Puppy Advice

Home Alone! Coping with Isolation

Puppies have an unconscious sense of vulnerability when young, similar to human children who become very distressed when lost. This is sensible for survival since it is important to stay close to a parental figure who can look after you while you are unable to care adequately for yourself, and to become distressed enough to call and search for them if they are out of sight.

Puppy waiting at window
  • Puppies learning isolation

A natural separation

In an environment where puppies are kept with the mother, puppies would either be with the mother or with their littermates until they were old enough to begin exploring away from home. Then they would go out to explore and come back when they felt like it. This gradual distancing results in an independent adult that has no fear of being alone.

  • Puppy watching owner leave

Forced separation

However, puppies that are taken from the litter at the usual time of about 8 weeks are still in need of someone to look after them.  They will be lonely without their mother or littermates and will need the support of their new owners constantly until they have matured or learnt to be left alone.  Leaving them alone when they are young and vulnerable will result in terrible distress for the puppy who will be distraught until reunited with someone.

Owners are often advised that it is acceptable to leave a puppy alone for many hours at night while they sleep, and sometimes also when they go to work too.  This can result in many hours of stress and loneliness for the puppy who should be with others during this time in its life.  The resulting barking, howling and crying is upsetting and disruptive, and the puppy will usually toilet on the floor because of the distress, making housetraining more difficult. 

This type of introduction to isolation is harsh and may set the dog up for separation problems in later life or a lifetime of concern whenever he is left alone.  Consequently,  it is not to be recommended.

Puppy's First Few Nights

It is important to provide social and emotional support so your puppy feels as safe and secure as possible during their first few nights in their new home.
  • Puppy in a box
  • Puppy playpen in bedroom
  • Puppy asleep behind a stairgate

In many cases, simply sleeping near the puppy is enough to provide the social support required to help them sleep soundly.  You might choose to set up a playpen/crate upstairs in your bedroom or choose to sleep downstairs with the puppy.  

Blankets or toys from the breeder that smell familiar, hot water bottles (covered) and ‘heartbeat’ toys may mimic close contact with littermates and help puppy to settle more easily.  Use of an Adaptil plug-in diffuser near to the puppy’s bed may also help them settle during their first few nights in a new home.

If your puppy cries, gently re-assure them with your voice and place a hand nearby for comfort.  Often sitting with them quietly for a short period will help them settle back to sleep.  

If the crying continues and they cannot be re-assured, it is likely they are trying to communicate a discomfort.  Check to see if they need the toilet.  Are they too hot or too cold? Are they hungry or thirsty? Or has an unfamiliar noise worried them e.g. foxes barking?

  • It is often mistakenly thought that puppies should not be given certain privileges such as being allowed upstairs, being allowed on sofas or being allowed to sleep near their owner.  This sometimes stems from the misunderstanding that these puppies will become ‘dominant’. 

    This is absolutely not the case and if having your puppy upstairs enables both you and your puppy to have a good night’s sleep, this is a positive step.  Broken sleep can lead to frustration making it more difficult to bond with your puppy.

    But if you have practical reasons for not wanting your puppy upstairs, this is fine too! Just be sure you can get to your puppy quickly to reassure them if needed.

  • There is a big difference between ‘attention seeking’ vocalisations and the distress crying that is often heard in the first few night’s of being in a new home.  Distress crying is a sign of a puppy that is seeking comfort and reassurance.  It is very important that young puppies learn that they can seek comfort from you, their new family, in order to feel safe and secure in their new home.

  • If a puppy cries to seek comfort and no-one responds, this will result in them learning that owners do not come to them when they cry.  The result is a puppy that no longer cries, but at what cost?

    These puppies are likely still experiencing a high level of distress, but without access to a coping strategy.  Long term this can have detrimental effects on their health and well-being, with a high likelihood of separation problems as they mature into adulthood.

