Separation Anxiety in Puppies: All You Need to Know

Being aware of separation anxiety in puppies is important so you can take steps to prevent it from worsening. Discover forms of separation distress in puppies and how to know whether yours is experiencing it.

Separation Anxiety in Puppies: All You Need to Know
Separation anxiety may affect dogs of any age

Separation Anxiety in Puppies: Is It Possible?

Can puppies have separation anxiety? That's a good question. Knowing whether puppies can have separation anxiety is important so that you can evaluate whether your puppy is truly suffering from a separation-related disorder or something else.

We often assume that puppies must be immune to separation anxiety, but they are certainly not.

Discover how to know whether your puppy has separation anxiety and what you should do about it once you recognize the signs.

Why Does It Feel Odd for a Puppy to Have Separation Anxiety?

When a puppy presents signs of separation anxiety, the issue is often downplayed because there is a general belief that puppies are too young to develop it.

There are several reasons for this belief. One common assumption is that puppies are so young, so it would be too early for them to form a strong attachment to their owners.

Another belief is that puppies are naturally playful, curious and energetic creatures. These traits are often considered the antithesis of what one would consider a dog prone to developing separation distress.

The fact that puppies have short attention spans and are easily distracted may lead people to believe they are not as susceptible to separation anxiety.

Yes, puppies can suffer from separation anxiety

Can Puppies Have Separation Anxiety?

Despite the assumptions and beliefs described above, puppies can and often experience separation anxiety.

It's deeply ingrained for a young puppy to want to maintain close contact with his mother and remain within the safe confines of a familiar home area, explains Steven Lindsay in the book Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Adaptation and Learning.

This tendency can be demonstrated by removing a puppy from his mother and placing him in an unfamiliar place.

Such isolation causes deep emotional distress, with repeated high-pitched vocalization and immense efforts to be reunited with his mother and littermates.

These species-specific behaviors are deeply ingrained and can be witnessed by new puppy owners.

The Evolutionary Reason Why Puppies May Show Signs of Separation Distress

There may ultimately be an evolutionary reason for puppies to develop distress when left alone.

In the wild, wolf pups become very vulnerable if they happen to wander away from their mothers and maternity dens.

If separation accidentally occurs, a puppy's separation-distress vocalizations increase the chances for a successful reunion.

Such vocalizations help puppies survive if separated and prompt mother dogs to stick nearby their young until they are weaned and ready to care for themselves.

While it's important to point out that dogs are not wolves (there are many differences between wolves and dogs), it can be deduced that separation distress behaviors in young pups must offer an evolutionary advantage.

These behaviors prevent young pups from falling victim to natural calamities, upping their chances for survival and, ultimately, their ability to successfully reproduce and pass on these behaviors to future generations, which will ultimately help the species as a whole survive.

Did you know?

In the wild, as wolf pups mature, they'll explore more and more of their surroundings in the company of their siblings and other members of their social group.

The den is then abandoned at approximately 10 to 12 weeks of age (Young and Goldman, 1944/1964; Zimen, 1981).

The transition from the den to the great outdoors takes place over several weeks with minimal stress.

Early Separation-Distress in Puppies Raised in Domestic Settings

We have seen how in the wild, distressed vocalizations in wolf pups helped mother wolves reunite with young pups who have wandered from their dens.

While there are no predators or other major dangers in a domestic setting, those distressed vocalizations still play a primary role in a puppy's survival.

Young puppies, as typical among altricial species, depend totally on their mothers for warmth and nourishment.

If they happen to wander too far away from the whelping box, they may get chilled, which can be dangerous.

Their distressed vocalizations will help attract the mother dog, who may help the pup find his way back to the litter.

In this case, the pup's distress vocalizations are triggered more by physiological needs rather than by actual social needs.

Did you know?

Studies have revealed that dogs recognize the scent of their mothers even six years after separation (and possibly even up to ten years).

Another study found that dogs were capable of recognizing the scent of their breeders for about four years and possibly as long as nine years after separation. (Appel et al., 1999).

First-Night Separation Distress in New Puppies

Another form of "separation distress" can be seen during the first night that puppies are welcomed to their homes.

These pups miss their littermates and mom and will struggle if they are kept alone and at a distance from their new humans. On top of separation from their mother and littermates, puppies also have to cope with transferring from a familiar location to a completely new one.

