How to help a puppy with separation anxiety
February 04, 2020
Survival guide - Part 6Comments
This is part 6 of our puppy survival guide. In this part we’ll look at separation anxiety and how we can avoid it.
When we first brought Betty home we were completely inseparable for the first couple of days. We took time off work to help her settle into her new home. I knew this was a double-edged sword, though. I knew we couldn’t have Betty expecting this was the norm and we would be around 24 hours a day.
I knew that the time would soon come when we’d have to go back to work and break up our little love-in. I knew that is when the dreaded Separation Anxiety can kick in — for the puppy, that is. You’ll feel it too, but you’re the human and this post is for dogs — Get your own advice or pay for therapy!
Betty is a breed that is known to suffer from this issue, so I had a plan already prepared to help us avoid this issue and I’d like to share it with you because it really helped us out with her and it will help you out too.
Preventing separation anxiety is 100 times easier than curing it, so if you just make time early on you’ll be fine.
If at all possible, I’d recommend taking a week off from work when your puppy first arrives. If there are more of you in the household you could stagger the time off so you each just take a couple of days, or extend the time off to slightly longer than a week. You need time to introduce your puppy to their new surroundings and family and also prepare them for things like spending time alone. This takes time so I’d recommend a week with them as a minimum while they’re settling in - there’s a lot of things to get through!
I’ve broken the help down into 5 easy to follow steps that you can just drop into your day-to-day routine for the first week. Firstly though, let us just cover some groundwork.
What is separation anxiety in dogs?
It is a condition where your dog will exhibit out of character behaviour when you are separated from each other. Say when you leave for work, for example. This behaviour could be excessive barking, howling, pacing or the destruction of their surroundings to name a few. You have to separate out normal dog behaviour as dogs have been known to chew furniture, make noise and act strange on occasions - it’s kind of their job.
These out of character behaviours are sometimes referred to as Separation Related Behaviours (SRB) and they can be challenging to live with - especially if they’re chewing your chair legs and pulling off your skirting boards!
How do you know if your puppy has separation anxiety?
In most cases, you’ll know. You’ll come home to find some kind of mess or reports of howling or barking from the neighbours. If you’re leaving your puppy alone for the first time, especially if they’re a breed known to suffer from separation anxiety, it is safe to assume there will be some degree of anxiety. You’ve been a close pack for the last few days and now you’re leaving the den.
In some cases, though, your puppy may suffer in silence. You’ll come home to hugs and kisses blissfully unaware that your puppy has been pacing, shaking or whimpering the whole time you’re gone. There’s no real way to know without something like a camera to check on them.
We bought a Nest indoor camera to keep an eye on Betty and that has proved to be money well spent. You can view the live footage from your phone, tablet or PC/Mac and watch back footage for the last 30 days. It’ll even send you an alert if it hears a dog barking or sees movement.
I’d recommend looking at some kind of camera you can view remotely as you’ll only be able to tell if your puppy has separation anxiety by monitoring them when you leave the house.
Breeds that are known to suffer from separation anxiety
Any breed can suffer from it. Like humans, dogs are individuals with their own personalities. Some are more independent and confident than others and some can be fearful and timid. That being said, here is a list of some breeds that are particularly susceptible to separation anxiety.
- Border Collie
- German Shepherd
- Australian Shepherd
- King Charles Spaniels
- Jack Russell
- Bichon Frise
- Italian Greyhound
- German Shorthaired Pointer
- Cocker Spaniel
- Toy Poodle
Basically, breeds that crave and love human attention.
Leaving your puppy at home
Remember that your puppy can only roughly hold their bladder for one hour per month of age. So if your puppy is 8 weeks old, they can only be on their own for 2 hours at a time. You can’t have them think it is normal to go in the house at this crucial stage, so I’d set 2 hours alone as your limit they can be left alone. Consider that true up until they’re around 6 months old. Then they will probably have a similar routine to an adult dog of their size and breed. As stated earlier, all dogs are individuals. Some may hold it like a camel and some may act like a leaky bucket and then there are all of those in between!
