Soothe Your Puppy’s Separation Anxiety With These Strategies
By Kristen Seymour
You probably miss your puppy when you leave him at home, and your pup misses you, too. But if your puppy seems completely distraught when you leave—barking nonstop, exhibiting destructive behavior, or pacing excessively, for example—he may be experiencing a common issue called separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety occurs when a puppy (or a grown dog, for that matter) becomes highly agitated when a parent leaves. It can be mild (such as a dog who doesn’t exhibit anxious behavior unless left alone for an extended period) or can range to very severe (such as a dog that panics if a parent even leaves the room and/or demonstrates highly destructive behavior if left alone for any period of time).
It’s important to understand that if your puppy exhibits signs of separation anxiety when you leave, it’s not because they want to punish you for leaving. It’s because they’re stressed and need you to help them learn to feel comfortable on their own. That said, it’s important to keep in mind that puppies should not be left home alone for hours and hours on end; they need potty breaks, exercise, and social stimulation. If they don’t receive those things, they’re almost certain to engage in undesirable behaviors.
A dog or puppy with separation anxiety can make it look like a tornado happened in your home and may even injure themselves as they try to escape. There’s also the emotional trauma of consistent anxiety. Let’s talk about the causes and signs of separation anxiety and how to address it in safe and positive ways.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
There are several reasons a dog may experience separation anxiety. The first one to consider for a new puppy is the fact that they’re going through plenty of life changes all at once: leaving siblings and a mother, going to a new home, living with new humans who may look and smell different. After all, you may act a little out of sorts if you suddenly landed in a new home with people you don’t know.
Until your puppy settles into their new environment and becomes comfortable with their new family, it’s not unusual for them to whine, bark, and seem a bit nervous when left alone. But that doesn’t mean you should just wait it out and see if the symptoms improve. As a pet parent, it’s important to take steps to make sure these symptoms don’t develop into full-fledged separation anxiety; this is an issue that’s easier to prevent than it is to treat.
Other changes can also trigger these symptoms, such as a new person added to the home (or a regular member of the household suddenly leaving) or a move to a new residence, even if the relocation is with all the same family members.
An altered schedule can also create separation anxiety in your puppy, especially if you brought your puppy home during a break when you had lots of time to spend together such as a holiday or summer vacation, and then you go back to work or school without training your puppy to remain calm when left alone.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Puppies
There are numerous symptoms that can indicate separation anxiety in a puppy, but remember, these only apply if your puppy exhibits them when you’re preparing to leave or when you’re not with them. If, for example, your puppy chews on the leg of your table all the time and not just when you leave them alone, there may be a different behavioral issue, such as teething, at play or perhaps a destructive phase in your puppy’s adolescence.
If you’re aware that your puppy is anxious when you’re gone but unsure how long it lasts or how severe their symptoms are, set up a video monitor. This way, you can keep tabs on exactly what’s happening, when it begins, and how long it lasts every time you leave the house.
How to Help a Puppy With Separation Anxiety
The first step any pet parent should take when they suspect their dog or puppy has separation anxiety is to schedule a visit with their veterinarian. Many of the symptoms of separation anxiety, such as inappropriate urination and defecation, could also be signs of a medical issue.
The goal is to teach your puppy to enjoy spending some relaxing time alone and to remain calm when they experience the cues that currently cause them anxiety. With that in mind, try the following strategies.
Provide plenty of exercise and interaction when you’re home
Tired puppies aren’t just more likely to fall asleep when you leave, but they also tend to be less anxious in general. Fun, interactive brain games are also great to incorporate.
Keep your comings and goings calm
It’s natural to want to give your puppy lots of extra love and affection right before you leave—and maybe even more natural to feel inclined to snuggle your puppy and celebrate upon your return. However, making a big deal out of your comings and goings can actually contribute to your puppy’s separation anxiety, so for 10 to 20 minutes before—and after—your outing, play it cool. You can say good-bye and hello to your puppy, but do so in a low-key way. If you don’t make a big deal out of being separated and reunited, your puppy might not think it’s anything to worry about, either.
Practice with short sessions
If your puppy follows you from room to room and gets upset when you’re out of sight for any time at all, work on commanding them to lay down and stay for longer and longer periods of time, starting with being apart for just a moment. Put your puppy in a down-stay in the area where you’ll regularly leave them, then walk out of the room, returning a moment later to reward them with a treat and low-key praise. Keep practicing, extending the amount of time each session. If you’re dealing with a severe case, you’ll need to increase the time very gradually.
Create the right environment for your puppy
Crate training can be a great way to keep your puppy safe when you’re away, but some pups manage separation anxiety better when they’re in a more open (but still puppy-proofed) space blocked off with baby gates. Whatever space your puppy is in should be designed with their comfort in mind with cozy bedding, appropriate lighting, comfortable temperature, and a favorite durable toy. \
Identify and desensitize cues
At what point does your puppy begin to seem anxious? Is it when you put on your shoes and grab your keys? Does the howling begin a few minutes after you walk out the door? Take note of what sets your puppy off—and when it occurs—and then work on pairing those triggers with a positive experience. If your puppy becomes upset every time you grab your travel coffee mug, for instance, offer a treat (ideally, one you don’t normally give them) every time so they start to associate the event they don’t like with something they love.
Leave them with high-value treats and toys
What better way to teach your puppy that being alone for a bit is okay than to provide them with something special whenever you leave? Durable food puzzles and interactive treat toys, such as a Puppy Kong, are great because they not only help your puppy kill time but also provide some serious mental stimulation, which helps burn a bit of energy.
Consider doggy daycare or dog walkers
If your puppy continues to struggle with being home alone or if your schedule makes it difficult to provide the time and attention your puppy needs, outside help may be a great solution. Taking your puppy to doggy daycare helps them burn off excess energy, socialize with other dogs, and associate time away from you with something they enjoy. Having a dog walker come to your home may not provide the same socialization as a daycare setting, but it will give your puppy a break and some exercise. And the dog walker can provide you with some insight into your dog’s daytime behavior.
If your puppy has been given a clean bill of health by your veterinarian and none of these suggestions seem to help, it may be time to call a veterinary behaviorist. He or she can help develop some positive reinforcement strategies to help your puppy become more comfortable staying home alone, and can also identify whether other behavior problems, such as submissive urination or boredom, are a factor.