Updated: Feb 23
Because dog separation anxiety most likely has a genetic component to it, sometimes people believe that if their dog is destined to develop separation anxiety there isn’t anything they can do to prevent it.
However, genetics is only one piece of the puzzle. Environment and exposure have a great deal of influence in genetic expression, and there are things that can be done to make it less likely that your dog will develop separation issues. It’s easier to prevent puppy separation anxiety than it is to cure it!
How to prevent separation anxiety in new puppy or dog
If you just brought home a new puppy, adopted an older dog, or are planning to go back to work after having spent a long time working from home, you can start right now to prepare your dog to be comfortable with your absence. Training your dog to be left alone can help your dog develop coping skills.
First of all, decide where your dog will be left when you’re gone. I would only consider leaving a dog loose in the house if this is a dog you’ve had for a while, and you know from experience that they can handle that amount of freedom without getting destructive or having accidents.
If you have a puppy or a dog that’s new to your home, I would recommend confinement to a crate or space that will keep them and your belongings safe. Dogs can do a tremendous amount of damage in a short amount of time, and you don’t want to come home only to find your couch torn and destuffed, or your coffee table torn to splinters.
You want to start acclimating your dog to whatever space they’ll stay in, well before you actually leave them home alone. If you plan to leave your dog in the laundry room and the first time they’ve ever been in the laundry room is when you leave for a few hours, it could be extremely stressful for your dog. Part of training a dog to be alone involves making sure they are comfortable in their environment.
If your chosen space is a room, make an effort to create a dog friendly space for them. Set up a dog bed, water dish and some toys. Make sure you and your dog spend time there together. Do quite a few play sessions in that space, feed your dog some of their meals in that room, and just hang out together. You can even bring a book and read for an hour at that location while your dog chews on a food stuffed Kong or works on a puzzle toy. The goal is to establish a good association with that room before you leave so that your dog is less stressed by your absence.
If you plan on using a crate for your puppy or dog, you will also want to spend some time making it a safe space for them. If the crate will be located in a room that your dog doesn’t spend time in, then follow the directions above, and in addition work hard to ensure your dog is comfortable going in and out and being confined to a crate.
When you first introduce the crate, resist the temptation to close the door and confine your dog. With the door open you can toss treats in the crate and allow your dog to come out if and when they please. If your dog chooses to remain in the crate you can reward with more treats. Do this for a few minutes at a time throughout the day. Scatter kibble in the crate when your dog isn’t there, and let them find the food – they may decide the crate is amazing and is the place to go when they want a snack!
As your dog becomes comfortable going in the crate, start to close the door for a few seconds. Once the door is closed, drop some food in the crate and open the door. Gradually increase the duration that the door is closed. Start to close the door at mealtimes and open it up just as your dog finishes their meal. Give your dog a stuffed Kong and close the door, open it up before your dog is finished with it.
Crate acclimation is a whole blog post in itself, but trainer Emily Larlham’s Kikopup YouTube Channel has some wonderful videos that show one method to make crates fun for dogs.
Training dog to be left alone
Once your dog feels secure in their space and/or crate, you can start practice getting your dog used to your absences. If you’ve noticed that your dog already seems anxious about you leaving, you can practice going to the door, but not actually opening it, repeatedly throughout the day. As your dog displays complete boredom with these repetitions you can add in: touching the doorknob, turning it, opening and closing the door, opening the door and stepping out and then right back in. Finally, you would step out the door, close it behind you, and then immediately return.
After this you can walk through the door and gradually increase your absences. Your goal is always to return before you hear vocalizations. If you do hear barking or whining, make your next couple of absences much shorter and work your way up. Going slowly with these steps is important when you train a dog to be left alone. You want to avoid anxiety during the process as much as possible.
Although we don’t recommend the use of food to treat separation anxiety, food stuffed toys such as Kongs can be useful to help a dog that doesn’t suffer from this condition learn to feel comfortable when left alone. When my dogs were puppies, they always got a frozen food stuffed Kong just before I walked out the door. You can incorporate this from the beginning as you work on the departure conditioning I outlined above.
