Cait’s puppy, Arrow, has started experiencing some separation anxiety. Cait, having grown up in a house that has always had dogs, knows the drill. But for those of you who don’t have a lifetime of experience, here is a step-by-step guide to help you help your puppy overcome separation anxiety.
Since I’m all about getting to the point quickly, while you can do this on your own, and the information that follows will help you do this on your own, my best advice is to immediately seek the help of a professional, positive dog trainer who specializes in separation anxiety.
It’s way too easy to actually be working against yourself without realizing it. For example, the biggest mistake humans make in training their puppies is to start chunking each step too big. You wouldn’t expect to hand a picture book with simple words to a child who hasn’t learned to read yet and expect them to automatically associate the words with the pictures, would you? Yet this is what people often do in their training without realizing it. If your puppy isn’t getting what you’re asking, back up until they do understand and start there again. Do dozens and dozens of reps before moving on to adding the next step or time duration.
But anyway, without further ado, here you go:
Understanding separation anxiety in puppies.
Separation anxiety in puppies refers to the distress or fear experienced by a puppy when they are separated from their human or when they are left alone. It is a common behavioral issue that can affect puppies of various ages and breeds. Understanding separation anxiety is crucial in order to effectively help your puppy overcome this problem.
Recognize the signs and symptoms.
Common signs of separation anxiety include excessive barking or howling when left alone, destructive behavior such as chewing furniture or items, inappropriate urination or defecation, attempting to escape or dig under doors, pacing or restlessness, and excessive drooling.
The underlying causes of separation anxiety can vary.
Common triggers include changes in routine or environment, a traumatic event or experience, lack of socialization, or a strong bond with the human. Puppies who have been adopted from shelters or have experienced previous abandonment are more prone to developing separation anxiety.
Steps to Overcome Separation Anxiety
There are lots of things you can do to help your puppy, but these two are key.
Consistency and exercise
There are several helpful steps you can take to help your puppy with separation anxiety, such as keeping to regular feeding times, exercise sessions, and bathroom breaks. A predictable routine helps to create a sense of security and reduces anxiety.
Regularly scheduled potty breaks—even if it means hiring a dog-walker
A little-talked-about reason for separation anxiety can be caused by the puppy being stressed because it is left alone longer than it can hold its pee or poo. Many people don’t realize how often a dog actually needs to be allowed to relieve itself to avoid stress.
The general rule of thumb is that your puppy can hold its pee for as many months as it is old. If you have a six-month-old puppy and you expect that you can leave it for 8 or more hours, you are doing a gross disservice to your dog. Yes, this is one of my very few soap boxes. Just think about it for a minute. How long can you go without needing a bathroom break? I’ll bet it’s considerably shorter than 8 hours. My rule of thumb is that if you are going to be gone longer than 4 hours, then hire a dog walker. Okay, stepping back down off said soap box.
A step-by-step plan for gradually desensitizing your puppy to being alone.
Patience, practice, and consistency are key. Helping your puppy feel okay being left alone is going to take time. Here are step-by-step guidelines:
- Provide Comfortable Spaces:
- Create a designated safe space for the puppy, such as a crate or a specific room, where they can retreat and feel secure while you’re away.
- Make sure to add access to water, comfortable bedding, toys, and familiar scents to this space to promote relaxation.
- Ensure that the area is not too hot or too cold for the puppy. Provide natural lighting or keep a small lamp turned on during the day to avoid complete darkness, as it can be distressing for some puppies.
- Gradual Departures—Start With Really Short Absences:
- Begin by leaving the puppy alone for a very short period, like 30 seconds. This will allow them to get used to you going out and coming right back.
- I mean it! Begin with just 30 seconds and gradually work up the duration. If you start with too big a chunk of time, you’ll just keep reinforcing the anxiety. The correct length of time will ensure that your puppy remains calm and relaxed throughout.
- As you successfully increase the duration of leaving them alone without them feeling stressed, this helps the puppy build confidence and realize that you will return.
- Counter-Conditioning—Use positive reinforcement:
- Associate departures with positive experiences by offering special treats or toys that are only given when you leave.
- This helps create positive associations with alone time.
- Desensitization—Practice “fake” departures:
- Occasionally, simulate leaving the house by picking up your keys or putting on your coat without actually going anywhere. This will help desensitize the puppy to these cues and reduce anxiety associated with them..
- By desensitizing the puppy to these cues, they become less anxious when they are actually alone.
- Engaging Toys and Puzzles:
- Provide interactive toys and puzzles that can keep your puppy mentally stimulated and distracted during alone time.
- These toys can include treat-dispensing toys, puzzle games, or chew toys.
- Calming Aids:
- Consider using calming aids such as pheromone diffusers or sprays that mimic a mother dog’s natural calming scent.
- Calming music specifically designed for dogs can also be helpful in creating a soothing environment.
- Exercise and Mental Stimulation:
- Make sure your puppy receives regular exercise to release excess energy and reduce anxiety levels.
- Leave interactive toys or puzzle feeders filled with treats to keep the puppy engaged and distracted during your absence. Mental stimulation can help alleviate separation anxiety.
- Engage in activities that challenge their mind, such as obedience training or agility.
- Maintain a routine:
- Establish a consistent schedule for leaving and returning home, as well as for feeding and exercise. Dogs thrive on predictability, and a structured routine can help reduce anxiety.
- Seek Professional Help:
- If the puppy’s separation anxiety persists or worsens despite your efforts, consult a professional dog trainer or behaviorist who has expertise in dealing with separation anxiety in puppies.
- Look for trainers or behaviorists who have a proven track record and positive reviews from previous clients.
Remember, every puppy is different, so the pace at which you increase the time apart may vary. It’s important to observe your puppy’s behavior and adjust the training accordingly. Patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement will be key to helping your puppy overcome separation anxiety.