How to prevent separation anxiety in dogs – training yourself and your dog

For dogs absence does not make the heart grow fonder; they love you anyway. However much you love and adore your puppy, separation will always be far worse for them than for you. So can we reduce the stress and anxiety our puppies and dogs feel when we leave them? Can we also at the same time feel less guilty? The answer is yes. The solution is training both ourselves and our dogs. As with many things prevention is better than cure so the earlier, the better. But do not despair if your dog has grown beyond puppyhood. This stressful situation can be improved for all dogs. We have made dogs dependent on us. Leaving them causes naturally high levels of stress. We owe it to them to give them all the support we can through patient training.
How to prevent separation anxiety in dogs

#1 The invisible stress of separation anxiety in dogs
#2 Symptoms of separation anxiety
#3 The prioritization of training to avoid separation anxiety
#4 Factors that worsen separation anxiety in dogs and puppies
#5 Training for yourself and your dog
Stage 1 – Training while you are at home
Stage 2 – Leaving the house
Extra steps to reassure your puppy or dog

Linked Content:

Introducing a new puppy to an older dog

The ‘invisible’ stress of separation anxiety for dogs

Invisible Separation Anxiety in Dogs and Puppies
Separation anxiety can be invisible to absent owners

Does my dog have separation anxiety?  The answer could be yes, even if we are not aware of any symptoms. The following training tips offer advice on how to prevent separation anxiety in dogs and puppies. As is the case with all potentially stressful situations with our beloved canines, the answer is training. Early training is best, but all dogs can be helped to manage this anxiety.

It is important to note that studies have revealed that this can be an ‘invisible’ condition to owners.  This means, sadly, that many dog owners may be completely unaware of their dog’s upset.   This has been shown by research based around filming dogs left alone.  Owners are left shocked and upset by the footage replayed to them[1].   A puppy or dog can exhibit stress without causing any obvious damage or mess. I experienced this myself many years ago when my neighbors reported my dog howling during the day. At the time  I had absolutely no idea that she was so distressed!   This also clearly indicates that this is a problem for dogs and their owners on a huge scale. 

The training tips in this article are thus offered as good practice to avoid separation anxiety in your puppy or or dog even if you don’t think you don’t think your dog is suffering.  

Classic symptoms of separation anxiety in a dog or puppy

Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs
Naturally distressed, not naughty

The following behaviors are all associated with separation anxiety:

#1 Chewing up clothes, cushions and other fabrics

This is a common symptom and the one that typically causes the most upset to a dog owner.  It reflects the fact that your dog is feeling insecure.  Often puppies and dogs try to chew items that have your scent and nest themselves within the remnants.  This creates a form of security blanket for themselves (see below for leaving something behind with your scent on it).

#2 Erratic behavior such as pacing, howling and heavily panting

This is less destructive, but also more difficult to address. Without the use of a pet-cam or other video device you might be fully unaware of the distress your dog is suffering.

#3 A normally clean dog might soil your house

This is not a cruel and unusual form of revenge for you leaving them. It is a clear sign that your dog is suffering from a high level of anxiety.

#4 Signs of attempts to escape

You might notice scratch marks on doors and floors or items knocked over near windows. Once again this is not willful destructiveness, but a desperate response to loneliness.

Prioritizing training to prevent separation anxiety in dogs and puppies

How to prevent separation anxiety in dogs and puppies - training must be prioritized
Learning to be left alone

Many puppy owners start with training their dog to behave on the leash, not to mess on carpets and to sit or wait.  These are all important but arguably the most essential thing is to prepare your puppy for being alone.  This will prevent or reduce your dog’s anxiety during those inevitable periods of separation.

For many of us it is one of the saddest moments of  the day.  The moment we need to say goodbye to our treasured and devoted companions as we leave the house. It feels cruel, it feels like betrayal.  Remember, we have made dogs dependent on us.  As soon as they imprint upon us, we are their family and the natural state for a puppy or dog is to always be with his pack or family.

This leads to what is commonly known as separation anxiety in dogs.  It is cruelly ironic that the symptoms of this lead to some owners giving up their dog.  It is no surprise that chewed up clothes and furniture can often lead to people feeling they cannot cope with a ‘naughty’ or ‘destructive’ dog. 

Dogs are not being willfully destructive but experiencing intense distress. This is due to the unnatural situation of separation that we place them in.  Nor is this any form of ‘disorder’. It represents a need for adaptation that can be bridged through training.  This is fully borne out by  academic studies [2]

Following the Covid lockdown this threatens to be an even bigger problem.  Many puppies and young dogs may never have known anything other than near constant companionship.

But like any potentially stressful situation, effective training provides an answer. We must realize what our dogs are feeling and how to change their perceptions in order to cure separation anxiety in dogs.

Otherwise it may grow into a larger and more destructive problem. It is much more difficult to cure than to prevent.  If your dog is no longer a puppy then following these steps can still help.  Yet, if you do not notice any progress in a couple of weeks then you should consider gaining the help of a dog behaviorist.  They will put in place a clear and workable plan.

Factors that could worsen or intensify stress – think and plan to avoid causing separation anxiety in your dog or puppy

Factors that worsen separation anxiety in dogs and puppies
Please don’t shout at me

#1 Length of period that your dog is left alone.

This is obvious but important.  Be aware that puppies (or fully grown dogs) should not be left alone for extended periods.  Experts advise the following guidelines:

  • Puppy aged at 8-10 months  – left alone no more than 1 hour
  • Puppy aged at 10-12 weeks  – left alone no more than 2 hours
  • Any other older puppy or dog – left alone no  more than 4 hours

#2 Any changes in routine

Dogs most certainly need structure to reduce any potential anxiety or stress.  They can and should be trained to be more resilient to small shifts in their routine [3]. But dogs are very attuned to us and our behavior and can find it difficult to understand and cope with change.  It could be a shift in work patterns and the time we return or something more profound like a house move.  Perhaps it is somebody leaving the home for an extended period for college or work.  These changes will undermine a dog’s security.

