Note: this blog was written during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and considers the guidelines of the CDC at time of publication in its recommendations.
Right now, many people are staying home to prevent the spread of a novel coronavirus. Suddenly, with unexpected extra time on your hands, it may feel like the perfect time to bring home the new puppy you’ve been dreaming about! Having lots of time to spend with a new puppy provides a great opportunity to prepare them for the shift back to a busy lifestyle.
Puppies are naturally social creatures and bond very closely with their human guardians. Having their person around all the time and then suddenly being left alone for a full work day may come as a real shock. A sudden experience of being alone for an extended period of time is associated with increased risk of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a very common panic disorder, which can cause some serious issues for dogs and their guardians alike. In fact, separation anxiety related behaviors — such as excessive vocalization, destructiveness, and inappropriate elimination — are listed as some of the main reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters.
As your new puppy settles into your home and you start to build your relationship, it is essential to prepare them for their new routine when you do go back to work or start spending time away from the house. We’ve created a step-by-step training plan to help you teach your puppy how to feel happy and secure by themselves.
Teaching your puppy how to be alone.
Note: keep training sessions short for young puppies! Just 5-10 minutes of practice goes a long way. Practice each day to make separations a routine part of your pup’s day, and always work at a level of separation where they are not showing signs of stress. If your puppy begins to show signs of stress, go back a few steps to a point in the process at which they were still having fun.
Create a safe enclosure for your puppy’s alone time.
Provide your puppy with a puppy-proof enclosure for alone time — this could be a room, a crate, or a secured exercise pen.
Make sure there are not any dangerous items, such as electrical cords or loose socks that your puppy may ingest, and that there is fresh water available.
Provide a comfortable and safe surface, such as a dog bed or mat that your puppy has been on and has not shown the inclination to ingest.
Have this safe enclosure freely available to your puppy so they can choose to spend time there whenever they want.
Build positive associations with the area.
Spend time in the room or exercise pen with your puppy, playing, cuddling, or working on positive reinforcement training. If using a crate, spend time outside the crate and toss toys into it for your puppy to play with or fetch.
Hide treats or new toys in the area when your puppy is not looking so that they can discover them on their own. This will give the area a magical feel to your puppy — this area produces treats!!
Provide fun and soothing enrichment in this area, such as stuffed Kongs, lickimats, or edible chews.
Reward your puppy each time they choose to spend time in their enclosure by giving them a treat.
Never punish your puppy by sending them to this area, so that they do not associate it with negative feelings or your frustration.
Practice separations in the same room.
If your puppy’s safe area is a room, setting up a baby gate in the doorway will allow you to practice the steps below in sight of your puppy.
Step outside of the puppy enclosure, say “yes” immediately if your puppy stays in the area, and toss your puppy a treat for them to find away from the entrance of the enclosure. The word “yes” marks your puppy’s success and lets them know the treat is on the way.
If they follow you out, wait for them to choose to move back into the pen. Say “yes” the moment they step back in and toss a treat to the back of the area.
Practice this until your puppy is successful 5 times in a row, staying in the area and happily waiting for treats.
Take a step around the enclosure or outside the room with the door open and say “yes” and toss a treat into the area as long as the puppy stays inside.
If the puppy comes out, do not feed treats, and simply wait to see if they choose to go back in. When they go back in, say “yes” and toss a treat into the area.
Shut the crate/pen/baby-gate door for 1 second, say “yes” and toss a treat to your puppy away from the door, then open the door.
If your puppy chooses to exit the enclosure when you open the door, simply wait for them to choose to go back in and then repeat this step.
After 5 successful repetitions, slowly increase the duration of time you are separated, by waiting for 2 or 3 seconds before saying “yes,” tossing a treat, and opening the door, then 3–5 seconds, 5–10 seconds, etc.
As you build duration, occasionally add in short durations of just 1–3 seconds before you say “yes” and treat, so your puppy does not feel like they are being left alone for longer and longer.
When your puppy is happily waiting for about 10 seconds with the door shut between you, start adding distance between you and your puppy. Close the door, take one step away, say “yes” immediately, toss your pup a treat, then return and open the door.
Note: as we start adding distance we will work at a shorter duration level. So, as soon as you take that step away, say “yes” and toss the treat.
