Dogs are social beings: that’s why they love us so much and why they make such good companions. Very few dogs will choose to isolate themselves for long periods of time. Most will prefer to be at least in the same room as their person, if not in direct contact!
Puppies tend to be even more ‘company focused’ as being alone is a real threat to their safety. Instinctively they ‘know’ that isolation can kill them. So, from a puppy’s perspective, safety is their prime concern.
Reality vs instincts
Unfortunately, most of us have to leave our dogs home alone for extended periods on a daily basis. This can cause all sorts of emotional issues if not introduced in a calm and sympathetic way. Unhappy dogs bark, howl, toilet inappropriately and destroy things to relieve their stress and frustration. However, if you introduce separation gradually, once your pup feels safe in their surroundings, you shouldn’t have too many problems as they get older.
Remember that separation distress and confinement distress aren’t necessarily the same thing. Many pups kick up a merry fuss when confined, even if their person is sitting directly outside the crate! Treat crate training as a separate issue and teach ‘home alone’ with your pup in a large confined area such as a pen with a toilet area provided.
How to do it.
Start right from day one by having your pup confined in a pen rather than loose in your house. Why? Because during the course of your normal activities you’ll leave the room for short periods of time – even if it’s just to go to the bathroom! If your pup can’t follow you, they’ll quickly get used to you disappearing and reappearing on a very random schedule. They’re never alone for more than a few minutes but those minutes happen very frequently.
I don’t actually ‘leave’ my pups for the first week they’re with me. I come and go out of the room, I do what I need to do and get on with my day. But my pup isn’t abandoned, ever. They sleep in the same room as me at night and they settle and learn that their pen is a safe place where great things (toys and meals) happen.
If my pup notices that I’m gone and starts barking or crying I just continue with my day, returning to the room with the penned pup quickly. However, I DO NOT interact with my fussing pup. I enter the room and just get on with things. They usually settle pretty quickly once I’m back in sight and once that happens I’ll interact with them then. This isn’t the same as letting them ‘cry it out’.
If your pup is distressed, you need to reduce their panic. Get back in that room! Refusing to return until the pup is quiet is counter-productive to what you want your pup to learn. ‘Crying it out’ is a sure way to teach a dog to be very distressed by separation. The pup gets more and more panicked and screams itself into an exhausted heap. That’s not training, that’s cruelty.
If you can’t be there for those very important first days, do your best to find someone who can help you out. Introduce your pup to them well before your absence.
Introduce longer absences gradually. Leave the room for longer periods, especially if your pup is sleepy or has been given a food toy or chew to entertain them. This helps your pup learn how to be alone happily. I like to feed as much of my pup’s food as possible out of treat toys. They’ll be left with 3 or 4 different toys and by the time I get back they’re usually full and comatose!
Appropriate chew items are very important. Chewing relieves boredom, frustration and stress, so appropriate chew items are a major factor in teaching ‘home alone’ relaxation.
An ‘appropriate’ chew item is something designed for chewing, not a squeaky or plush toy. Depending on your pup’s size and breed, the pet shop should stock an array of suitable items. Avoid rawhide if you can – the manufacturing process is dubious and rawhide has choked a lot of dogs.
I like to use cow hooves, goat horns, Benebones, Nylabones and similar toys. You want something large and tough enough that your pup can’t choke themselves on it (or parts of it!) while you’re gone.
A feeling of safety
Some pups feel safer in a ‘den’ – an enclosed bed that provides a feeling of security. A cheap way of providing a den is to cut a hole in the front of a large cardboard box (keeping the top in place) and placing their bed inside. This provides a safe secure place for her to chew her bones or sleep when left.
Leaving a radio on can provide soothing background noise. Pop stations with a mix of music and talk seem to work well as the music covers environmental noise that can stimulate home alone dogs to bark. The human voice provides company.
A word of caution
If you gradually build up the duration of your absences and follow the above guidelines, your pup should quickly settle into a routine of emptying her puzzle toy and then having a good snooze.
A short amount of fussing is normal but if she is crying and screaming persistently try reducing the duration again or contact a qualified positive reinforcement trainer for help. Don’t let the problem go on as the longer it is an issue the more entrenched it will become and the harder it will be to resolve. Separation anxiety is a panic disorder, not a sign of disobedience or naughtiness.
Sarah and the Gang
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