Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Leaving Your New Puppy Alone (or Separation Anxiety)

Some new puppies, especially those who have been taken from their mothers quite early, bark when left alone. An old remedy for puppy loneliness is to put an old-fashioned, ticking clock in Puppy’s bed. The rhythmic sound of the clock reminds Puppy of his mother’s heartbeat, soothing and calming him. You can also try leaving the radio or television on for your lonely dog of any age, and in some cases, even a recording of your voice might be soothing. Leaving him with a soft shirt that you’ve worn but not washed may also provide him with your comforting scent.

If you don’t find a way to handle puppy-barking, you’ll one day have to deal with the barking of your lonely adult dog. One pet counselor described the dog who barks constantly until his people return as a dog who is calling his owners home. He knows that barking works, because they do come home, eventually! Dogs who spend a lot of time with their people may become dependent on the constant presence of others, so that when they are left alone, they feel anxious. And dogs express their anxiety by – you guess it – barking.

One good way to prevent a lonely puppy growing into an anxious barker is to let him spend time alone while he’s still a puppy. (Be aware: some people unconsciously want their pets to need them, and this unconscious need to be depended on keeps them from training their pets to become healthily independent. If you find yourself thinking things like, “Oh fine, now that you have your new chew toy, you don’t need me at all,” watch out for ways you might sabotage your pet’s learning. Don’t feel bad about it: lots of people get pets precisely in order to feel needed, and your pet will still need you even after he’s a perfectly-trained, well-behaved dog.)

Teach your puppy that he can amuse himself when you aren’t around. Provide him with toys that a dog can play with alone, chewing happily on something in his very own bed. If you give your dog a bed from the start and take him to it every night, you’ll be doing both of you a favor. First, he will have his very own spot, where he can retreat to sleep, to daydream, or to hide when he’s in trouble. Second, you’ll have your very own spot, which you won’t have to share with a growing, shedding, drooling dog who expects to be with you every minute of your life. (Many vets recommend using a crate and training your dog to use that as his primary base, but if you’re not planning to do a lot of traveling, and if your dog isn’t unusually unruly, your dog can get by with a pet bed.)

When you’re home, don’t spend every waking and sleeping minute with your dog. Do your own thing sometimes and insist that he does his.

Start training your puppy right away. Puppies should start their training at two months of age, so don’t wait too long to start teaching him that training is part of his daily life. While your puppy is young, you can try responding to barking not by shouting or petting or smacking him, but by turning your back on him and leaving the room. This works because the puppy’s aim in barking is to get your attention, so by leaving the room, you are teaching him that you will not come if he calls you. Ignoring behavior extinguishes it. Be aware that you may have to “ignore” it for several weeks (and don’t ever give in, because you will then have provided your dog with the unalterable proof that if he just barks long enough and loud enough, you’ll pay attention to him.)

It’s important not to comfort a dog who is barking. You don’t want your dog to learn that to get your attention all he has to do is bark. Sometimes people feel guilty and try to make it up to the animal by talking, petting or even giving the animal treats. Occasionally giving in is called in psychological circles “intermittent reinforcement”, and it’s a powerful way to teach the exact opposite of the lesson you want your dog to learn. If you are inclined to feel guilty, remind yourself of the big picture – you’re not being mean; you are teaching your dog healthy ways of being comfortable in the world.

If you try it for two solid weeks and ignoring the barking isn’t working, you will want to move directly to Bark Prevention Training. (See section 13). Now this is going to sound like what I just told you not to do, because you will be learning to quieten the puppy when he barks. The difference here is, you will be building on the “speak and hush” training you’ve already shared, and you will practice it daily. Here’s how:

Once you have practiced the basics of Bark Prevention Training and effectively taught your puppy to “speak” and to “hush”, apply the training directly to the problem of loneliness. Pretend to leave the house (or the room, depending on what starts your puppy barking). When the barking starts, come back in and tell your puppy to “hush” just like you have in earlier training sessions. When he hushes and stays hushed, wait five or ten seconds, then tell him “good dog” and give him a treat. Then, leave the room again. Repeat this sequence until you can leave the room for five minutes without hearing a bark. (You may also decide to put him in his bed or in his crate, not as a punishment, but because that is “his space” and will signal to him that it’s time to take a nap or chew a toy. If you decide to go this route, make sure and use his crate or bed consistently for hushing him when you go out.)

Continue training your dog to be quietly alone, gradually increasing the time you leave him to ten, then fifteen, then thirty minutes. If you’re actually leaving the house, the ideal situation is to have a voice-activated tape machine or a neighbor who will listen carefully and report back the amount of barking your dog produces while you’re gone. That will give you an idea of how your training is working, and whether there are any other factors at play. It’s possible that your puppy will learn to be quiet, but then a big truck rumbles by or a siren sounds, and frightens the dog or brings up a territorial reaction. If this happens, you’ll go ahead and train for lonely-puppy barking, then start desensitizing your puppy to the extra noises. Desensitizing, or targeted training is covered after Bark Prevention Training, later in this book.

Enlisting the help of a neighbor is also a good tactical idea if your neighbor has problems with your dog barking. It lets him know you’re serious about changing the behavior, and making him part of the process also puts him somewhat in your shoes, increasing his potential for empathizing with you.

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