Confidence When Alone

Being separated from a litter and everything you know can be rather traumatic. Puppies have been shown to be most likely to protest vocally to being left alone between 6-10 weeks of age, just the time when we will most likely leave them. Ideally for the first week, your puppy should not be left. Your puppy should either have someone with them or taken with you and carried. This allows you to create a feeling of safety in its new surroundings before tackling confidence when being alone and introductions to its home alone space (area you wish to leave your puppy in). If the puppy is to be kept at home then we need to look at how we can keep the puppy safe as well as reducing the chances of any time alone contributing to problems related with separation.

When we talk about Separation Related Problems we are generally speaking about dogs who vocalise, destroy or toilet when home alone.  It’s believed that up to half of the dog population may experience some distress when alone, with separation related problems making up to 40% of behaviour referral  cases.

If we want our puppies to remain calm when alone, we need to teach them what’s expected of them and ensure we are preparing them to be as successful as they can so we can prevent separation related problems from occurring.

Separation related problems are not always anxiety based, hence why we don’t call it separation anxiety here. There are generally four reasons as to why dogs may exhibit unwanted behaviour when left alone: isolation distress, frustration issue, attachment disorder, boredom/other. If we can understand these four options, you will often have greater success at having a dog that can be left home alone.

Isolation distress
These dogs have never learnt how to be alone. The behaviour is only seen when left completely on their own and will generally be ok if left with anyone even if not their main human. To prevent this, we need to teach our puppies how to be alone in small culpable stages.

Frustration issue

These dogs are annoyed by the barrier. They are fine left alone but can get annoyed at crates, stair gates or closed doors that they are not used to. These dogs generally experience frustration in other contexts and it’s this (along with management and environment) that needs work to resolve the issue. You will also need to look at appropriate places to leave these puppies to minimise the frustration where possible. Some dogs will experience frustration on exit only which can look like barking, grabbing or jumping. These dogs are usually bred to keep things together and so can get frustrated when part of the unit tries to leave the ‘flock’.

Attachment disorder

Attachment types include secure, avoidant, insecure and anxious. The type of attachment your puppy has with yourself may greatly affect their ability to be left alone. Dogs with secure attachments to their humans will be more likely to be able to cope when left alone due to the independent nature of these dogs. A dog’s security in its environment and level of independence often comes after developing a secure attachment with their human. To prevent this becoming a problem, we need to ensure we develop secure attachments with our puppies, ensuring we are there and present when they need us. Pushing puppies away and forcing independence will often have the opposite effect to which you were aiming for. Independence is a natural process when they feel secure and not something that can be forced.

Boredom/other

Lots of problems when left alone can be due to a dog being bored or triggered through other problems, such as barking at the postman. To prevent this ensure you set your puppy up with the best mindset to be left. If leaving dogs, we must ensure they have had appropriate mental and physical stimulation and an opportunity to settle down before being left. You may also want to look at their whole routine, are they being provided with opportunities for stimulation, play, naps and natural behaviours during the day as a whole?

Possible Spaces:
To help your puppy feel confident when left, we need to set up a safe location to be left in. To begin with, I want you to look at this space in detail. This space will be where they spend time when you are out of the house, this can be separate from their night time space or the same area.

Pens- great for creating more space and an area for all your puppy’s needs
Crate- great if introduced properly and not used for longer periods
Small room- great for creating more space and an area for all your puppy’s needs but be aware of what they have access to

Things to think about:
  • Water – Puppies must have access to water at all times. Non-spill bowls can be purchased for those who tip them over
  • Chews – Add lots of things to chew on and occupy them (Ensure these are size appropriate and safe to be left alone with)
  • Bedding – Ensure it’s cozy in there! This should be the focal point to this space, somewhere super comfy that they’re likely to want to sleep on. But take note of your puppy, if they’re choosing a hard floor over soft beds, use this information when creating their space. 
  • Covers – Covering crates or pens is puppy dependent. Puppies that love hiding in places may well prefer this, puppies who like to be in open spaces may prefer it uncovered.  
  • Where its placed- ensure its out of main walkways, radiators are off if they are directly next to them (or simply turnt down in winter), its out of direct sunlight and any drafts 
  • Size- puppies should have enough room to fully stretch out in all directions 
Teach them to love their space