This combination exerts a double whammy of negative effects, leading to puppies feeling deep distress, expressed by repeated vocalizations. Many pups cry themselves to sleep.

However, the old belief of "letting puppies cry it out" is no longer recommended. This practice may negatively impact them to a deep level emotionally, potentially leading to serious psychosomatic consequences for developing puppies.

Among children, a correlation was found between distressing separation experiences and the development of panic disorders, and something similar may take place in puppies.

Did you know?

Ross and colleagues (1960) conducted an experiment involving puppies ranging from three to six weeks of age. When the puppies were isolated from each other, they exhibited strong distress vocalizations. However, when confined with a littermate, their distress vocalizations significantly decreased.

Elliot and Scott (1961) found that puppies manifest separation distress starting at three weeks of age, with a peak taking place between six to nine weeks, and a decline being observed between weeks 12 and 16 weeks (when the socialization period closes).

When Do Puppies Become More Independent?

As puppies mature, they tend to become more and more independent.

In general, expect puppies to become increasingly independent between the age of three to six months, as Mary Burch, Ph.D., points out in the book AKC Start Puppy.

This coincides with the puppy's flight instinct period, a time when puppies start exploring more and engaging in more independent behaviors.

This is a time when you may want to keep your pup on a leash as he may no longer be following you from place to place.

In nature, this period takes place when young canines are old enough (four months old) to leave the maternity den and start exploring their surroundings and learning how to hunt.

Did you know?

Topál and colleagues (1998) found that dogs who lived with large families had a lower chance of developing separation anxiety. This was in contrast with dogs living with one owner or a couple.

Most likely, this is because the coming and going of family members helped the dogs cope better as they were exposed to separation in safer and more gradual manners, or perhaps they formed multiple attachments rather than a strong exclusive bond with one person.

The Secure Base Effect

A mother dog's presence during a puppy's development plays a primary role as an attachment figure. She provides the pup with the support and security necessary for a wider exploration of the environment.

With mom's reassuring presence, puppies will therefore feel more confident in exploring nearby their home base.

Should something scary occur, the puppy will flee immediately toward his mom. If mom is not around, the puppy experiences deep fear and even potential panic.

This traumatic experience may leave an everlasting effect on the puppy, who may develop a fear of being left alone and increased vigilance of their mother's whereabouts.

Similarly, studies have found that a secure base effect is also present in the relationship between a dog and his owner, which takes the role of a surrogate mother.

Puppies and dogs use their owners as a secure base to explore their surroundings, feeling confident enough to explore on their own, even in new environments.

Any traumatic event puppies or dogs endure when left alone without any attachment figure to help them restore a sense of safety and security may contribute to separation-related distress.

On top of this, during separation from owners, a pup's threshold for fear may be lowered, resulting in an overall anxious state which may pave the path to separation distress.

In the video below, you can see how a dog shows more confidence in exploring when around their owner.

Why Are Puppies Particularly Vulnerable to the Effects of Separation Anxiety?

Puppies are vulnerable to the effects of separation anxiety because they are still in the process of developing their social and emotional skills.

In the wild, gradual exposure to separation from familiar members of their social group is perfectly timed with a wolf pup's developmental stage, during which they are becoming increasingly independent and are better equipped (physically and behaviorally) for adventuring in autonomy.

Domestic dogs, instead, are often raised in a way where this natural learning process is thwarted.

Puppies are kept in constant contact with their owners and prevented from learning to develop the skills necessary to cope with the emotional aspect of being on their own.

Rather than learning to become more and more independent and secure when alone, they risk getting overly attached in a potentially dysfunctional way.

As these puppies grow, it's as if their development has been arrested, and they are emotionally stuck in a state of helplessness when being alone.

This causes them to respond to owner absences in an infantile, immature way, displaying puppylike signs of distress (even their vocalizations reflect this).

Pandemic Puppies: An Example of Puppy Development Gone Wrong

While puppies are prone to exhibiting deep anxiety when they are very young and vulnerable, other dynamics may trigger the onset of anxiety of separation distress later on.

Most puppies and dogs tend to develop their first episodes of separation-related distress after being in prolonged contact with their owners for some time.

