Hannah Richter (aka Mary Puppins) is a certified dog trainer and current instructor at Andrea Arden Dog Training in NYC. If you have something you want to ask Mary Puppins be sure to email us at [email protected]!
Dear Mary Puppins: Help! My Dog Can’t Be Alone
Dear Mary Puppins,
I’m writing to you because I’m worried about my new dog I adopted, Penny. I need help training her.
She gets deeply attached to human company to the point that she is very nervous if she is alone. I find marks on her paws and legs where she bites herself, and when my mother leaves after I get home from work she whimpers even if I’m here. We know her previous owner passed away and are wondering if that has something to do with it.
It takes her some time to settle down but she is very nervous in most regards. Everything else about her is perfect: she’s house trained, she’s obedient, and she doesn’t bark at people or other dogs. I just don’t know how to handle her anxiety and I’m worried I won’t be able to assist her.
Dear Penny’s Worried Mom,
I totally understand how stressful having a dog with separation anxiety can be. When you are working on alone time with Penny it is important to practice getting her comfortable in her alone space before leaving her there by herself. Many dog parents start to push their dogs to stay alone way longer than they can handle too early on. Based on what you mentioned about Penny’s history of having her owner pass away it isn’t surprising to me that she has some separation problems.
Penny needs to be exercised physically and mentally before she will be able to spend time alone successfully. Plan for 30-60 minutes of walk, play, and/or training prior to leaving so that Penny is likely to rest while you are away. Over time she may also start to associate being alone with time to rest and relax.
Giving Penny practice being alone for very short periods of time will help her to understand that she doesn’t only get left alone for longer than she can handle. Practice walking out the door, immediately coming back in, and giving her a treat. Repeat this 5 – 10 times each day. Start to add a small bit of duration at a time anywhere from 1 – 10 seconds each time. If she starts to whine or bark, wait for three seconds of silence and then come back in. As you practice vary the duration of the alone time so that Penny isn’t able to predict how long you will be gone. (ie. 1 second, 10 seconds, 5 seconds, 2 seconds, 15 seconds, etc.). The goal is to make Penny comfortable when you leave. Don’t try and push her limits or rush this process. Each time you practice you can start to add a few repetitions that are a bit longer than the day before.
When you do need to leave Penny for longer than a few minutes, give her one or multiple food toys or puzzles to work on. Play around with different food toys and stuffings to figure out what Penny likes best and what she is willing to work on. You will need very high-value treats if she is really anxious. I suggest trying boiled chicken, a tiny bit of cheese, peanut butter, or a freeze-dried treat.
Go back and practice the leaving exercise above but give her a food toy instead of treats. When you come back in trade her a treat for her food toy. She will then start to associate being alone with her extra special treat time. Be sure to give your dog food toys at times when you aren’t leaving as well as when you are to prevent her from developing an aversion to the food toy.
You could also consider a day or two of doggie daycare a week. This may be good for her to expend some energy so that her other days are rest days. Playing music or other sounds while you are away can help her to relax and prevent her from hearing anxiety-inducing outside noises. Consider leaving her in one room vs the whole apartment so you can make it seem like her safe space (and keep her out of trouble in the process). I would also suggest looking into a DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) spray, collar, or diffuser. This gives off the pheromones similar to what a dog’s mom would give off at birth.
If at any point you are worried about Penny injuring herself because of her anxiety, be sure to contact your vet and see if they have any suggestions as well. Alone time is a slow process but by giving her practice, adequate exercise, and activities to work on while you are away, she will start to understand how to be okay when she is alone.
Wishing you and Penny peace of mind,
Giving Penny practice being alone for very short periods of time will help her to understand that she doesn’t only get left alone for longer than she can handle.