Tell me Again – Why can’t I Leave my Puppy Alone?

By Emma Judson

Pups are not ready, mentally or physically, to be alone when we first get them. We have effectively meddled with dogs to the point that domestic dogs allow us to take over puppy care way sooner than they’d ever be alone as wild or even feral dogs.

Naturally, they are with someone, such as a primary caregiver, litter mates, then later aunties and uncles. Eventually they hit adolescence and some will then leave on their own, or with just one pal. Some will not, and they’ll stay and be the next generation of aunties and uncles.

We see this in wolves, painted dogs, feral dogs, all sorts of species (wild horses even) who live in social and vaguely ‘family’ groups. Members leave either because they are old enough and decide to go off, or because they’re driven away due to their behaviour. In that case, across species, many do not survive. Being alone in the world is dangerous.

So, then we’ve stepped in. We’ve taken advantage of dogs general ability to allow aunties and uncles to care for puppies, so they allow us to take them. As a result, domestic dogs wean earlier. They’ll stop feeding at three to six weeks in most cases, whereas wild dogs will continue drinking milk at eight weeks plus. However, they will gradually eat more and more real food. Bitches will simply check in with puppies and then leave again to do whatever they want to do. We are then the primary caregiver.

We have also heavily selected for tens of thousands of years, for dogs that want to be with us, above all else – dogs who want to hang off our every word and take instruction. Deferring to us for decision making.

As a result, there is literally nothing equipping a puppy for being alone. Absolutely everything is stacked towards them needing us, physically and mentally, to be there to provide security and comfort, as well as instruction and guidance.

This means that if we leave them too soon, we’re not only not teaching them how to handle this later – we’re actively distressing them. Or, if by some chance they’re not distressed, they’re definitely not learning what they need to know. We are setting them up to be predisposed to fear/anxiety/insecurity later on!

Puppies don’t just become ‘used’ to being alone – what they actually learn is this:

  • ‘If I cry and need help, no one comes’.
  • ‘This situation is so distressing, but there is nothing I can do to change this.’

This leads to the brain shutting down. In humans, situations that cause huge and unavoidable distress, which the person cannot remove themselves from, are known to cause PTSD. We have no reason to think this is not the case in dogs. All the evidence points that way, we just haven’t done the exact studies as they’d be unethical and no one will fund them.

So, some puppies do shut up and put up and appear fine. They’re not fine, but the knowledge, skill and experience required to diagnose that is generally not the owners specialist field, and so, they don’t realise.

And some puppies do not. They end up with frazzled distressed owners, and very often eventually in rescues.

I’ll be There. I Work from Home, but I’ll be Busy with Phone Calls, etc

Puppy needs to be with you or another person, all the time. Get her used to the routine. We go in this pen, in this room, and nice chews, etc, are delivered. We chill and the human is here, but not very involved. Or, we go in the other room, and the human is here and does all the things, and that’s fun.

Puppies are context specific learners, which has its issues, but it is also very helpful, They can very quickly learn ‘this room with this person doing x = snooze time’, and ‘that room with that furniture and the person doing y = play time’, etc. Guide dogs or assistance dogs know that harness on = work, harness off = free time. Or dogs that do competitions learn that x gear = x sport, and y gear = y sport. Dogs who pull like mad on a collar and lead, but trot about like a delicate elfin fairy on the end of three yards of cotton thread around a show ring!

So from day one, I would introduce the work space set up. Just for a few minutes at a time. Pick your moments, of course, for when she is most likely to be sleepy, or easily amused with a chew or toy, and end that session before she gets stroppy or fed up.

Have help at home as much as possible for the first few weeks. If you can reduce the long phone calls for that time too, great! If not, can you try to have the clients or colleagues not get upset by you taking a puppy to the loo, or getting them another chew etc?

Having her sleeping with you in your room will also help her figure out that there are times you’re present, but not ‘available’. It also provides a lot towards her need for contact/comfort. If you snuggle with her in the bed, that really helps you figure out how hard they’ve found the previous day. A puppy snuggled in tight needs that contact to let go and rest. A puppy sprawled out, not really touching, or only loosely touching, has had a much easier time and feels more secure!

Generally speaking, this does work out well, but it can feel a bit overwhelming to start with!