#3 A lack of exercise

If dogs are under-exercised then this can lead to greater anxiety. Be careful to check the exercise requirements of your dog according to breed and size.

#4 Insufficient mental and physical stimulation

If your dog does not have stimulation when alone such as toys, kongs and puzzle treats  they may vent their boredom more destructively. If the dog or puppy has had plenty of interactive play and stimulating activities before being left alone they will be in a much more settled state of mind to cope with your absence.

#5 Dog being yelled at or told off for damage or mess

Try to avoid this.  This will increase their anxiety and not help in any way.  Remember this is not really a disorder but a genuine symptom of stress.  We are placing dogs in a situation that is not natural for them.  Also your dog will not be able to associate your anger with an action that could have happened hours before.

#6 Underlying medical conditions

As always if you feel your puppy or dog  is acting in an unusual way over a period of time it is always advisable to flag this up to your vet.

#7 Dog is older or even an adopted rescue or re-home

Separation anxiety can be more entrenched. But as this uplifting story demonstrates a clear training plan can still lead to a very happy ending [5].

Training to prevent separation anxiety in a puppy

How to prevent separation anxiety in dogs and puppies through training
Relaxed in a safe place

The following advises two stages to the training. 

The first is to train your dog or puppy to be separate from you while you are in the house. A little like riding a bike with stabilizers. 

The second stage is to then get your puppy to grow accustomed to being alone in the house in gentle, gradual steps.

There are also a range of additional methods to support your puppy or dog’s transition to being left alone.

Remember to go through this at the pace that suits you and your dog. You can always go back or repeat a step if your dog seems anxious or upset.

Stage 1 – Together and Apart – Owner in house

This should be done in a series of gentle, structured steps:

#Step 1

Use a stair-gate or similar barrier to shut your puppy away from you in the room where you are going to base their ‘safe space’.  Still remain within sight or at least the hearing of your puppy.

#Step 2

Wait for around 5 minutes. Return with a treat, toy  or a kong as a distraction.  After a few more minutes open the stair-gate.  Your dog will begin to feel confident and distracted enough not to scramble to escape the place of confinement.

#Step 3

This can be even more effective if you place a bag, blanket or other ‘safe-place’ with the puppy.  You can use ‘luring’ with a treat or toy to lead your puppy on to their blanket or bag.   Some puppies and dogs find a crate left in the house as a place where they feel secure.  When you do leave the house, your pet is likely to return to this place which they associate with being both comfortable and secure even when you are not at home.

#Step 4

This ‘safe-place’ will be even more comforting if you leave something behind that smells of you.  Dogs recognize immediate family largely through smell.  This will give them a sense of your presence even when you are away.

#Step 5

Try to gradually build up the length of time that you leave your puppy or dog to build their resilience.  Build up to  half-an-hour.  If your pooch shows no signs of anxiety then this is a good sign that they will cope when you are absent.  Remember, if you have any setbacks go back a few steps and reduce the time they are left on their own.

Stage 2 – Leaving your puppy or dog and creating positive associations

Dogs are very good at picking up on connections or cues.  The important thing is to ensure that these are associated with good outcomes before ones that your dog considers upsetting.  The cues for imminent separation might include: picking up your car keys, putting your coat on without having a leash in your hand.  If they simply associate this with significant periods of being left alone then this is going to lead to anxiety.

#Step 6

Linking positive associations with these cues will reduce your puppy’s anxiety.  For example, you might put your coat on and open the door.  But, you then close the door and return to your dog to offer praise, affection or even some form of treat. 

#Step 7

The next step is to repeat the process. Leave the house for a few minutes and then return again.  As you do so offer a positive or affectionate interaction with your puppy.

If your puppy suffers a setback, do not give up. Try to go back and reduce the time period of separation again.

Extra steps you can take to prevent separation anxiety for your dog

#Step 8

Remember to try your best to create a calm atmosphere when you leave.  Don’t be tempted to make a huge fuss of your puppy.  This will help normalize the situation and make your dog feel more secure.  Of course make a fuss of your puppy on your return.  This in keeping with providing a positive outcome to your initial departure.

#Step 9

Leave activities for your dogs such as a kong or a puzzle toy to keep them occupied and relieve boredom while you are away.   Anything like tough chews is excellent as dogs find chewing a very therapeutic and engaging activity which helps keep them relaxed.

#Step 10

Try to provide something that smells of you for your dog’s safe-place.  This will comfort them. As noted above, dogs largely recognize their close family, either canine or human, through their sense of smell. This will reduce the likelihood of any damage to clothing or soft fabric items.

#Step 11

Introducing a new puppy or dog can often help alleviate separation anxiety. This might, of course, not be practical or desire.  Also it is not always a complete cure as dogs still miss the human members of the ‘pack’ specifically. Please click here for tips on introducing a puppy to a dog in your household.

Turn parting into a sweeter or at least less sour sorrow

Parting can be a sweeter sorrow?
I knew you were coming back

Although for your dog parting is certainly not sweet sorrow, with the right training and support they can cope. The benefits for the mental health of your dog will be huge.

This presents potentially the most stressful situation in dog care.  But, if you train your puppy to get used to this unnatural situation, then any form of separation anxiety for a puppy can be managed effectively.  Although harder and perhaps a longer process this is also true for older dogs.  There is also hope for rehomed dogs as Flo’s uplifting story confirms.

Don’t forget that if you already have a dog and are thinking of introducing a puppy for company then feel free to click here for tips on how to do this sensitively and successfully.

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