time shows signs of struggling, take a step or two back in the process and work more at those levels.
1. Practice Fun Crate Games
Most new puppies upon entering their new homes tend to feel lonely on their very first nights. It is therefore common practice to let them sleep in their crates next to the owner's beds. This way the new owners can talk to their pups and reassure them by lowering their hands so that the pups realize they are not alone.
Many owners though after some time start moving the crate away from the bedroom into a distant room and may also crate their puppies when they go to work. Soon, being in the crate starts being associated with social isolation and puppies start dreading being in it.
It's very important to teach puppies to love their crates, and part of that is initially not leaving them alone in them for too long. Get your puppy used to gradual absences and make great things happen during that time. Ideally, you should do this when you have time off from work.
For example, place a super yummy long-lasting food puzzle in the crate (like a stuffed Kong or a Lickimat) with the door closed and your puppy out of it. Your puppy should grow eager to get it, perhaps pacing around it or whining.
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When you notice eagerness to have it, open the door and let your puppy inside and close the crate and leave the room briefly. Watch your puppy from a window or other remote monitoring device, and once he's finishing up, return and open the crate.
The goal is to make it clear that great things happen when you leave and your pup is crated. So aim to teach your pup to be left a little bit alone each day.
2. Organize Treasure Hunts
Let's face it: dogs love to search for things with their noses. It's something they are naturally inclined to do. A study has also found that allowing dogs to spend more time using their noses through fun nose work activities makes them more optimistic and their welfare is therefore improved.
You can foster your pup's independence by setting up fun nose work activities in the house and in the yard. One of my favorite ways to do this is by setting little "treasure hunt games" by hiding kibble and treats around the home or yard.
Simply have a helper hold your puppy or keep him in another room/behind a baby gate while you set up the treasure hunt in a puppy-proofed room or yard. Then release your puppy to go on the hunt while you are away running errands in a nearby room.
Once your pup is mature enough, aim to train your puppy a solid sit/stay or down/stay while you hide the kibble and treats and then release him. He should be super eager to go on his hunt and shouldn't mind you being briefly away for the duration of the hunt.
Once again, you can always monitor him from a window or remotely with a nanny cam while he goes on his hunts if you want to see how he does.
3. Prepare Mat Games
Train your puppy to go to his mat and relax there with a stuffed Kong when you are eating your meals or when you want to enjoy a bit of alone time. Use clicker training (if your puppy is familiar with this method) to introduce the mat using a training method known as "shaping." If you don't have a clicker, or if your puppy isn't clicker trained, replace the clicker's sound with a verbal marker such as "yes!''
If your puppy hasn't learned yet to hold a down/stay on his mat, you can keep him in a designated area by tethering the food dispenser to something stable in a safe manner so that your pup won't carry it along to follow you.
4. Install a See-Through Baby Gates
Is your puppy often by your side accompanying you even to your bathroom trips? If so, you may want to install a baby gate. Your puppy can still see you come and go and therefore will feel reassured by that.
This is more of a management tool to use whilst you are starting to train your dog to better cope with your absences. So as you run errands around the house or use the bathroom, keep your pup behind the baby gate, but make sure to provide him with something to do such as access to a fun interactive toy or stuffed Kong contingent upon you leaving the room.
5. Play Peek-a-Boo Games
I like to play this with new puppies I foster or my client's pups who seem to be a bit too clingy. I simply have the pup behind a baby gate or large box blocking the entrance to a room and hide behind the wall separating us. Every time before I hide, I toss a treat/kibble to the pup and hide while he/she is eating it. Once I hear he/she is done, I re-appear and keep doing this.
I then progress to tossing several kibble/treats at once and therefore spend more time hiding behind the wall, always listening until the pup is done to re-appear and repeat. Afterward, I can practice the same game going out the door.
6. Play Hide and Seek
Your puppy will need to know how to sit/stay down/stay for this game. Ask your dog to stay while you hide a few treats/kibble around the house/yard, then release him while you go hide in another room. Once he's done searching/eating, encourage him to look for you—when he finds you, praise him and start another game.
7. Organize Fun Stays
The goal is to teach your pup that it's OK to be briefly left alone. Start with brief distances, such as just a step away, then gradually build on distance until you reach a point where your dog can be left in a room while you're in another. Make sure you go very gradually and slowly in the process and praise lavishly for each step. You want your dog to see this as a game.
8. Destination Nowhere
Do you have a clingy puppy that follows you everywhere? Or even a puppy who gets up the moment you touch the remote or the armrest of your couch? Then start repeating these actions over and over until your pup gets tired of responding to it. If your puppy gets up when you put the remote down, frequently put the remote down over and over.
Eventually, his senses will tire and he'll give up responding to it. Then progress and get up repeatedly. Then take a few steps and sit down repeatedly. Then walk in one direction like towards a door, and if your dog follows you, walk in circles, until he gives up following you. When he does, praise him and give a reward. Great things happen when he doesn't follow you.
9. Practice Calm Departures and Arrivals
This is both training for you and your pup considering that your demeanor can highly impact your puppy. Avoid as much as possible making a big deal when you are leaving the home or greeting your puppy when you come back.
Every now and then, place a valuable edible item your dog loves on a tall shelf he cannot reach. Make sure your puppy sees you put it there. When your pup gives signs of wanting it badly, provide it and then leave the home briefly in a matter-of-fact fashion until you expect him to be done eating it.
Then, come back and make sure to not make any great fuss over him. Being overly emotional when you leave the house can influence your puppy's emotions when left alone.