Once you have decided where you would like your puppy’s home alone space to be, we can begin to teach them to love it. Quite often, we put our puppies in their space and leave the house for a couple of hours allowing them to figure it out for themselves. We need them to want to be in that space and enjoy settling in there. 
A couple of things you can try:
  • Kong tie – you can tie a kong, food toy or favourite chew to something stable in their home alone space. This will encourage the puppy to spend some time away from you by choice rather than force. Just remember to regularly re-stuff the kong e.g. with breakfast or dinner, so that it more times than not has yummy things to find in it. 
  • Finding treasure in safe spaces- Playing treasure hunt can help your puppy begin to love going into this space. Randomly, when your puppy is out of sight, hide some things for them to find in there, pieces of food, treats, new chews or stuffed kongs.  Important! Don’t tell them they are there, let them find them, even if it’s the next day. We want this to be a reward for independent exploring in their home alone space, not a cued activity.  To ensure life doesn’t whisk you away today, prep your treasure in advance. Have a pot of treasure on a side and make it your aim to hide all the treasure at various times during the day. This also allows you to keep an eye on how much you’re hiding 🙂  (and use some of their food portion if need be). 
  • Settle- we can spend some  time teaching them to settle in their home alone space while we are in the room. This sets them up to succeed, knowing what is expected of them when in that space when we then do leave them.  See the crate training video for more information on this. 
Mini Absences

During our daily routine we can begin to help our puppy learn about mini absences. These absences are short, in the home and are likely to be better received. But they still help teach our puppy that we will leave behind a door for a moment and then we’ll be back. Trips to the toilet (quick ones!), putting the bins out, grabbing something from a room, all of these real life moments can be used to help train your puppy. 

PUPPY A: If your puppy is generally fine with you popping to the toilet, just continue to be consciously aware of closing the door regularly behind you during these mini absences.

PUPPY B: If your puppy is likely to whine or cry when you do this, you can follow the below.

(toilet example)
  1. Allow your puppy to follow you to the toilet door
  2. Grab a couple of treats
  3. Place these on the outside of the door on the floor for your puppy to find
  4. Close the door and go to the loo
  5. Come back out and continue as normal 
Here we are building a positive association with you closing the door but also trying as best as possible to not let them practice stressing out while you leave for a couple of seconds. 

Confidence When Alone 

All puppies will need to learn that it is ok to be alone, something they would have never experienced before. We can help our puppies during this transition with some simple techniques that help puppies not panic when away from us.

During the day, you can practice time alone so that when you do go out it’s not so strange to your puppy. Take a chew or stuffed kongs (can be with breakfast and dinner), place this in your puppy’s home alone area and wait for them to settle. Once settled, go and be busy elsewhere in the home for a short period of time (even if you are in view or in the same room). With practice, you can begin to extend this time in real life settings. E.G. you can practice going to the toilet, taking a shower and reading a book in another room while they remain settled in their home alone space. This can be done in that first week at home, while they are not experiencing being left for longer than they can cope with.  Note we don’t want your puppy to just be distracted by food here. If you feel this might be happening, don’t give them any. Wait for them to settle and then practice being busy, walking in and out of the room, while they can remain settled without giving them anything. 

If your puppy struggles here, begin doing this while you are in view in the same room. Once comfortable with this, you can then randomly pop out the room and back in (this works well while tidying up). Slowly when puppy is ready, increase the time spent out of the room, seconds at a time. You should begin to find your puppy no longer worries when you randomly get up to leave the room while they are settled in their space.