Your dog’s attitude about your comings and goings can be impacted by your behavior. I wouldn’t recommend you totally ignore your dog when you leave or come back, but you also don’t want to be overly animated as well. When coming back through the front door after an absence you should greet your dog in a normal tone of voice, and don’t be overly enthusiastic in your interactions.
Being matter of fact as you leave is also a good idea. In addition, I like to say something to my dogs as I leave that lets them know I’m going, and they aren’t. These are words I only speak in this situation and it adds a level of predictability that tells my dogs what’s going on.
I have a back door that leads to my fenced in backyard, but I also keep my recycling bin just on the other side of the door. If I’m just tossing something in recycling I say “wait”, whether the dogs are in the area of the door or not. If I’m going to open the door to let the dogs out, I say, “Do you want to go outside?” These verbal cues tell my dogs exactly what’s going on and eliminates confusion and uncertainty, which in turn prevents stress.
Teaching your dog to be independent
While research indicates that “clingy” dogs aren’t any more likely to develop separation anxiety than are dogs that are a bit more emotionally independent, I do think it’s beneficial to make an effort to teach a dog to be able to entertain themselves, and relax without needing you. Helping a dog learn some independence is an important part of training a dog to be alone.
When one of my dogs was a puppy, I made an effort to toss a few pieces of kibble on a dog bed every time we walked past it. As he started to gravitate towards going to the bed, I would lure him into a down on the bed before giving him his treats. After a while he started to go to the bed as we approached, and automatically lie down without my asking. I would always reinforce this behavior with a few pieces of kibble, and now it is one of his favorite locations to go relax.
Additionally, be a good observer of your dog’s behavior and go out of your way to interact with your dog when you notice that they’re entertaining themselves. I know this seems counterintuitive, you want to teach them to be independent, and now I’m telling you to interact with them! But what will happen is that your dog will learn that the way they get your attention is to go off on their own and do their own thing, and they’ll start to do their own thing more frequently. At some point this will become a habit and you can stop making an effort to reward it.
Dog Enrichment and Exercise
Many of the things puppies and young dogs do could be misconstrued as separation anxiety. This includes destructive behavior and barking too much. We determine whether it’s normal behavior or if it’s separation anxiety through interviews with the owner and with real-time assessments. These behaviors are not considered to be symptoms of separation anxiety when they occur when the owner is home, in addition to when the dog is left alone.
Although providing enough exercise and enrichment for your dog will most likely not prevent your dog from developing separation anxiety, it will help alleviate the behaviors described above since they most likely indicate that your dog isn’t getting enough activity, or enough opportunities to work their brain.
If you have an adolescent or young dog, a one-mile walk may not be enough exercise for them. This is especially true with dogs from breeds that were developed to work such as those from the herding or sporting group. Finding ways to allow your dog to run off leash for at least 30 minutes a day may go a long way towards fulfilling their exercise requirements.
Additionally, we don’t do our dogs any favors when we make their lives too easy by providing for their needs without expecting anything in return. Dogs are extremely smart animals, and if you don’t find ways to help them use their brains or perform behaviors natural to dogs, you will often see that frustration come out in undesirable ways.
Although there are no guarantees that we can definitively prevent separation anxiety in dogs, it certainly makes sense to do everything we can to help them feel comfortable when we are absent. Just like with any type of training, a little bit of work in the beginning when we train a dog to be left alone will go a long way to making life easier later on.
Separation anxiety can be really difficult to treat, especially when you don’t know where to look for valid information. If you’re struggling to cure your dog’s separation anxiety, or if you'd like to train to prevent it, your best course of action is to find a professional who specializes in treating it.
As a certified separation anxiety trainer (SAPro), I can offer you the support and expertise that will help you and your dog!
Check out my process, pricing and packages! All training is conducted virtually and I can work with clients located anywhere in the United States!