We don’t often think about needing to ‘train’ our dogs to be left alone, many of us will have been lucky to live with dogs who can be left without a problem, perhaps you’ve left your puppy for varying durations since they were young, or you simply never had to think twice about it and your dog has always been happy on their own. This is a reality many of us take for granted.
When you live with a dog who can’t be left alone without becoming distressed, it can hugely impact your life and the lives of everyone around you.
Some dogs will naturally be more prone to separation related issues, there are individuals whose attachment to their family goes beyond what we might consider ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’, instead it’s an attachment that makes it impossible for them to cope on their own.
These dogs will benefit from very gradual progressions and learning to spend time independently even when their family are at home.
Other dogs will develop separation related issues through bad experiences or a lack of experience. If your dog has had a scary experience when left alone or felt stressed when alone, they are more likely to develop issues. Likewise, if you never leave your dog and they’ve never experienced being alone, it can be incredibly scary when you suddenly leave for the first time, and this stress will have a lasting impact.
As with any behaviour problem, early intervention and prevention is always the best way. With separation issues, building up alone time from the start is the best way to avoid future problems, but if your dog already feels stressed about being alone, it’s important to work carefully to help them feel more relaxed.
Whether your dog is a pro at being left alone, an anxious wreck or a total newbie, there are some really simple ways to start making alone-time stress-free for your dog. You can adjust the time lengths based on your dog’s tolerance and previous experience with separation.
Closing doors behind you while you walk from room to room will mean your dog can’t constantly follow. Return after a few seconds, gradually increasing the time. Keep your exit and entry neutral… no big excited greetings, this will only add to the anticipation of your return!
If a closed door is too much, try a baby gate so your dog can see you but not follow
When you do leave a room, scatter some treats on the floor as you leave or pop a licky mat down. This helps to build a positive association with leaving and reduce frustration of not being able to follow you
When you sit down to eat dinner, pop your dog in their crate or playpen next to you and give them their own chew or food to enjoy. Each time you sit down to eat, move them further away from you.
Some dogs benefit hugely from having a safe space where they can relax on their own. An enclosed room or pen can work equally well
If your dog learns to be settled in this safe space then it can really transform separation issues
Ensure your crate is in a quiet area of the house so there's less footfall and therefore less disturbance
Cover your dog's crate so they are less anxious or frustrated about your movements
You can place a recently worn jumper near to your dog's crate so they can still smell you
Read this blog post for more crate training tips https://www.adolescentdogs.com/post/to-crate-or-not-to-crate
Some dogs benefit from learning to sleep in a crate overnight next to your bed. Once your dog is settled in your room for a few weeks, you can begin slowly moving the crate out of your room. Once the crate is successfully moved from your room, many separation issues will have dramatically improved
Enrichment and Activity
Using enrichment toys, long-lasting chews or fun activities can help your dog enjoy being alone
Start by teaching your dog to enjoy these activities while you’re there. A Kong stuffed with yummy food or a long-lasting natural chew (e.g. calves hoof, pizzle stick) are ideal for this, he can be busy with this while you’re working or doing household chores
Once your dog is enjoying these in your company, then begin to briefly leave the room before returning. Understand your dog’s tolerance before you leave, for example, 1 second might be enough for one dog, while for another you could leave for 2minutes or 45minutes!
Aim to return while he’s still engaged with his activity so you can exit and enter with minimal impact
If your dog remains relaxed, keep walking in and out, desensitising him to you leaving and entering the room
Exercise & play
Ensure your dog is well exercised before you leave them alone. You should aim to walk your dog for at least 45 minutes.
Walking creates a dopamine high, so your dog won't be ready to relax yet!
After your walk, run through 15 minutes of fun training with your dog. Things like fun tricks or scentwork is great for stimulating your dog's brain
After training, set your dog up with an enrichment activity such as a snuffle mat, puzzle feeder, frozen kong, sniffing out kibble in the garden
This combination of events will help to relax your dog before you leave. If you try to leave your dog alone immediately after a walk, he is unlikely to be settled because he's still buzzing!
When you're home with your dog, make sure to spend a good amount of time playing with them, training and cuddling. Creating a secure bond with your dog is essential for building their confidence about being left alone. If you ignore your dog too much, they'll be more desperate for your attention and more stressed when you leave.