Puppies really need regular supervision while they’re very young. If you work during the day you’ll have to arrange for someone to puppy sit, or at least call in and keep up your housebreaking routine. If you work closeby you could pop home in breaks and lunch to keep the routine going. I’d say you want to make 2 hours alone your limit while they’re a puppy. Once they’re around 6 months old you can start to extend this.
What causes separation anxiety?
It isn’t known exactly what causes separation anxiety and why some dogs are more susceptible than others. Older rescue dogs may have some trauma in their past that causes it. For puppies, though, I believe it is just something scary and a change they don’t like. As I’ve already said every puppy personality is different. If the separation is managed badly with certain puppies, that’s when I think it could turn into a more serious problem like this That was the reason for this post. I want new puppy owners to be aware and plan for the day they leave their puppy on their own for the first time.
Anyway, onto the steps I want to outline to make sure your puppy handles the separation well.
5 Steps to avoid separation anxiety
When we first left Betty on her own and monitored her the outcome was gut-wrenching howling. It was like watching a different puppy. Her head went fully back and she started howling like a wolf, moving to each corner of the room and continuing on and on. We purposely did this exercise a couple of days after getting her. As I said, I was expecting the worst and Betty duly delivered. It was okay, though because I had a plan! In fact, that plan was already in action. By monitoring her we could gauge how bad her anxiety was. There was always the possibility she’d just walk over and sit in her crate, but that would’ve been too easy!
So this brings me to the 5 steps.
Step 1: Monitor your puppy for 5 minutes while they’re on their own.
If you do this you’ll know how severe the situation is (or not). You can expect some whimpering and moaning, they’re still a puppy after all. If they’re in distress for the full 5 minutes then you know, like we did with Betty, there’s some work to be done to ensure this doesn’t turn into separation anxiety.
If they act normal and seem relaxed you can tick this one off and go grab a well earned coffee. You’re the greatest puppy parent known to man. Seriously, if this does happen, build up your time outside up to 30 minutes. If nothing happens within that time then skip past these next steps you are golden, my friend!
Step 2: While you’re at home leave your puppy in one room and you go sit in another room - Sounds easy enough, right?
They’ll likely kickoff at this turn of events, but it will probably be a different type of kicking off than you observed in the first step. This will be the attention-seeking type of kicking off. You’re going to be strong and sit there until there is a lull in the proceedings — even if it is for just a second while they catch a breath at first. That’s your chance to reappear like magic. The goal of this step is to have them associate being calm and quiet with a good thing — you magically reappearing in this case. Your timing is going to have to be impeccable here.
If you read earlier blog posts, you’ll have a cue word for the rare and fleeting occasions your puppy is being a good citizen. We use “Good Girl” for Betty. As soon as your puppy goes quiet, issue this cue, then bless them with your presence and give them your attention. Don’t get the timing wrong or you’ll be rewarding them for the unwanted behaviour! If you do mess the timing up, withdraw your attention and wait for another opportunity.
Now repeat and repeat until you see the penny drop that if they’re calm they get something good.
If there is no lull after 5 minutes, you’re going to have to take things slower. You’re going to have to build up a distance with your puppy first.
See this brilliant video about teaching your puppy to stay. You’ll basically have to do that until you can get as far away as another room! Then you can start this step again.
We’re making good progress now. I will admit it feels cruel to sit there while your furbaby cries, but as the saying goes, you’ve got to be cruel to be kind!
Step 3: Get your puppy used to you opening the door.
What you’ll do is unlock the door, open it, then close it and lock it again. Anyone observing you from the street will think you’ve gone mad, but this is all for a good cause! What this will do is not put a marker in your puppy’s head that the sound of the door means they’re going to be on their own. This should desensitise them to that noise. If your puppy can see you doing this that’s even better - they’ll also think you’ve gone mad, but they’ll just be glad you’re still there! Repeat this until your puppy is bored and accepts that you opening the door does not mean anything bad and is no big deal. When I say repeat, don’t just stand there doing it over and over, do it once then go about something else and come back to it later.
Step 4: Extend step 3 by actually stepping out of the door, then coming straight back in.
