How long do you think it will take from getting your puppy in the door to first hearing them cry? Quite possibly, the tears will start as soon as they’re left alone. How on earth are you ever going to resume your day-to-day life if your puppy turns on the waterworks as soon as you head to the kitchen?
A puppy’s cries are not the most pleasant thing for a person to hear. In fact, the plaintive wailing of a puppy crying when left alone is right up there with car alarms, police sirens and the announcement that tells you that your flight has been delayed for six hours on the list of sounds guaranteed to stress you out.
This is because humans are evolutionarily primed to respond to the sound of a baby crying, and though a dog’s cries aren’t quite the same, they’re close enough to those of our own offspring to get our adrenaline running.
But puppies are definitely not human babies, and that’s the most important thing you’ll need to keep in mind when you’re dealing with the problem of your pup tearing up as soon as you’re out of sight. We’ve taken tips from Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan and acclaimed dog behaviourist Dr Patricia McConnell, and used them to create a comprehensive guide on how thinking like a dog can help you get your canine comfortable with being left in their own company.
With these methods, as with almost all other training, you’ll need to start by looking at things from your pup’s perspective. So without further ado…
Why does my puppy cry when I leave?
To understand why your buddy is so upset, you’ll need to consider two things. Firstly, your dog is very young, and would not yet be independent were he in the wild. Like most mammalian younglings, they are entirely dependent on others for survival. Being alone is scary — you know that no apex predator is likely to emerge from behind the couch to prey on your pup while you make a cup of coffee, but they don’t know that yet!
Not only that, but most owners bring their pups home at eight weeks old, and that’s when your puppy is entering the ‘fearful’ stage of their development. They’re excited to see new things — but also more cautious than they would be at six or ten weeks.
Secondly, your pup is primed to run in a pack. McConnell and Milan both note that being alone is not a natural state of being for a pack animal. In the wild, your puppy would have brothers and sisters crawling all over them! Your pup is howling because they’re looking for their packmates to come back and protect them from the big bad world.
If it isn’t natural for your dog, does that mean you shouldn’t leave your pup by themselves? Not quite. Humans certainly never evolved to drive cars, compose music, or use smartphones to read dog training blogs, but we can all agree that these things enrich our lives. As Milan says, with our modern lives it’s impossible to have a pup with us 24/7. Unless you have a very dog friendly office or work from home — as I write this, Joe the Whippet is watching me from his bed in the corner while meditatively mauling his toy octopus. Even so, if I’d listened to every whine and howl in the beginning, I’d never be able to make it to the supermarket without facing a noise complaint from my neighbours on my return!
Most, if not all, puppies cry when left alone. This is a normal stage of your puppy’s development, and one you can soon pass through with careful training.
Why is my puppy crying at night?
If your puppy hasn’t shed tears on their first day in your home, they almost certainly will on the first night. Depending on where you got your dog from, this may be the very first time they sleep without their littermates, and thus their first real experience with separation.
Although most trainers advise that your pup should sleep in your space for at least the first night, this still counts as ‘alone’ to your puppy, and this will also probably be your first experience dealing with extended puppy sobbing. Stay strong, remain calm, and don’t react. Don’t tell your pup that ‘it’s okay’ — they’ll apply the sentiment to the behaviour (the crying) and not the situation (the new, scary space)!
Ignoring your dog may sound cruel, but according to Milan, this is one of a host of tricks dogs use to correct each other in the wild.
For more in-depth puppy sleep solutions, check out our guide on How to Get a Puppy to Sleep at Night.
When to worry – normal crying vs separation anxiety
Although the trigger might be the same, there’s a big difference between a puppy crying when left on their lonesome and a full blown case of separation anxiety. Symptoms of separation anxiety usually don’t stop at tears.
Separation anxiety often involves a fair amount of property damage. A dog that’s truly terrified at your absence will often try to escape, to the point of attempting to dig through the walls if all else fails. Unlike other forms of destructive behaviour, you’ll find that the damage is mostly focused on doors, gates and other entry points — scratch and bite marks around the doorway but nowhere else is a dead giveaway that the problem is anxiety rather than misdirected play or a lack of stimulation.
The best cure for separation anxiety is prevention. By reacting appropriately when your puppy cries in the beginning, you can avoid destructive patterns of behaviour in the future. So let’s take a look at how to nip the behaviour in the bud.
For more on separation anxiety, take a look at our Separation Anxiety Guide.
So how do we stop the sobbing? Here’s a step-by-step breakdown.
