I love my puppy Sage, the newest diabetes alert dog I am training now. There are times when we snuggle so close I feel like we are going to melt together. We are learning each other’s moods, likes, habits and all those wonderful things you pay attention to when you first fall in love with someone. Sage and I spend a good part of every day together doing things that will help her with her future role as a DAD. But I have built in times during each day where she has to be alone and away from me. I do this not to deprive her of my attention but rather to teach her not to be too dependent on my company. She must learn to be okay staying alone, as inevitably there will be times in the future when she will be alone. One of the basic tests of the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) is a 3-minute supervised separation where the handler goes out of sight of their dog. During that separation, the dog must not show any signs of stress or anxiety.
It is difficult to explain to people who buy puppies just how serious anxiety can be—and that it can be avoided through training. When people bring me dogs with problems that I determine have a root cause of separation anxiety, I hear many different things they tried to ease the stress that did not work. I try to be proactive with my puppies and just avoid the issue from the start. Puppies are so dependent on their littermates when they are young and being weaned from mom that it is perfectly natural that their dependency transfers to the person who takes them home. How can you resist those soulful puppy eyes? So people pamper and run to the puppy every time it whines or cries. We never leave them alone to avoid the crying and eventually we have a dog that suffers from separation anxiety. This is something you really want to avoid.
I have seen firsthand the effects of separation anxiety in dogs. One couple I dealt with had an entire living room, including window treatments, end tables, lamps and carpets, destroyed by a dog terrified of being alone. There have been dogs with separation anxiety dropped off at my kennel that did not stop howling for several days. The worse cases I have seen though are the ones where the dogs start chewing on themselves. All of this can be avoided with simple conditioning when you first get your dog or puppy.
I have already mentioned I plan for my new puppy Sage to have some alone time every day. I build up to this gradually. All our dogs are “crate trained,” which means they are taught to ride in the car in a crate and to sleep in a crate at night or whenever I need them to be in one (such as when I am mopping the floors). When I start this training, I actually feed the puppy in the crate. As I place the food dish in the crate, I say, “kennel.” I shut the door while they eat but don’t latch it. When they are used to this routine, I start to shut the door and leave them in the crate a little longer each time. I do this until they are to the point where they stay in the crate 10 to 15 minutes before I let them out. By gradually building up the time and associating it with something positive like a meal, puppies soon learn to “wait” patiently until you come back for them. As they get older, I randomly ask them to “kennel” for varying amounts of time. When you do this, be sure not to let them out if they are “calling” for you. Only silent patient waiting will be rewarded by a release from the confinement.
Sage is learning at 15 weeks old that she will not always be able to stay with me. She is never happy about that situation, but she is learning to accept it. In another week or so, I will begin handing her off to other people to hold while I walk out of sight. At first it will be for a short time, but gradually I will build up to the required 3 minutes of the Canine Good Citizen test. In March we will be holding a CGC test at our facility; Sage and I have a lot of work to do to get ready for this. She still whimpers a little when I leave but is learning to trust me to return. It takes time to earn a dog’s trust, but once you do it is an experience unlike anything else.
This reminds me of an incident with my own dog Erin, who was my constant companion for over 18 years. When Erin was 5 years old, I took on a job that required me to leave her with a close friend for almost a year. The evening came to take Erin to the friend’s home. I will never forget handing over the leash to my friend by her back door and telling Erin “I’ll be back for you, girl,” and seeing that look of trust in her eyes. Erin had passed her CGC test so I figured she assumed when I said that to her, I would not be gone for too long. Minutes turned to hours, to weeks and then months, and I had not returned. Every day, my friend told me later, at the same time I dropped her off, Erin would go to that door and look out the window for me to return. She never missed a day and was right there waiting when I was able to return for her almost a year later. I hope as you train your puppy you can develop the level of trust that Erin and I shared.
Here are a few things to remember as you work to prevent separation anxiety issues in your puppy:
- Dogs don’t think about time like humans do, so introduce things gradually and always be positive in your attitude and with your reward.
- Never put a pup in a crate when you are angry.
- Always make a big fuss about opening the crate and greeting your puppy.
- It’s okay to be silly, but whatever you do be genuinely happy to see them.
- Play crate games and make it fun so when you do leave them, they are not in a place they resent.
- Leave them with something to do, like a bone to chew on or a Kong™ stuffed with peanut butter to lick.
But most important of all, as you build the trust and bond with your dog and teach them to be independent enough to be alone without anxiety, don’t abuse that trust by keeping them confined too long.
* This is also a song by American recording artist Tina Turner. It was written and produced by Paul Barry, Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling for her 1999 studio album “Twenty Four Seven” and released as the album’s third single in Germany in February 2000.