Build on these steps until your puppy is comfortable with any combination of distance or duration while you still remain in sight.
Practice separations with you out of sight.
Setting up a Wi-Fi-enabled camera in your puppy’s safe area allows you to watch out for signs of stress while you are out of sight of your puppy.
First, with your puppy shut in their enclosure, tell them that you are going to leave by using a consistent indicator cue, such as “I’ll be right back,” then take a step out of sight, say “yes,” and return to toss a treat for your puppy.
This indicator cue is important so your puppy notices when you go and does not feel as if you snuck away and tricked them.
Build duration with you out of sight, following the steps above for building duration while separated in the same room,
For this step, say the word “yes” while you are still out of sight, before returning to toss your puppy a treat.
Note: your puppy may hear you moving around, so begin by standing still out of sight as you add duration.
As you build duration, provide your puppy with fun enrichment to engage with while you are away, so they do not get bored.
Provide this enrichment just after giving your indicator cue, so your puppy already understands that you are leaving, then receives a fun and tasty reward. Setting it up so the indicator that you are leaving predicts fun enrichment will help your puppy feel good about you going.
When your puppy is successfully spending about 10 seconds alone with you out of sight, add in the sounds of you moving around the house and engaging with things.
Keep the duration short as you add in distractions, such as the sound of you walking away, picking something up and setting it down, opening and closing a door, etc.
Add distractions one at a time at first, then start to combine different noises before saying “yes” and returning to your puppy to toss them a treat.
Build on these steps until your puppy is comfortable with any combination of duration and distraction sounds while you are out of sight.
Include this fun alone time in your puppy’s daily routine!
Practice separations with you leaving the house.
Note: young puppies should not be left in a crate for more than four hours at a time.
Follow the instructions above for teaching your puppy to be comfortable alone with you out of sight, using distractions such as leaving through the front door, locking the door, starting your car, opening and closing the garage door, driving down the driveway, etc.
When working with sounds outside the house, wait until you come back into the house to say “yes,” then return to your puppy and toss them a treat.
Build each sound of you leaving one at a time before combining the sounds.
Build up to performing your typical routine for leaving the house and driving around the block.
Stay close to home as you build duration with you out of the house, so that you can return if your puppy shows any signs of stress.
Remember to provide your puppy with toys and enrichment which you have previously observed your puppy engaging with and have deemed safe, so your puppy views alone time as a fun opportunity.
Additional tips for building independence.
Build confidence through socialization: check out our blog post on Socializing Your Puppy During Social Distancing.
Provide predictability: studies suggest that the responsiveness of a dog’s guardian plays a role in their development of separation-related distress.
Be responsive to your puppy’s signs of distress in a calm manner. When they encounter things they are fearful of or stressed by, help them find ways to move away from what they perceive as scary and pair the experience with tasty food or play.
Prevent noise phobias, which are commonly associated with separation anxiety, by introducing your puppy to a variety of noises and pairing them with fun activities and tasty treats.
Play calming music for your puppy when you leave to dampen the intensity of external sounds and provide a calming atmosphere.
Avoid the use of corrections or punishment by rewarding behaviors you like, redirecting your puppy, and by managing the environment so they don’t practice unwanted behaviors.
Build general confidence by teaching your puppy fun tricks using positive reinforcement training!
By creating a routine for your puppy that includes daily alone time, you can set them up to be confident and independent. Most importantly, have lots of fun spending time with your puppy AND enjoy your time apart!
Amat, M., Camps, T., Brech, S. L., & Manteca, X. (2014). Separation anxiety in dogs: the implications of predictability and contextual fear for behavioural treatment. Animal Welfare, 23(3), 263–266. doi: 10.7120/096272220.127.116.113
Francis, D. D., Diorio, J., Plotsky, P. M., & Meaney, M. J. (2002). Environmental Enrichment Reverses the Effects of Maternal Separation on Stress Reactivity. The Journal of Neuroscience, 22(18), 7840–7843. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.22-18-07840.2002
Larlham, E. [Dog Training by Kikopup]. (2010, June 18). How to train your dog to be left alone- clicker training [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGxhcb-itO4
Sherman, Barbara. (2008). Separation anxiety in dogs. Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practising Veterinarian -North American Edition-. 30. 27-42.