Canine separation anxiety is a common problem. It is much easier to prevent than to correct, especially when starting with puppies.
All dogs should learn to be comfortable while separated from their people, even if they are usually home all day. This isn’t difficult to teach but it does take a bit of time. You’ll start by designating a spot for the puppy where he can feel safe and secure. This may be a properly sized crate or cage, or it might be a small room such as a laundry, bathroom or kitchen with a baby gate to keep him safely enclosed. Put him in his crate or enclosure and give him a special toy or treat that he will only get while confined. This can be one of the interactive toys designed to keep dogs occupied, or a Kong stuffed with something yummy. If he is obsessed with a certain toy or chewy you might use that, but be sure it is something safe for an unattended dog to have.
He will soon associate his enclosure with this special treat, which will make him happier to be there. At first, leave the pup in the enclosure for just a few minutes. Ignore him if he protests and let him out before he has a chance to become stressed. Next time, leave him a bit longer. Gradually extend the amount of time the pup is separated from you. Use the special treat each time. In the early stages of training you can be in sight, but eventually you will leave.
Your behavior is important during separation training. When you confine your pup, don’t be dramatic about leaving. Simply put him in his spot and give him his treat. Say goodbye if you wish, but don’t make a production out of it. When you return greet him matter-of-factly as if you were only gone for a moment.
Many dog owners leave the television or radio on while their dogs are alone. The sound can mask some of the outside noises, and it can be soothing. Classical or any calm music is best. If you are leaving the television on, make sure it’s on a station that doesn’t feature screaming, car crashes or explosions. My dogs like HGTV and Food Network. A friend swears by QVC.
This training also works with adult dogs. You’ll follow the same steps described for puppies, but you may need to take more time at each step. Eventually you may be able to allow your dog more space, but be sure he’s ready for it.
If you have a dog with true separation anxiety he will show signs of stress as soon as he sees indications that you are getting ready to leave. These cues could be any number of things — picking up keys, grabbing a coat or a cup of coffee to go, picking up a purse or briefcase — anything you regularly do before leaving the house. Put your pet into his confinement area and pick up your car keys. Wait a moment and then let him out. Next time, confine your dog and put on your coat. Go back and let him out. Do this with anything your dog sees as a clue that you are about to leave him alone. Then start combining these things. When he can handle these cues without being overly stressed, go out the door. Wait a moment, then return and let your dog out again. Slowly progress until you can gather your things and leave your dog for a reasonable amount of time without a problem.
There are some cases when separation anxiety is so severe that you will need the aid of your veterinarian or a professional trainer. There are medications and other aids that can help when used in conjunction with a training program.
Be reasonable about the amount of time you leave your dog. A puppy, nervous or anxious dog will not be able to handle an eight- or 10-hour stretch alone. Give your pup or dog a good bit of physical exercise and mental stimulation, and try to tire him out before you leave.
With a bit of work, your dog will be comfortable when left alone.
Dorothy Miner is a long-time dog obedience and tracking instructor, judge of canine events and author. She also teaches weekly classes for the Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution’s PETS Program.