Cesar Milan tells us that dogs can read us like a book, and they respond to our energy cues. If you get worked up, so will your dog! And there’s no use getting angry at your pup — this is a natural behaviour for them. These cries are a real assault on the senses, so you might want to practice finding your chill before you even bring your puppy home. Consider meditation, or practising mindfulness techniques.
When a baby cries, our first impulse is to rush in with cuddles and comfort. This is the absolute worst thing you can do with a dog. In her canine communication guide, For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell calls this ‘the dark side of empathy’ — projecting our own desires on to those who do not share them. A dog in distress doesn’t need you to smother them with affection. They need you to show strong leadership, and project calm, assertive energy. Prepare yourself now, and avoid panic later!
Your puppy is still a baby, and one of the biggest training mistakes you can make is asking them to run before they can walk. This applies to all training, including separation! Besides, an eight-week old puppy should be either constantly supervised or in an enclosed area at all times.
In his book ‘How to Raise the Perfect Dog’, Milan tells the story of Angel, a [breed of puppy] who had been reassured and cuddled by his owner every time she left, and was thus prone to howls of misery every time his pup parent disappeared for more than five minutes. Occasionally, Angel would get a treat to keep him quiet — a great incentive for misbehaviour!
Since leaving Angel alone for more than ten minutes turned cries of distress in to shrieks of despair, Milan was forced to take baby steps. He left the mournful mutt alone for five minutes, returned, and calmly stood as far away from Angel as possible for as long as it took for him to calm down, before calling him over to say hello.
Milan also recommends employing a sound to register displeasure — a simple ‘tsk’ or tut can replace the low growl dog mothers use to tell the kids to knock it off.
After a while, you can slowly increase the time spent away. Even after a few rounds of ten minutes each, your puppy will begin to gain faith in the idea that you will always return!
Simply put, a den is a safe space where a mother dog can care for her young. A den is a home, a sleeping area, a place to feel calm and comfortable. While there is some controversy over whether or not wild dogs make dens, research suggests free-roaming or stray domestic dogs do!
You can create a den inside your own home by using a crate or creating an indoor pen with baby gates. Even countries that consider crating cruel, like Sweden and Finland, understand the need for a larger enclosed area.
Both Milan and McConnell advise that you make the crate or makeshift den a joy — fill it with toys, treats and blankets that carry your scent. If your puppy enjoys their time in this enclosed area, sending them to their den before you leave is a great way to keep the crying to a minimum.
As an added bonus, pups are unlikely to toilet where they sleep — a den decreases the likelihood of accidents while you’re away!
Your puppy picks things up quickly — it’s only a matter of time before they realise that you putting on your jacket or grabbing your keys means impending separation. Randomly doing these things when you have no intention of leaving is a great way to throw them off.
Milan laments the fact that we don’t put anxiety in the same class as aggression or excitement. They’re all high-energy conditions, after all! Draining your pup’s physical energy with exercise or play, tiring out their brain with training, and stimulating their senses by introducing them to new things will help keep them calm as you head out the door.
Remember — as with all training, it’s important to apply all five steps consistently.
Looking for a little extra help? Try these training tips!
Embracing technology can help speed up the training process. White noise machines, puppy sleep music playlists, and plug in pheromone dispensers can all aid in keeping your pup calm while you’re away.
Consider leaving soft items that carry your scent in the den area — a pillowcase or blanket that you’ve slept with, for example, or an old sweater.
If every member of your household works or studies full time, taking the time to build up to separation step-by-step can be difficult. If you’re lucky enough to have some holiday time left, consider taking a few days after you bring your new best friend home — your pup will thank you for it.
FAQ – Puppy Crying When Left Alone
How do I know whether my pup is crying or not if I’m not there?
Cesar Milan is a big fan of webcams, and with current streaming and recording technology, you can set up video surveillance at a reasonable price. There are even a couple of apps that will record from a webcam directly to your phone! If your pup does cry or bark when you’re gone, you can review the footage to see if there’s anything in particular that sets your buddy off.
Are there any dogs or breeds of dogs that should never be left alone?
Dogs that were bred to spend lots of time with or work side by side with humans, such as pugs, toy poodles and King Charles Spaniels, often don’t do too well by themselves. Careful training may be able to get them up to eight or nine hours or so, but if you own one of these breeds, you may want to consider doggy day care.
Can I use headphones on the way out?
If you follow the five steps religiously and build up to separation slowly, your pup shouldn’t cry too much the first time you leave the house. Even so, it’s generally a bad idea — you want to be alert in case your buddy tries to escape his den.
The Wrap Up
So there you have it — five steps to sob-free separation! For more easy-to-implement techniques, take a look at our comprehensive Puppy Training Guide.