I am certain: if you are bringing a new puppy into your life you are concerned about preventing behavior and emotional issues. With so many “pandemic dogs” seeing their humans return to work, talk in the public about separation anxiety is at an all time high.
If you are worried about this phenomenon and want to prevent it I have some tips that are easy to employ. There is never any guarantee that a puppy won't start experiencing separation anxiety at some point but we can do a lot to help make that less likely.
But I'm just a puppy specialist. There are trainers out there whose expertise with separation anxiety is much more nuanced. I wanted to make sure to get some words from such a practitioner.
I reached out to Steven Cogswell, certified Separation Anxiety Pro Trainer and owner of Practically Perfect Dogs in Denver. He confirmed that there is no guaranteed way to prevent a puppy from developing this issue but that, in his words, "there are things we can do to stack the deck in their favor."
He also expanded on why this is such a prevalent problem.
"For the first part of their lives, puppies are never alone. They are (hopefully) constantly surrounded by their littermates under the watchful eye of their mother. When they come to live with us, learning to be alone is a skill they need to be taught, it doesn't come naturally to most puppies. Slowly introducing alone time to our new puppies, never letting it be something scary, is as necessary as housetraining and honestly, much more important than learning to sit on cue."
That makes a lot of sense.
Of course, I asked him for a practical game to play with puppies to begin to teach them separation. You can find that useful tidbit under Tip 5!
Well here we go with my 5 top tips for preventing separation anxiety in puppies. In the near future I will be publishing blog posts on each of these topics individually for a much deeper look.
Table of Contents
1. Provide Enrichment
Every behavior case I work on involves an enrichment plan. That's what a big deal this is. A dog misbehaving is likely a dog expressing a need.
And that's what Canine Enrichment is - meeting all of your dog's needs. Physical, mental, emotional, breed-related - all of it. Failing to meet our dogs' needs does not make the drive go away, it just ends up coming out in a manner we might not be able to predict or appreciate.
Give a dog a job or they will seek self employment as they say.
Will providing solid canine enrichment to your puppy prevent SA from developing? Maybe not. But it will ensure that it doesn't develop because of lack of enrichment. Which is a legitimate concern.
While teaching a full lesson on creating enrichment plans goes beyond the scope of this article I can tell you that there is a wealth of information available out there including research to be pored over if you are nerdy like that. But here are some questions I want you to ask yourself while putting your plan together:
Is my puppy getting enough sleep?
Are they getting enough physical exercise?
Are they getting enough mental stimulation?
Are there breed related needs we should include? (the need to chase, bite, tug, herd, etc)
What unfulfilled needs can we find games to satisfy?
Do I need the help of a Professional?
Of course if you need help ironing out the details a professional positive dog trainer can always help.
2. Crate Train Your Puppy
Using a crate with a puppy can be an effective way to manage their behavior, especially if they are new to the home. It can also be helpful when traveling or during times of emergency. Those are in addition to its potential help in preventing SA.
The goal is not to teach the puppy to tolerate the crate but rather to teach them that the crate is a safe and happy place where they can relax in peace. When I train a puppy I want them to look at the inside of the crate as THEIR space: it's quiet, dark, comfy, safe, and nobody ever bothers them there.
The crate then can be used as both a positive training tool for separation and as place for the puppy to be when actual separation is necessary. Feeling safe while alone is what this is all about and having a safe space is a great place to start.
Here is an article with some great details on positive crate training that you will find very useful. It includes a sample daily schedule to give you a practical idea of the time required.
3. Chill Out
Seriously dude you need to like chill out man.
Exiting routines are a whole other topic when it comes to separation anxiety. Unfortunately this is an area where our behavior as humans is often generating and escalating the problem.
A client showed me a video of their exit routine. It went like this:
She spent about 10 minutes obviously preparing. Getting her things together, checking her, bag, going to grab other things, looking through the closet to pick a coat, lacing boots up and so on. This was done at a pretty quick pace and the client told me she tries to be quick because her getting ready upsets her dog and she wants to get it over with for his sake.
This was followed by a goodbye that lasted about 90 seconds. Lots of verbal reassurance, kisses, explanations on where she was going and how long she would be, expectations for his behavior while she was out, promises of speedy return, more kisses, etc.
While the intention here was to make things easy on the dog the exact opposite was happening. By the end of the video both the dog and the human were visibly distressed, sort of feeding off of each other's anxiety. The dog had been anticipating her leaving for almost 15 minutes and his distress had been slowly and steadily increasing that whole time.
Here is how we can actually manage our exits so that we are not creating or escalating separation anxiety:
Minimize the length of your exit routine. Prepare some steps ahead of time if you can. Have a clear exit plan so that you are not hesitating.
Your body language matters. Casual relaxed movement, nice slow deep breaths, and don't keep checking on them like you are EXPECTING them to be nervous.
No drawn out goodbyes. This is not reassuring them; it is a cue that you are about to leave them alone for a while. Simply place the puppy in the crate as if for a nap and just casually make your exit.
Switch up your exit routine sometimes so that it is less predictable.
Sometimes do parts of your exit routine but then don't leave. Put your coat on, jingle your keys, then just take the coat off and sit down to read. Things like that.
Doing these things can help both you and your puppy stay nice and chill about your exits.
4. Start Training Now
You are correct to be concerned about this early. Separation anxiety is a serious issue and one that we don't wait to wait to see signs of. While full blown separation anxiety often does not present until maturity it can show up as early as 4 to 6 months old (source: Separation Anxiety in Dogs with Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, Ph.D., DACVB, CAAB).
The best time to start proactively preparing them was the day they came home. The second best time is RIGHT NOW. Even if the puppy seems 100% ok with being alone.
This applies to positive dog training in general as well. Consistent and early positive training for all sorts of skills can do wonders to boost their confidence and provide enrichment (see above) for your puppy.
Every 5 minutes of training you put into your puppy now is saving you 5 hours of expensive behavior work down the line. Ok...I just made that stat up. But you get the point. Full blown separation anxiety can be a lengthy (and expensive) problem to resolve. We can play some intentional games with our puppies for free in just a few minutes.
5. Separation Games / Exercises
Steven Cogswell, Cert. SA Pro Trainer, has a suggestion for how to get started:
"Just like with infants, we can play Peekaboo with our puppies to teach them when things disappear, they don't cease to exist. Start with showing your puppy a toy, hide it briefly behind your back, then joyfully bring it back into view. You can even say "PEEKABOO!" Then you can be the one to disappear briefly through a door and magically reappear in an instant!"
Games are a great way to teach puppies because play is how they are wired to learn! We can give them all sorts of skills in sessions where they think we are just playing and being silly. Isn't that great?
Check out this video by one of my dog training heroes on this very topic.
Well that's it for now folks. Of course if you need help with any aspect of puppy training in London Ontario Holy Sit! is here for you.
Have a question about this article? Let us know!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not intended to substitute for advice from a veterinary medical professional. If you have concerns about your pet's mental health please consult with your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.