Puppy lying on blanket playing with ball

How to prevent separation anxiety in puppies after lockdown

Most pet owners will be spending more time than usual with their pets at this difficult time. For puppies, this means growing up used to their owners being around 24/7, which means they may struggle with separation issues when things go back to normal. But there are still ways to prepare them for being left alone in the future at this time.

In the first year or so, puppies and young dogs shouldn’t be left for too long on their own, as they need to experience as much of the world as possible to ensure that they grow up to be sociable and well behaved. Young dogs are also easily bored and will get up to all sorts of mischief if left alone for too long, and it’s important that you are there to ensure they have enough physical and mental stimulation to help them behave appropriately. 

But, outside of lockdown, you will have to leave your puppy at home for short periods. You may need to do that in the current situation for essential shopping trips, if you live alone. And if puppies aren’t used to being left alone, they may become very distressed. Preparing them for being left alone is about teaching them that it isn’t scary at all, but a time for them to get comfortable and relax.

The first thing to do is 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 kitchen due to the ease of cleaning up any potential mess. There is nothing wrong with this – however, you don’t want to make the mistake of putting your puppy in this area only when you are leaving them. This is because you want them to feel as comfortable and relaxed as they possibly can, and if they only get put in this area when they are left, they may learn to only associate it with isolation.

Stair gates are fantastic tools 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. The key thing is that you’ll be able to help your puppy get used to a little bit of distance between you while you are still in the house.

Stair gates are best placed on the door to the room you have decided to leave your puppy alone in. Put a comfortable bed and water in this room, and chew items too should your puppy need them (chewing is a calming activity). Many dogs will benefit from being left with a radio on low level as this provides a little background noise and ‘company’. It may also muffle any startling sounds from the outside, which might otherwise make your puppy jump. Talking stations are best, rather than loud music.

Putting an item of clothing you’ve worn recently in your puppy’s bed may also increase your puppy’s sense of security during training and when they are left alone. Adaptil products can also be of benefit as they release comforting pheromones, which can help dogs feel more relaxed.  

At random points during the day, pop your puppy behind the stair gate with a tasty chew, eg a Kong toy stuffed with treats or smeared with a tasty paste. Close the stair gate behind you and go about your business as normal but try to stay in eye and earshot of your puppy.

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. 

If you find that your puppy struggles with this at all, you can make it easier for them by staying in this 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.

Over the next few days, gradually increase the time your puppy is left behind the stair gate until you get to a point that they feel relaxed enough for you wander out of sight completely. Build your puppy up to being left in this area for up to half an hour while you are busy elsewhere in the house.

Once your puppy is comfortable with being left in another part of the home to you on their own, you can begin to get them used to short periods of time alone in the house. There will be a few limitations with this training during the current lockdown, but you can still open your front door or back door and wait outside or sit in your garden if safe to do so (initially this is what we would advise you do anyway).

When you’re able to build up the time you can leave them alone, you can take the whole family on short essential shopping trips (if it's possible for everyone except you to remain in the car) and consider occasionally leaving them behind on your daily exercise if they can toilet in the garden and use up excess energy in other ways.

Prepare the area as you normally would and follow the same routine. Once your puppy is comfortable and tucking into something tasty, get yourself ready and leave the house with your keys. Return 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.

Gradually increase the time you leave your puppy alone in the house to about half an hour over a period of days. Keep greetings friendly, low-key and predictable on your return, even if you find your puppy has chewed something or toileted.

Some puppies will progress easily, but others may need more time to adjust, so take the steps very slowly. If your puppy shows any sign of worry, take a few steps back and start from where they were last comfortable. If picking up your keys or putting on your coat triggers worry for them, then you need to spend some time desensitising them to these particular sounds and sights. 

Do this by regularly popping your puppy in the area during the day as before 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.

If you need to leave your puppy for longer than the recommended half-an-hour (for example to drive to the shops), make sure you have built them up to this with the above training. You’ll need to make sure they have been well exercised and have had the opportunity to go the toilet. For some puppies, a small meal may help as this may make them feel more relaxed and sleepy.

If you do return home to find your puppy has made a mess, greet them normally and then clean up the mess 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 and, remember, it’s very normal to have a few setbacks in this sort of training with puppies! Go back a few steps, keep positive and you’ll soon find you’re back on track.

Any punishment you give on returning home won’t stop your puppy from doing this, and in fact it can often make the problem worse.

Dogs associate punishment with what they are doing at that moment in time and so your puppy will not link the telling off with their actions before you came home, even if they are taken over to the scene of the crime. It is not that they cannot 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 himself or toilet because he is worried.

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 and their tail may go between their legs. Some will look away, narrowing their eyes, as if they are cringing.

What they are actually doing is displaying something 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 mess in the house has been done on purpose or out of spite for being left alone. 

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 diffusing tension in response to feeling threatened. 

— Page last updated 20/05/2020

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