2020 was the year when everyone stayed at home. All. The. Time. Admittedly this was due to some pretty exceptional international circumstances; but between lockdowns, homeschooling and working from home, most people spent far more time at home than they ever would in a normal year. Unfortunately, both Coronavirus and staying at home have continued into 2021; but at least with the vaccine roll-out there is some light on the horizon.
COVID 19 has changed how we work and live our lives but there has been a bright spot for some people, at least. They finally felt able to get a puppy. Working from home and reduced travelling – whether commuting or going on holiday – meant that people had more free time to dedicate to a pet. A dog was also a good reason to leave the house for that recommended daily exercise.
Most are very happy with their new lifestyle, but others are not finding things as easy as they had hoped. Puppies are hard work and require training. Those of us in the veterinary profession are worried about owners facing problems with these puppies and eventually having to rehome, or even euthanase these dogs. A particular problem is separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety occurs when your puppy, (or adult dog, as many of these now have become), becomes distressed without human company. Even worse, they can sometimes fixate on one person in the house and have to be near that individual all the time. They become unable to settle on their own and upset when left alone, although eventually they may wear themselves out and rest for a while.
Different dogs show this anxiety in a variety of ways. Some will cry, bark and whine. Others will become destructive, either by trying to dig their way out of the room or kennel they are in; or biting, chewing their surroundings. Some even defecate or urinate indoors in their distress.
So why does separation anxiety happen?
The simple explanation is because dogs are not used to being on their own. The problem for these lockdown puppies is that if they haven’t been left alone when they are young. Then the whole concept of being alone can be terrifying.
Due to the way that they evolved, dogs have a socialisation period which means that they assume that they accept that everything that happens to them before they are 12-14 weeks of age is normal. After this period, new experiences are seen as scary and intimidating.
This is because, in the wild, puppies under 12 weeks would spend their time either in a den/burrow or with their pack and they would be fairly safe. After this time, they would meet more dangerous things, so they needed to be a bit wary. This means that it is important to give even young puppies time on their own so they accept this is a normal and not-scary part of life.
So when should you start leaving your puppy alone?
The simple answer is as soon as you get them.
In order to prevent separation anxiety, ensure that you leave your puppy for short periods as soon as they join your family. Give them a den or an indoor crate/kennel as their safe place and get them used to settling in there whilst the family are in a different room. Leave the house for short periods without them, even if you only walk to the end of the drive or the street before you come back. Do not allow them to be with you twenty-four hours a day.
When leaving, it is important not to make a big fuss of them before you leave or when you come back. Don’t say a big goodbye to them or give them a huge amount of attention when you come back, as that just makes the solitude when you are away, even more obvious. Teaching a ‘settle’ command, so that they learn to calm themselves is a really useful part of training. Involve other members of the family in feeding, walking and playing with them. This can stop them from fixating on a single person. Playing music or a radio when they are alone, and giving them food or puzzle toys to keep them occupied can also help.
But what if your puppy has not been left alone; or you are trying to do so now, with limited success?
It is possible to teach a dog of any age to be calm about being left alone; it just has to be done more slowly.
Contact your vet. They may have someone within the practice who has an interest in behavioural medicine. If not, they should be able to refer you to someone with a suitable behavioural qualification. Occasionally medications can be used to help a very anxious dog, but these are as an add-on to training programs and are not a solution on their own.
Behavioural problems are the most common reason for both rehoming and euthanasia of young dogs. So this is something which is well worth doing something about now. It’s a simple piece of training which will help make you and your dog happier and may even save their life!
There is useful advice from the Dogs Trust about leaving them alone, and training them to settle.
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