Because the dog is a naturally social species, it is not normal for them to cope well with being separated from their social group. Although there is individual variation in the degree of response, puppies will naturally become distressed when first separated, whether this is from their littermates and mother, or from their human family. They will usually react by whining, barking or howling to try and maintain contact with their social group, or struggling and scrabbling to get back to them.

Because behavioural responses to separation start at a very young age, it is best to start the process of getting puppies used to brief separation as soon as possible.

Separation training by breeders

Ideally, puppies need to start learning that being separated is not scary from 3 or 4 weeks of age – so it is dog breeders who need to take responsibility for starting this process. This should be started by momentary separation of each puppy from its mother and litter mates, by just gently picking them up away and holding them for a second before replacing them. The time that they are held away from littermates should be built up gradually, always ensuring that the puppy does not show signs of distress. By building up this process slowly from 3 or 4 weeks of age until homing, puppies will be in a much better position to continue learning about being alone once homed to their new families.

A puppy being picked up

 

Arriving with a new family

On arriving with a new family, the same principles apply. The process is much easier for owners where separation training has been started by breeders. However, whether this is the case or not, the important principle is to gradually build up the period that the puppy is left alone. This may mean having the puppy in an indoor kennel (sometimes called a ‘crate’) close to the owners in the bedroom overnight for the first few days, until it can be gradually moved to the desired location as the puppy gets used to increased periods of separation.  Owners need to also consider how they could manage not leaving the puppy alone during the day time for the first period after taking him or her home. This might include taking some time off work when first getting a puppy will give time to gradually train the puppy that it is OK to be left for increasing periods before he or she is left ‘for real’ when owners go to back to work. It is essential to use this time for separation training though – it is likely to make things worse to take time off when first getting a puppy, do no training, then suddenly going back to work and leaving him or her on their own.

Using an indoor kennel

An indoor kennel (sometimes called a ‘crate’) is useful for this training, as it provides a distinctive place where the puppy learns that human attention stops and it is time to go to sleep. A mat or open bed can work as well, but many owners find using an indoor kennel easier to train and are reassured to know that their puppy will be safe. The important thing about training with a kennel is that it is always associated with good things – it should never be used to punish the puppy or enforce him or her to spend time alone when distressed.

A dog in its crate

 

Teaching the puppy that it is OK to be left alone

Start by encouraging the puppy into the kennel or bed with treats and wait by the side whilst he or she eats them, leaving the door open. Build up the time spent in the kennel or bed over time by giving the puppy a longer lasting treat. If the puppy is happy, the next stage is to start moving away just a step or two whilst he or she is eating this treat. Over time, this can be built up very slowly, so the puppy is happy when you take gradually more steps away, go through the door, move into another room, etc. Always monitor the puppy’s response to ensure that he or she is not showing signs of anxiety. With young puppies, this process is generally fairly quick, but it is worth investing as much time as possible into these early stages to ensure that your puppy will happily sleep in a bed or kennel whilst left alone.

Giving the puppy plenty to do at other times

The other key aspect to ensuring that a puppy settles down during the separation training is ensuring that he or she has plenty to do at other times. A puppy is much more likely to settle down when left if he or she has been spending time and energy playing and training. Make sure that you play with a puppy or do some training before the separation training so that he or she is tired and more likely to settle down with a chew. Also make sure that the puppy has been out to toilet before starting each separation training session.

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