Ask Dr. Jenn: How Do I Train my Covid Puppy to be Alone?
After a year of distance learning and my kids being home all the time, they are finally going back to school. We adopted our dog, Max, last year and this is the first time he will be alone. I am worried he will be anxious in the house all by himself. What can I do to make the transition easier?
This fall will be a big adjustment for a lot of families and their “covid puppies.” Some dogs may enjoy the quiet and nap in the sun all day. Others may be bored or anxious, which can lead to destructive behaviors. Until you know how Max will react to being left alone, I recommend keeping him confined in a kennel or small area of the house.
The first thing that goes through most people’s heads when I say to keep him in a kennel is “that is so mean!”. But for many dogs, the kennel is a safe place, their own space. It’s like your kids’ bedrooms – the one place in the house that is theirs alone. However, if your dog has never been in a kennel before, you will need to help him learn to love it.
Make sure the kennel is big enough that Max can turn around, lay down, and get comfortable. Place his comfy bed and favorite toys in the kennel and put them in a prominent place in your house. Don’t worry, this is temporary. You can move it to the basement or the laundry room in a few days. Leave the kennel door open and place some of Max’s favorite treats inside the kennel. Let him investigate on his own or place him in the kennel, but do not close the door. After a few days, he will realize the kennel is his space and you can close the door to see how he reacts. If he is whining, slip some treats through the door and give him lots of praise. Start leaving him alone in the kennel for short periods – maybe just a few minutes. Each day, gradually increase the amount of time he is alone in the kennel. If he can tolerate it for over an hour, he likely will be fine all day.
If you don’t have time to get Max accustomed to a kennel before you need to leave him alone, find a small area of the house you can close off, such as a bathroom, entryway, or block off an area in the kitchen for him. You can leave the kennel in this area, so he has a “safe place.”
Once you have found a safe place for Max to spend his day, it’s time to make it a place he wants to be. You already have a comfy bed and some favorite toys. You may want to add a t-shirt, pillowcase, or blanket that has your scent to his kennel. Leave a radio playing for him. Classical music tends to be more calming for dogs. Veterinary behaviorists have developed a special playlist called “through a dog’s ear” that has been recorded with tones and frequencies that are more calming for dogs.
Pheromones therapy is another way to reduce anxiety in your pets when left alone. Pheromones are a way for dogs to communicate with each other. The pheromone in the product “Adaptil” mimics the one produced by mother dogs to calm their puppies. This product is available in a collar, a spray, or a plug-in.
Treats are another way to help Max pass the time. If he is in a kennel without much space, I recommend a hollow chew toy made with durable rubber, such as the Kong toy. You can fill the Kong with pieces of kibble, peanut butter, cottage cheese, or other dog-friendly treats. Placing the treat-stuffed toy in the freezer the night before makes it harder for Max to lick all the treats out and extends playing time. You can find the perfect “treat stuffed toy recipe” for Max with just a quick web search.
If Max has more room to move around, he may like a food cube or a wobble toy. As your dog pushes these toys around, a few pieces of kibble fall out. Max can enjoy his breakfast while playing. These toys are also great to help with dogs that eat too fast. When dogs eat slower, it helps reduce GI problems such as vomiting and gastric reflux and may help with weight loss.
If you want to see how Max is doing, you can invest in a small video camera with an app that allows you to control the camera remotely. You can check on Max periodically to see how he is adjusting to his new lifestyle. Many cameras also have a microphone so you can talk to him. Some pet-friendly cameras will even allow you to dispense treats remotely.
These tips and tricks will work with many dogs. But some dogs truly have separation anxiety. These dogs go into complete panic mode the minute you walk out the door. For these dogs, more intense behavior training is needed. Some dogs may even need daily medications to help reduce anxiety. These cases are too complex to talk about in this article, but if Max has severe anxiety when left alone, please talk with your veterinarian for guidance.