Break the Associations
Dogs with separation anxiety will often notice all the little signs that you’re going out … certain clothes, shoes, car keys, you talking or behaving in specific ways
Each sign will add more stress to the leaving process, so by the time you close the door your dog is already over-threshold and unable to cope
Breaking these associations can calm the whole situation and avoid the escalating stress, so pick up your keys, put them down, sit on the sofa, put your coat/shoes on, walk around, sit down, take them off, say ‘goodbye, bye, bye!’ as you walk around the house…and so on
Make a list of all those ‘signals’ you give off when you’re getting ready to leave and then find ways to perform them without actually going anywhere!
Having some background noise such as a tv or radio on can help to reduce the impact of sounds from your daily routines or disturbances from outside
If you have a habit of chatting to your dog all day long, your absence will be more noticeable for your dog and they might find it difficult to cope with the sudden silence. Try to reduce how much you chat away to your dog
Naturally we like routines, we go to work at a certain time, walk the dog at a certain time and generally keep fairly consistent time schedules
Having rigidly set routines can create stress for our dogs because they anticipate events and build associations
Mixing up routines will help reduce this stress and avoid a predictable daily life which teaches a dog to rely on routines
Make small changes to break the expected routines, for example, vary the time of your dog’s walks, training sessions, meal times and alone time. Vary how these are done too, for example, dinner time as a training session or breakfast scattered in the garden. Alone time in a crate with a chew or in the kitchen with an activity toy
Being able to cope with change is an important skill and this is an ideal time to teach your dog to enjoy varying routines!
You can progressively combine all these aspects, for example, give your dog a chew and then perform some of your typical leaving signals while staying in the same room. Or put your dog in his crate/safe space with a chew and then put your shoes on and step out the front door for a few seconds or minutes.
Repetition is essential in this training. Separation often becomes more of a problem when it’s not practiced regularly, so make sure you work on this training throughout the day. Making it part of the daily routine will ensure it’s not a scary, one-off event for your dog.
Remember to keep your entry and exit neutral and calm, if you engage excitedly with your dog when you return to him then he’s more likely to anticipate this exciting event, making it harder for him to relax while you’re gone.
Equally, if you talk to him lots either throughout the day (making your absence more noticeable) or you talk lots before you leave and make a big fuss then you’re already increasing his stress level before you’ve even gone.
It can be hard not to fuss over our dogs before we leave and even harder to ignore their welcome greeting when we return, but keeping this to a minimum will help prevent big spikes in stress around the separation process.
This training is a gradual progression, especially for dogs with long-term separation issues, and it requires a lot of thought and planning to ensure the dog remains as calm and relaxed as possible throughout the training. If you have a dog with more extreme issues or you are unsure about how best to approach the training then seek help from an experienced professional. Separation issues are a sensitive area and damage can be done quickly if not approached in the more suitable way, so it’s always a good idea to get some professional advice.
Top 3 exercises to PREVENT Separation Anxiety in a puppy
If you have a new puppy, it's essential to work on your puppy's separation skills early on
Micro absences. Make a list of small household chores that start with a small amount of time and gradually take longer. i,e. Going for a wee, having a quick shower, bringing shopping in from the car, hanging washing out, having a bath, cooking a meal, making a phone call. Start with the short absences and build up. In week 1, everytime you go to do a short absence, you should scatter some of their food on the floor. As times goes on, the puppy will find these micro absences easier . This is a gentle way for the puppy to learn to cope with being on his own and allowing him to recover, and will lay some strong foundations for more impressive absences later on
Tie out toys. Tie a stuffed kong in the crate, pen, or by the bed. Go and sit on the sofa and watch a film/read a book. The puppy will take the risk to leave you and go and do something in the room away from you and it pays off. It reinforces confidence and curiosity, and rewards the dog for taking that risk.
Eat away dinners. Set up a playpen next to where you eat dinner. Whilst you eat, the puppy can also eat something like a kong. Everytime you have a meal, move the puppy slightly further away. If they struggle, move them closer again and add distance again the following day.
When not playing these games, you need to be there for your puppy. Using play, training, walks and cuddles. You can’t over love a dog into separation anxiety. In fact, the more you ignore their need for attention, the more they will worry when you do leave. Creating a secure bond with your puppy is essential for building that confidence about you leaving them alone.
Written by Naomi White