If people thought you were mad before, now they’ll be picking up the phone for men in white coats. So open the door like in step 3 but just step out of the door and come straight back in. Ideally, your puppy can see you doing this or your little show will be wasted on them!
Step 5: Step out and close the door behind you
The final step is to open the door, then step out and close the door behind you, then immediately unlock the door and come back in. Don’t leave it too long where they might start barking or howling after you. Get straight back in there! Go about your business and then repeat this a few times. Eventually, starting at 5 seconds, build up the time you’re gone until you can leave them in there for 5 minutes on their own.
Again, a camera that you can watch via your phone is a great tool here.
This is a really important note when doing these 5 steps and in general. You have to NOT make a fuss of leaving or coming home. That goes for coming home from work, the shops, doing the above 5 steps, or anything where you leave the house or come home. I know it is tempting to give kisses and tell them you won’t be long and cuddle them because you feel bad about leaving them. This is the worst thing you can do.
You have to make leaving your home so matter of fact that they see it as a normal routine. The same thing goes for when you come home. Don’t go rushing over and fuss them because you’ve not seen them in a couple of hours or because you’ve had a bad day. You can do it!
I’m not saying be emotionless and totally ignore them. Just don’t do it straight away. Don’t let them think there’s a big deal with you coming or going. It’ll be hard but well worth it. Wait until they’ve stopped fussing you, stopped jumping up on you and settled down, then you can say hello. It teaches them two things. Firstly, you coming home isn’t a big deal, it’s not like you being away should be anything they’re worried about. Secondly, they don’t get rewarded for jumping up on people. Only when they’re calm do they get attention.
When one of us would return home and Betty would come running over, jumping up and making a fuss it was torture not to react. She’d be scratching at our legs, running through our legs, jumping up. As soon as she calmed down that was the time we could give in and get a cuddle.
If you stick to these 5 steps during the first week you should be fine.
How it went for us with Betty
We followed the plan and I have to be honest, it took a little longer than a week to work 100% with Betty. It took us about 2 weeks in all. We had to get my parents (the day time puppy sitters) involved. I drilled them about sitting in the other room and only going out when she was calm. Not making a fuss of their comings and goings. They hated every second of it because of the howling, but they managed to get the penny to drop with her. They were amazed that when they were ready to go she knew and started to just go and sit in her basket. It’s probably because they were involved in the process, but my parents still say how amazing her turn around was. Going from a howling wolf to voluntarily going to her bed with no instruction.
Other forms of help
- Teach your puppy to play by themselves - Leave them with toys that they’ll want to investigate and take their mind off being alone. We used a couple of stuffed Kongs for this. We’d stuff them with peanut butter and treats to keep her busy while we’d leave the house. This would distract her for a while but, I have to admit, this would only last 30 minutes or so before she’d get bored.
- Music - We found leaving the radio on helped. It was something she was used to and it made it harder for her to focus on outside noises.
- Exercise before you leave - We’d always take betty on a walk in the morning before we left for work. It got some of the puppy energy out of her system and it almost guaranteed she’d go to the toilet before we left her. This is only possible once your puppy is fully vaccinated, of course. I wouldn’t recommend trying to get your puppy tired out before you leave by playing with them in the house. This is only going to tire you out and put them in an excited state before you leave.
- Professional help - We didn’t have to do this for Betty but in some cases, where there’s no improvement, you may be better asking a professional in your area for their help.
- Calming supplements for dogs - We used these with Betty and they seemed to help us, especially on the occasions she’d be in zoomy mode and we’re getting ready for work.
- Calming aids for dogs - We tried most calming products with Betty. She was and is very excitable! We used the calming aroma plug-ins and they seemed to help, although you have to smell the aroma too and I wasn’t always keen on that!
You and your new friend can’t be together every minute of every day, so separation anxiety is something you should be planning for from the moment you bring your puppy home. The first week or so you’ll feel like you have to spend every minute with your new family member to get them settled in. You’ll feel bad about taking them from their mother and siblings and whisking them away to a strange new land. The tendency then is to over compensate for this and that could make severe separation anxiety all the more likely. So follow the above 5 steps and hopefully everything will work out fine.