Preventing separation anxiety in puppies

Preventing separation anxiety in puppies

At some point, you will have to leave your puppy at home and, if they aren’t used to it, they may become very distressed. So, it’s a good idea to teach them that being alone isn’t scary.

You can also take a look at our advice around adult dogs who struggle with separation anxiety.

Why do dogs struggle being away from their owners?

Dogs are very social animals. They would naturally live in family or friendship groups and have ‘evolved’ alongside humans over thousands of years to work with us and live as our companions. 

Most dogs would choose to spend the majority of their time in our company. Some might prefer the company of other dogs to us, but being alone doesn’t come naturally for most.

Young dogs are also easily bored and full of energy, so it’s important you give them enough physical and mental stimulation to help them behave appropriately.

Where should my puppy be left when I leave?

You’ll need to decide on where you are happy for your puppy to be left alone. Some people prefer their dogs to be left in a utility room or a kitchen because it makes any potential toileting easier to clean up. There is nothing wrong with this – but be sure not to put your puppy in this area only when you are leaving them as they may learn to associate it with only being left alone.

How to prepare an area for your puppy

Stair gates

Stair gates are fantastic to use when helping puppies get used to being left alone. They aren’t as scary as a closed door as they still allow your puppy to see, smell and hear you. This will initially help your puppy get used to some distance while you are still in the house. 

Stair gates are best placed on the door to the room you have decided you will leave your puppy alone in. 

Familiar items

Put a comfortable bed and water in the room you choose. Chew toys can also help to occupy your puppy during training sessions.

Putting an item of clothing you’ve worn recently in your puppy’s bed may also increase their sense of security when they are left alone.

Background noise

A quiet radio provides a little background noise and ‘company’. It may also muffle any startling sounds from the outside, which might make your puppy jump. Talking stations are best, as opposed to loud music.

Pheromones

Adaptil products can also be of benefit as they release comforting pheromones, which can help dogs feel more relaxed. 

Training in the house

There's lots of training you can do to help your dog adjust to being left on their own. Try to keep training light touch and do it randomly during the day.

  1. Pop your puppy behind the stair gate with a tasty chew, eg a Kong toy stuffed with treats or smeared with pate
  2. Close the stair gate behind you and go about your business as normal, but try to stay in eye and earshot of your puppy
  3. After a few minutes, open the stair gate. Ideally you want your puppy to be relaxed and still engrossed in the treat. Your puppy can decide what they want to do at this point, either stay in the room or leave. 
  4. When your puppy is comfortable staying in the room then, over a period of time, gradually increase the time your puppy is left behind the stair gate. All puppies are different - for some this might be a few days and for others it may be longer. You're aiming to get to a point where they feel relaxed enough for you to wander out of sight completely. 
  5. Build your puppy up to being left in this area for up to half an hour while you are busy elsewhere in the house

If you find that your puppy struggles with this, you can make it easier for them by staying in the room with them, but it’s important that you don’t interact with them – just sit there quietly. Once they are used to the idea of being in the room with you, but not interacting with you, you can start shutting the stair gate for a few minutes and begin on the training above.

Leaving the house

Once your puppy is comfortable with being left for half an hour with you in the house, you can begin to get them used to short periods of time alone in the house. Follow the steps above, returning after a few minutes before your puppy starts to become anxious. If your puppy is comfortable with this length of time, fantastic! Repeat a few times over the course of day.

Tip: When you leave them for the first time, be sure not to make a fuss. You want them to feel like there is nothing exciting or alarming going on and to create a calm space and state of mind for them to be in while you’re gone.

Gradually increase the time you leave your puppy alone in the house to about half an hour. Depending on your puppy, this can take a few days or longer but it's important you move at their pace. If your puppy shows any sign of worry, go back to leaving them for a time period where they were last comfortable. You can begin to gradually increase the time you leave from there.

Some puppies will progress easily, but others may need more time to adjust, so take the steps very slowly. 

If you need to leave your puppy for several hours, make sure you have built them up to this.

My puppy looks worried when I leave

If you find your puppy begins to look worried when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, then you will need to spend some time ‘desensitising’ them to these particular sounds. You can do this by regularly popping your puppy in their area during the day and get them used to seeing and hearing you pick up your keys, coat or bag. 

At this point, it’s important not to actually leave the house – just allow your puppy to get used to these sights and sounds while they are relaxed and comfortable. 

Once they look calm when they see or hear these things (this may take several days), then you can start again with actually leaving the house for short periods of time.

Tip: Keep greetings friendly, low-key and predictable on your return, even if you come home to find your puppy has chewed something or gone to the toilet.

How can I help my puppy feel relaxed when I leave?

The key thing is to have slowly built up your puppy's time alone in training. Then, whenever you leave them alone, make sure they have been well exercised and have had the opportunity to go to the toilet. For some puppies, a small meal may help as this may make them feel more relaxed and sleepy.

Should I tell my puppy off when they’ve done something I'd rather they didn't? 

No. Any punishment you give on returning home won’t stop your puppy from doing this. In fact, it can often make the problem worse. 

Dogs associate punishment with what they are doing at that moment in time. So, your puppy will not link the telling off with their actions before you came home, even if they are taken over to where they’ve toileted. It is not that they can’t remember what happened; they just won’t be able to make a connection between the punishment and something they did earlier.

What it will do is make your puppy worried about you returning home in the future and they are likely to become anxious about this as a result. Anxiety can cause all sorts of problems and your puppy may chew items to calm themselves or toilet because they are worried.

What should I do when my puppy has done something while I’ve been out?

If you do return home to find your puppy has chewed or toileted, greet them normally and then clean up calmly – regardless of how they are behaving towards you. It’s likely that they weren’t quite ready to be left for that length of time yet. Go back a few steps, keep positive and you’ll soon find you’re back on track.

Why does my puppy look guilty when I come home?

When puppies and dogs sense that their owners are upset with them, they may look guilty.

  • Their ears may go flat
  • Their body may be lowered 
  • Their tail may go between their legs
  • Some will look away, narrowing their eyes, as if they are cringing

This behaviour is called ‘appeasement behaviour’. It is often misinterpreted as guilt and, mistakenly, some owners believe their puppy knows what they have done is wrong. Owners may feel that any damage caused or toileting in the house has been done on purpose or out of spite for being left alone, which isn't the case. 

Puppies or dogs that look guilty are doing nothing more than responding to an owner’s disappointment, upset or anger, and this is their way of easing tension in response to feeling threatened or concerned. 

Other support

If you need more help with settling your puppy at night or leaving them home alone, then it’s best to contact an ABTC approved behaviourist to discuss positive training.

— Page last updated 24/08/2021