It is important your puppy learns to be relaxed and independent when left alone. Just like small children, puppies have to learn that it’s ok when their family leaves the room and that it’s fine to spend time on their own, or in the presence of strangers. If you want a dog who can ultimately be left on their own while you are at work, then you need to train that independence, right from the beginning. This is still essential for families who work from home, are retired or are raising little humans. No one can be around their dog 24/7 and you don’t want your pup to panic, bark and cry every time you pop out to the shops.
Dogs are social animals and puppies will tend to follow people from room to room, both for entertainment and a bit of reassurance. They might feel nervous if they are left alone for extended periods because they have never had to get used to occupying themselves or being by themselves. Independence training for young puppies should start with very small goals. Your initial aim is just to teach your puppy that they don’t need to be physically next to you to feel safe, and that having their movement restricted is not a cause for concern. Eventually you will have a dog who feels relaxed and comfortable being tied up on a lead in any context, because they know that you will have picked a safe place for them to relax and wait for you.
The Tie-Up Exercise
Start with your puppy in a harness with a short lead attached (not a collar in case they pull too hard on the lead). Tie the lead loosely to the leg of a sturdy chair, whilst you sit in it.
Sit and have a coffee, read a book, or watch some TV, and completely ignore your puppy. They will probably try tugging to get away from the chair, might get a bit frustrated and whine or bark, but this should resolve after a few minutes. If your puppy is making noise or pulling to get away, continue to ignore them. If you talk to them and comfort them at this stage, you will reinforce the anxious behaviour and not the relaxed behaviour you want. If you sit quietly and calmly, your puppy will stop making a fuss after a few minutes.
When your puppy has gone quiet and laid down or is sitting quietly in a relaxed way, you can pat them, stroke them and talk to them. This is you reinforcing and rewarding the relaxed, happy behaviour we are aiming to teach.
If your puppy is a bit anxious or gets bored easily, it is totally fine to put down their bed under the chair for them to lie in and leave them with a kong toy or long-lasting chewy treat. By giving them something to do and a comfy place to relax, you are showing puppy that it is possible to be relaxed and happy, even when their movement is restricted.
Repeat the chair tie-up exercise as many times as you need to until the puppy is no longer stressed by the restriction. Start with short sessions of 5-10 minutes at a time, and then gradually increase.
You are now also ready to increase the level of difficulty. Tie the lead up to a sturdy table leg and try getting up from the chair and walking a few paces away. Maybe try making a cup of tea at the kitchen bench, where puppy can still see you, but won’t be able to follow. Your pup might try the pulling and whining again, but just like before, you will ignore the pup until they are quiet. You will only walk back to the table and give puppy a pat once they are quiet.
Repeat, repeat, repeat! You want your puppy to be reliably relaxed with the previous level of difficulty before you increase to the next one. You can try leaving puppy tied to the table whilst you go and sit on the couch across the room and read a magazine, then try walking briefly out of the room for a few seconds, then leave for a few minutes, then eventually leave for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Importantly, only ever come back into the room when the puppy is quiet, so you are always rewarding the relaxed behaviour, not the crying.
If your dog doesn’t like being left outside on their own, you can apply all the same principles of the tie-up exercise, but start being tied up near the back door, with you in sight, then move to just outside the back door, with you in sight, then outside without being able to see you for a few seconds, then increase this to a few minutes etc etc.
If your puppy does not seem to be coping with a particular step, then that level may be too hard for them. In this case go down a level of difficulty and try that again. If your puppy is not ready to increase the difficulty yet just keep working on extending the length of time they can remain relaxed on their current level.
Note: You can also start this training in an adult dog if they are struggling with their confidence and independence – it’s not exclusively for puppies. Just make sure you always start with small, achievable goals and don’t throw them into the deep end too early. Also ensure you are tying them up to something sturdy that they can’t pull over!
Training alone time
You can also practice alone time off-lead in the house or garden.
Try to incorporate alone time into your puppy’s life from the beginning. Even if there is someone usually home all day, get the puppy used to sometimes being left in a room with the door closed, or left at home for a short period whilst people go out. Always make sure the dog is left in a puppy-proofed space, with their bed, a toy, treats and plenty of water. For young puppies, just spending a few minutes a day on their own is fine, but gradually build this time up to an hour or two. Ideally by the time your pup is fully grown they will be happy relaxing on their own for hours on end without any sign of anxiety!
If you are struggling with an adolescent or adult dog that never seems to settle when left alone and you are concerned they might have developed Separation Anxiety, contact your vet and consider working with a local positive reinforcement trainer who can show you how to work on this problem.