  • One of the biggest concerns owners face is that they will never be able to sleep on their own.  But sleeping with/near your puppy is not a permanent solution (unless you want it to be of course).  Contrary to popular belief, the more support you provide your puppy in the early stages, the more resilient and secure they will be to absences later down the line.  

    Once puppy is comfortable sleeping overnight, you can gradually fade this support as their confidence grows.  It is also important to introduce isolation training during the day so that puppy learns to cope with this too.

How to teach a puppy to cope with isolation

The main aim when building confidence being left alone during the day is to reduce the chance of a puppy panicking in response to being left. Prevention of problems is always easier than curing them!
  • Puppy at stair gate
  • Start Early
    Start Early
    Puppies cope better with isolation training if they are very young. The difference of just one week can have a considerable impact. Begin this training from the moment you bring your puppy home.
  • Micro absences
    Micro absences
    Begin to introduce the concept of being left alone with micro absences - very short absences no longer than 10 seconds initially. Get into the habit of shutting doors behind you when you move out of the room for short periods, so your puppy cannot follow you everywhere.
  • Safe and happy confinement
    Safe and happy confinement
    You might decide to confine your puppy when leaving them alone in the house to prevent chewing/destruction of inappropriate items. It is important that you teach your puppy to enjoy spending time in the planned confinement area e.g. in a playpen, crate or behind a baby gate.
  • Remain in sight initially
    Remain in sight initially
    Encourage your puppy to settle in their confinement area for short periods with a chew or stuffed Kong. Sit quietly nearby e.g. watching TV, working on a laptop or reading a book so they can still see you and do not become distressed.
  • Move out of sight
    Move out of sight
    If your puppy is relaxed, begin to move out of sight e.g. into another room, for very short periods. This training combines micro-absences with confinement.
  • Getting ready to leave the house
    Getting ready to leave the house
    Once puppy is happy with micro absences and short periods of confinement it is time to start leaving the house. To set puppy up for success, ensure they are tired and ready to sleep, they have been to the toilet and are left with an activity e.g. stuffed Kong, to keep them entertained. Start with short absences and gradually increase in duration.
  • Monitor your puppy
    Monitor your puppy
    During the first few absences, it can be beneficial to observe how your puppy copes using a camera. If they become distressed you will need to go back a few stages and do some more training before leaving them alone again.

Why do some puppies find isolation harder to cope with than others?

  • Breed type
    Breed type
    Genetics may be involved. There is some evidence to suggest that smaller dog breeds are more likely to develop separation issues. Gundogs do also appear to be more sensitive to being left by their owners.
  • Isolation from littermates
    Isolation from littermates
    Isolation training should begin in litter with the breeder carefully separating each puppy for just a few minutes each day until they become used to it. Unfortunately, many breeders do not do this and so the first time the puppy is away from the mother and littermates is when it goes to a new home.
  • Early associations
    Early associations
    If a puppy experiences social isolation for too long e.g. overnight, in the first few days of being brought home, this can create a strong negative emotional association to being left at a very sensitive time in their development.
  • Tutors - no heads

How can your Puppy School Tutor help?

There are a number of reasons why a puppy may display unwanted behaviour when left alone.  They may toilet because they are not fully house trained, they may become destructive because they are bored or they may be frustrated when placed behind a barrier and cannot get to things they would like.  These training topics are not covered on the Puppy School syllabus so if you find yourself needing further guidance please speak with your tutor. 

In some cases they may recommend a home visit to provide additional 121 support and guidance for you, your family and your puppy. 

  • Puppy jumping at door

Need more help?

Isolation distress will continue into adulthood unless the problem is successfully treated.  And there are other reasons why a puppy (especially older puppies) may exhibit distress when left alone.  They may feel insecure and anxious, they may be concerned that something scary is about to happen (common in puppies who have had a frightening or painful experience when previously left alone) or they may be displaying territorial behaviour (usually starts around 7-8 months). 

In these cases it is best to seek professional help fast.  Your tutor will be able to help you find an Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist when further advice and support is needed.    

Toby

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