When you first get a puppy, there is so much to do to introduce him to his new home. From potty training to puppy-proofing, you might feel like your hands are full. But there is one critical step you don’t want to forget — teaching your pup how to enjoy being alone. Although it’s tempting to spend every waking minute with your new puppy, you aren’t doing him any favors. Eventually, you’ll have to leave him on his own. And because dogs are incredibly social creatures, leaving a puppy alone can be stressful. However, with a little time and effort, you can ensure he’s calm and confident whenever he’s by himself.
Using a Safe Confinement Area
It’s likely your new puppy has never been alone before. It’s unfair to expect him to go from constant companionship to spending an entire eight-hour workday on his own. Start by teaching him to be alone while you are still in the house. A safe confinement area, like an exercise pen or crate, is perfect for this purpose. If you use a crate or exercise pen appropriately, he will see his confinement area as a place to relax rather than as punishment. Alternatively, you can limit your puppy to a small and safe area with baby gates.
To help your puppy associate this space with good things, feed him meals inside it. If the area is large enough, you can also spend some time playing in there together. To entice your puppy, set aside special toys he only gets inside his crate or pen. When he’s happy to enter the confinement area on his own, you’re ready to start alone-time training.
Teaching Alone Time
Begin by closing your puppy in the confinement area with a chew toy or other constructive activity, then quietly walk out of the room. Return immediately and reward him with praise and a treat. Repeat the process, slowly increasing how long you’re away each time. In the beginning, even one or two minutes might feel too long for your puppy, but over three or four days, you should be able to build up to fairly long periods.
As the time span increases, return to check on your puppy periodically. If he is quiet and calm, reward him with low-key praise and a treat before leaving to continue the countdown. Don’t make too much fuss when you check on him; you don’t want your puppy to miss you when you leave the room.
If your puppy is crying in his confinement area, you’ve likely started the training before he’s learned to associate the area with good things, or you’ve left him alone for too long. Don’t make a habit of letting him out when he fusses. Otherwise, you will teach him that whining opens the door and earns attention. Instead, shorten his time in the confinement area to what he can handle, and build the time more slowly.
Remember that confinement in the exercise pen or crate is only temporary while you work on your puppy’s alone time training. Once your puppy is confident on his own, and he understands potty training and the rules of good behavior, you can start giving him access to your home while you are away, one room at a time. The goal is an adult dog that is relaxed, self-assured, and can be trusted with more freedom.
Creating Happy Associations
Leaving a puppy alone with nothing to do in his safe area can be a recipe for trouble. Instead, give him something constructive to do whenever he’s in confinement. This will teach him to be happy by himself. A perfect activity is chewing on a chew toy stuffed with food. Toys such as Kongs are excellent for this purpose because the food coming out of the toy will reinforce the chewing behavior. In time, you will end up with a chew toy addict who would rather chomp on his toys than the baseboards.
Other ways to keep your puppy busy when he’s alone include providing edible chews like bully sticks or yak milk chews, leaving food hidden around the confinement area, or providing food-releasing puzzle toys. However, only leave your puppy unattended with toys, or edible chews that you know are safe. For example, smaller objects that your puppy can fit completely inside his mouth are a choking hazard. Or objects that can splinter or be broken into small pieces can cause intestinal damage or obstruction if swallowed. Speak to your veterinarian about safe options, and always watch your puppy with any new toy until you are sure he can play with it safely.
When leaving a puppy alone, you can also use the radio or TV to provide company. The noise can cover up other sounds that might be more distressing, like honking cars or the garbage truck. In fact, a study from Colorado State University found that music influenced the behavior of dogs in a shelter. However, the effect was dependent on the type of music. Heavy metal music seemed to increase the dogs’ anxiety, whereas soothing classical music like Moonlight Sonata increased the amount of time the dogs spent sleeping. So, select your background noise with care, and watch your puppy to see how he reacts to your choice.
Looking for Help Along the Way
If you’re unable to spend time at home with your puppy, consider finding a puppy sitter to help you work on his alone-time training. You can hire a professional pet sitter to watch your dog. Or perhaps look for a neighbor or friend who might be happy to relax in your house while your puppy rests in his confinement area. Even better, your puppy sitter can help with your puppy’s potty training and give him lots of attention in-between confinement sessions.
When your puppy’s alone time training has progressed enough that you can leave him alone for part of the day, but eight hours is still too much, a dog walker can be a perfect solution. Schedule the walk in the middle of the day, when your puppy is ready for company and the time is ripe for a potty break. Even adult dogs can benefit greatly from the exercise and company a dog walker provides during a workday.
Finally, consider providing your puppy with a physical or mental workout before you leave him alone. A walk, energetic playtime, or even a training session can all leave your puppy tired. He will likely fall asleep as soon as you’re gone. Just be sure that you do the same activities at other times too. If your dog only gets that sort of attention right before you leave him alone, he’ll realize it means you’re about to go. So, rather than lying down for a nap, he might worry about your absence.
Enjoying the Benefits
A dog that hasn’t learned to enjoy time by himself can exhibit problem behaviors when left alone. At best, an untrained solitary puppy will make his own fun, and no doubt in ways that aren’t fun for you. At worst, he can develop separation anxiety. This is a serious condition where the dog is severely stressed from the moment you leave until you finally return.
On the other hand, teaching your puppy that enjoyable things happen when he’s alone will help him handle not being the center of attention, even when you are at home. In fact, he should look forward to being on his own because he associates it with chew toys and treats. But most importantly, because you’ve taught him to be alone even when you’re simply in another room, he won’t connect you leaving the house with being by himself. You should be able to head to work or the grocery store without worry.
Teaching your puppy to enjoy alone time will also contribute to important training milestones like passing the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy test. The AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Program is designed to get puppies and their owners off to a good start, and the test includes an isolation exercise. Puppies must stay on a leash with another person while their owner walks 10 steps away before returning. That’s great preparation for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen(CGC) test, the gold standard of behavior for dogs in our society. The supervised separation part of the CGC test requires an owner to leave their dog with a trusted person for three minutes while they are out of sight. This will be a piece of cake for the dog that has been trained to enjoy being alone.