Tip: as you practice longer and longer absences, make sure to provide longer-lasting goodies (like Frozen Kongs, long-lasting chews) to enjoy, and also make sure to mix in short absences within the longer ones so that your puppy doesn't detect an increase in difficulty as you progress and gets anxious.
10. Provide Exercise, Training and Mental Stimulation
Separation anxiety, or what may look like it, may occur when puppies are bored and have come to associate our presence with entertainment, therefore coming to depend on us for their basic needs.
It's therefore important to meet a puppy's needs for exercise, training and mental stimulation. Movement /exercise helps release energy and anxiety, so plan to incorporate walks, play, training and brain games into your pup's routine every day.
Don't Forget Technology!
As you practice going outside for longer periods of time, you will find it extra helpful to monitor how your pup is doing during your absence. Nowadays, courtesy of technological advances there are many great products to use such as baby monitors, cell phone apps, webcams and now even special monitoring devices that allow you to talk to your puppy and even toss him treats as you are away (check out the Furbo Dog Camera).
Technology may also turn helpful if you suspect your pup is suffering from separation anxiety, but want a sure diagnosis. Provide your vet with details about your pup's behavior and some recorded footage showing what your pup does when he's left alone. While there can be many other causes for the behaviors you are seeing ( such as boredom) early diagnosis is important to nip the behavior in the bud.
In the meanwhile though, try your best not to leave your pup alone. You can hire a dog walker or pet sitter, have a neighbor stay with your pup, or take your pup to daycare. This is important to prevent your puppy from rehearsing the troublesome behavior which can make it more challenging to eradicate over time.
Don't Let Puppies Cry It Out!
In the past, it was common practice to let puppies cry it out and not open their crates until they were quiet. Even worse, sometimes owners were instructed to yell at their crying pups. Yelling at or trying to discipline a puppy is as silly as yelling at a baby for waking up from a nap. Ignoring or yelling only leads to a sense of fear and confusion, negatively impacting the potential of the formation of a bond based on trust.
Such approaches can therefore cause deep anxiety and a state of helplessness which ironically may inculcate what we may be ultimately trying to avoid: separation anxiety later in life.
Fortunately, nowadays we know better. Puppies are social beings and have a strong need to establish with their humans a relationship of trust, they need to know they have somebody to count on that will cater to their needs. This gives them security.
The more we allow our pups to experience distress, the more they'll be taking a step back in their learning to be confident when left alone. So pay attention to your puppy when you are teaching him to be alone. Take baby steps and work at your pup's pace always ensuring your pup isn't over threshold.
In a perfect world, if people are adopting or purchasing a puppy at eight weeks old, they should start preparing them, and helping them develop alone time skills at eight weeks. If somebody's adopted or purchased a dog when it's a bit older, you start then. In a nutshell, you start as soon as you bring that puppy into your family.
— Andrea Arden, Newsweek
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Lora Hollings on October 30, 2020:
This is a great article which can be used as a resource on how to raise a puppy right from the very start with positive rewards and training. I’ve fostered dogs and my most challenging one was a fear dog who had no trust of humans. So, it took quite awhile to get her to even come near my husband and I. But, we took it at her pace and let her tell us when she was ready for the next step to go for a walk with us or to meet other people. I learned so much about dogs amazing desire and capacity to develop strong bonds and trust again if you show them kindness, patience and understanding. Your article is wonderful and I really like the way you let people know that you will not be successful at training if you force a dog, punish him, or use negative training methods. You will only succeed in raising a fearful and anxious dog! All training should be very positive and done with love and patience or else don’t get a puppy or a dog! Thanks for sharing all of your great suggestions and tips.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 29, 2020:
Dogs need a balanced lifestyle and exercise time should be fun. Your tips are valuable to all dog owners. When I had dogs they had acres of ground to run and play and search for whatever they wanted. I think your hubs are well-researched and is useful. Should be written as a guide.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 28, 2020:
I wish I had known to do this in years past. We have had a lot of household damage done by dogs we adopted. We merely replaced items destroyed after the dogs got older and stopped doing it.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 28, 2020:
Sadly, I think we're going to have an increase in separation anxiety if working schedules go back to "normal" after the pandemic. Pups, young or old, have become used to having their humans near them 24/7.
When I was a kid, we lived in an apartment where the people below us left their pup in the bathroom to bark it out all day long. So I've experienced this sad situation first hand.
Agreed, exercise is one of the best things to help prevent this situation. A tired dog is a good dog. ;) Sometimes the pups look forward to a little peace and quiet and rest when dog mom and dad leave.
One thing I've also done is act like it's no big deal when I leave, assure them I'll be back, and then leave! This is similar to what people have to do with little kids who have separation issues. Some parents unwittingly create the clinginess problem.
Though it doesn't work for everyone, I think having a companion dog in the house can also help. Then they're never really alone. And our two are bonded for sure. The other day when our girl got groomed, our boy was so worried about her. Sometimes the doggos have more separation issues from each other than us.
Anyway, thanks for addressing this important issue!
FlourishAnyway from USA on October 27, 2020:
I like that you ooze empathy for dogs. If you think about it puppies are ripped away from the safety of mom and bonds of siblings and often taken to a place where there are other animals who may not be so happy they are there. The food and everything else is novel. No wonder they don’t want to separate again once they bond with their human. Your games are important ways to teach them coping skills for everyone’s sake.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 27, 2020:
I didn't know dogs had separation anxiety. I love all of your suggstions. I hate the thought of any dog cryiing or even sad. This is a very good article, Adrienna.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on October 27, 2020:
I think puppies really do need guidance and training early on. This is a very informative guide for helping new puppy owners understand why their puppy is scared or anxious and how they can support them.