Don’t rush this, you will need to work at a pace your puppy is happy with. Any whining will need to be addressed quickly, letting a puppy cry it out is often a bad idea. This creates anxiety, a feeling of being alone and often we reinforce them by coming back once the puppy has been crying for so long. If you have a puppy that is whining when left, you will need to build up better associations with their safe spaces and work on time alone more gradually.

Before you Leave your Puppy

Before you leave your puppy alone, ensure they are in the right mindset to settle down. Ensure they have had an appropriate amount of mental and physical stimulation and have had a chance to settle back down before you leave them. This can help with any boredom but also give them the best chance of being successful while you are gone.

Extra Tips
  • Kong stuffing – there’s lots of ways to stuff a kong and many things you can put in it but try to use a mix of wet and dry ingredients so that the food doesn’t all just fall out. You want them to have to lie, lick and chew. 
  • Chew options – some of my home alone chews include: antlers, yakers, benebones, meat body parts 
  • Don’t leave them – like anything we teach, the new behaviour will be much easier to teach when they are not practicing the old. If your puppy is relatively confident being left then you can continue, if your puppy hates being left alone, try to not leave them while you’re training. Everytime we leave them and allow them to stress in their home alone areas, you empty your bank account and start again with your training. 
  • Settle is a state of mind not a position. While we teach a settle as a lie down, your pup could be perfectly relaxed and be sitting down, or standing up and mooching their pen. Don’t worry about insisting they lie down, we just want a relaxed body and mind.
  • If your puppy cries once the food is gone, don’t use the food. I would opt for long lasting non-food chews here. This gives them something to do but is less likely to over shadow the fact that you’ve gone. Puppies are often left with Kongs but panic once finished, these puppies need to be trained without food first.
  • What to do when you come back – When you return to your puppy if you have left them and are letting them out of their crate, you’re more than welcome to fuss them. Remember being there for your puppy is ok, we don’t want to push them away and then love them later, it’s not consistent and this can affect your attachment style. Just try not to over do it as if leaving was a big deal. When you’re training and popping in and out of sight, continue as normal, we want to make this a non event and not a huge focal point that weve come back in the room.
  • Radios/TV – we want to ensure there’s no difference in noise when left compared to when you’re home. Please don’t worry about putting these things on for noise for your puppy. If however your radio is on while you are home, you can leave it on while you go out if need be to help blur the transition.
  • Toilet- ensure they’ve been before you leave, there’s nothing worse than not being able to get to the loo when needed
  • Most puppy owners are advised to pop their puppies into their crates and ignore them, even if they are crying. Unfortunately allowing puppies to cry it out doesn’t allow them to become independent and used to being left alone, it often does the opposite. Puppies that are allowed to cry it out will often become distressed in this setting (even if they’ve stopped being vocal about it), impacting their attachment styles for long term and also negatively impacting the brain, emotions, digestive system, and the immune system.
Stress, just like that in people, is not good for you when it’s toxic or excessive. When a puppy becomes stressed, the brain releases hormones in order to try to bring the body back into balance. These hormones allow for immediate energy for critical systems and shut down systems that aren’t needed (immune, growth, digestion < the reason your puppy wont eat when they’re stressed!) in order to support a flight or fight response. When this stress response happens regularly, it will start to impact on your puppy’s physical and mental health. The stress system will become dysregulated, the brain becomes less flexible and your puppy will have a decreased ability to to cope and function.

Many people believe that because their puppy stops crying after 10-20 minutes, they’re ok. Unfortunately even If your puppy does stop, it’s likely that they have exhausted themselves and the body gone into shutdown, not that they have given up and learnt it doesn’t work .In order to have a healthy and happy puppy that can cope with everyday life, I would heavily advise you not to let your puppies cry it out in crates or pens. Not only does this build a negative association with being left, it will also have long term negative effects on their health and behaviour.

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See below for some top tips from Jodie, a separation anxiety specialist

@jgbehaviour_dogtraining