If you bought a new puppy during lockdown, you are in good company – over 3.2 million households have taken on a new pet since Covid restrictions began. Spending more time at home has probably meant you have built a very strong bond with your dog, and they will have got used to always having someone around. However, as we start to return to the workplace and to social events, your dog is going to have to get used to staying at home alone.
Chances are, your new dog has been fundamental to your mental health over the past year, but what can you do to make sure your dog’s mental health doesn’t suffer when they start being left alone? In this blog we will take a look at how you can help your dog or puppy get used to being alone and make the process as stress free as possible. As there are key differences between how you should teach a young dog how to be alone and how you can help a dog who has already developed separation anxiety, we have included two sections to help with both scenarios.
How to train your puppy to be alone
As a puppy owner, you will already know that there is so much to teach your puppy. From potty training, to behaviour training, to lead training, there’s no disputing that you’ll have your hands full in the first few months of puppy ownership. However, one really key element of training that you do not want to forget is ‘alone’ training. Teaching your puppy that it is ok to be left alone is fundamental in ensuring that your puppy does not develop separation anxiety, which would make it very difficult and stressful for you to ever leave your dog alone in the future. Luckily, teaching your puppy to be comfortable whilst being alone is usually quite straightforward – let’s have a look at what you should do.
1. Create a safe ‘alone’ area
You should create an area within your home where your dog can feel safe and comfortable, this can be used as a dedicated ‘alone’ area. This could be a bed, a crate, a play pen, or even a room within the house shut off by using baby gates. You can make the area more interesting by adding toys that remain there, to help create a positive association for your puppy. Another way you can get your puppy used to the space and build positive associations, is by feeding them in the area or sitting in there with them to begin with.
2. Teach your puppy to be comfortable alone
Once your puppy understands and is happy with their ‘alone’ area, you can start teaching them how to use their space. Start by encouraging them to go to the area and stay there whilst you are still present – making sure you reward the desired good behaviour with a treat or with play. Next, ask them to stay in the area whilst you move slightly away, but still remain in sight. Return immediately, rewarding them again for their good behaviour. Repeat this process, gradually increasing the time you stay away. Once your puppy is happy with you staying away from them in the same room, progress to moving out of the room.
It’s important to progress slowly – at the beginning even just three or four minutes alone will feel like a very long time to your puppy, so be careful not to overdo it. By being consistent with this exercise over a few days, your puppy should gradually become comfortable with being alone in the room for longer periods of time. Once you have built up to an hour, your puppy should hopefully be comfortable enough to be left on their own for longer periods of time.
3. Prepare your puppy to be left home alone
Providing that your training has gone well so far, your puppy should now be ready to be left home alone for a short period of time. Try to make your puppy’s alone area as interesting as possible, with stimulating toys such as treat puzzle toys and chews to help keep them occupied whilst you are away. You could also try leaving the radio or TV on to help soothe your puppy, as this will drown out noises from outside, which may worry your puppy. If possible, you could also notify a neighbour about your puppy’s first time home alone, so that they can get in contact with you if they can hear your puppy is in distress.
Once your puppy has progressed enough in their training to be left alone for a few hours at a time, but not for a full day, you could book a dog walker or pet sitter to check in on your puppy part-way through the day, perhaps taking them for a walk or spending an hour playing with them in the house. This will help break up the day for your puppy and also allow time for a toilet break!
How to help a dog overcome separation anxiety
Dogs who were not taught ‘alone’ time correctly as puppies may develop separation anxiety. In fact, even dogs who did receive the correct training can develop separation anxiety for various reasons, and research suggests that up to 8 out of 10 dogs find it difficult and stressful to stay home alone. Some dogs bark excessively when their main caregiver leaves the house due to separation anxiety. They may also display other stress-related behaviours such as destroying furniture, unwanted toileting, and pacing. In extreme cases, the dog may bark non-stop until the owner returns home, causing huge annoyance to anyone who lives nearby.
Luckily, there are some things you can do to try and reduce separation anxiety in your dog. The most important thing to remember is to never punish your dog for displaying separation anxiety symptoms whilst you were out, as they will then start to associate you coming home with being told off which will just lead to further anxiety and its related behaviours, such as barking and chewing.
1. Practice Counterconditioning
For mild cases of separation anxiety, you may be able to follow a process called counterconditioning to help teach your dog that being alone isn’t so bad. Counterconditioning means working to change your dog’s negative reaction to a certain stimulus into a positive one, building positive associations with whatever it is that causes your dog distress. In the case of separation anxiety, you can counter-condition your dog by making them associate being alone with really positive things. For example, a puzzle toy filled with your dog’s favourite food could keep your dog occupied for half an hour, so try giving one to your dog whilst you leave the house for half an hour, returning before your dog has a chance to start worrying about your absence. Once your dog is happy with this arrangement, try leaving for a longer period of time, providing additional puzzle toys and activities if necessary.
2. Minimise disturbances at home
Some dogs with separation anxiety get particularly stressed by unusual noises or occurrences whilst they are left alone – such as people walking past the window or loud outside noises such as bin collection. To help alleviate the impact of outside events increasing your dog’s anxiety, try shutting the curtains and leaving on a TV or radio so that your dog is less likely to notice what is going on outside.
3. Provide your dog with plenty of mental stimulation and physical activity
Providing your dog with plenty of opportunity for physical and mental stimulation is a great way to help them become less anxious. Exercise and play not only provides your dog with a better quality of life, it also reduces stress and allows them to display ‘normal’ dog behaviours. As a minimum, your dog needs to have at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, and to help stimulate the mind you could provide treat puzzle toys, as well as taking them on different walking routes so they can experience different sights, sounds and smells. Try to take your dog out for a walk just before they are due to be left alone so that they can burn off some energy and go to the toilet. Then, before you leave the house, give them a meal so that they are content when you leave and more likely to relax.
When to seek Veterinary intervention for Separation Anxiety
In severe cases, your dog may require professional help to overcome their separation anxiety. If your dog becomes extremely stressed when you leave them alone, and you have tried some of the above techniques with no success, bring your dog to Knutsford Vets Surgery for an appointment with one of our vets. We’ll be able to assess your dog and possibly refer them to a specialist clinical animal behaviourist, who will work to identify the cause of your dog’s separation anxiety and develop a suitable treatment plan. Contact us today for more information.
Alternatively, your vet may feel that medication is the best option in helping your dog relax. Any medication should be used in conjunction with a behavioural modification training programme such as counterconditioning so that your dog will eventually not need to rely on medication alone.