Summer vacation, maternity leave, convalescence and the recent pandemic are all examples of scenarios where owners go back to work after a long stay at home.

With their owners being home most of the day, dogs get used to their routines and bond and synchronize themselves with the owner.

Then one day, the owner is gone out of the blue, disrupting these dogs' routines and overall sense of well-being, leading to deep separation distress.

Cases of separation anxiety in puppies have boomed as a result of the pandemic

At What Age Do Puppies Develop Separation Anxiety? Here's What Experts Say

As seen, puppies develop the first signs of separation-related distress when they are newborns and separated from their mothers, and then again when they are separated from their mothers and littermates and sent to their new homes.

But when do puppies develop the classical separation anxiety related to bonding with their owners?

Although most behavioral problems are noticed when dogs reach social maturity, puppies as young as four to six months of age can also show separation anxiety, explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall.

Board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Christine Calder instead states that "dogs can be any age when separation anxiety appears."

Is it Really Separation Anxiety?

Finally, something worth mentioning is that separation anxiety is overly diagnosed. There are various other possible differentials to rule out before assuming a puppy suffers from separation anxiety.

Board-certified veterinarian Dr. Meredith Stepita calls separation anxiety "the great imitator" in her series of articles on this topic. She lists several other reasons dogs may engage in destructive behaviors which may mimic separation anxiety.

For instance, in puppies younger than one year, boredom or play/exploratory behavior may be the underlying causes for destructive behaviors when home alone.

It is therefore important to rule out “normal” puppy behavior such as destruction or elimination, points out veterinary behaviorist Dr. Terry Curtis.

Your best option to find out whether your puppy has truly separation anxiety is to record your pup's behavior during your absence (15 minutes of footage is often enough) and show it to your vet or a dog behavior professional.

Here I am teaching my two foster puppies to enjoy their crates

Alexadry, all rights reserved

How to Prevent Separation Anxiety in Puppies

As new puppy owners, there are several steps that you can take to lessen the chances of the onset of separation distress in your puppy.

In this case, it sometimes helps to borrow similar strategies used by mother dogs in gradually weaning their puppies, hoping they grow into confident and more independent adult dogs.

Following are several tips:

  • Get your puppy from an ethical breeder who sends puppies to their new homes at the most appropriate age. Your puppy should be at least eight weeks old, but some breeds, like the Maltese, need to be at least 12 weeks before being sent to their new homes.
  • Ask the breeder to provide you with a towel, blanket or shirt that smells like the puppy's former home.
  • Avoid excessive isolation after the first days the puppy enters your home. Keep your puppy in a crate in your bedroom for the first few nights and let your puppy know you are there for him.
  • Use a Snuggle Puppy Behavioral Aid to help young puppies adjust to their new home. I have been using this with great success with new foster pups recently separated from their moms and littermates.
  • DAP diffusers such as Adaptil can help comfort puppies since they contain the synthetic version of Dog Appeasing Pheromones produced by mother dogs.
  • Create positive associations with the crate and avoid excess crate confinement and traumatic isolation.
  • Avoid using punishment-based methods. Don't scold your puppy for crying, and don't adhere to the "letting the puppy cry it out" advice. Punishment does help address the dog's stress and may actually make the problem much worse.
  • Once your puppy has acclimatized to his new home, do these exercises to prevent separation anxiety: 10 exercises to prevent separation anxiety in puppies.


  • Zimen E (1981). The Wolf: His Place in the Natural World. London: Souvenir.
  • Young SP and Goldman EA (1944/1964). The Wolves of North America: Parts I and II. New York: Dover (reprint).
  • Appel J, Arms N, Horner R, and Carr WJ (1999). Long-term olfactory memory in companion dogs. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Animal Behavior Society, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, June 27–30
  • Ross S, Scott JP, Cherner M, and Denenberg V (1960). Effects of restraint and isolation on yelping in puppies. Anim Behav, 6:1–5.
  • Elliot O and Scott JP (1961). The development of emotional distress reactions to separation, in puppies. J Genet Psychol, 99:3–22.
  • Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Adaptation and Learning, Steven R. Lindsay 1 January 2000
  • Simona Cannas, Diane Frank, Michela Minero, Martin Godbout, Clara Palestrini, Puppy behavior when left home alone: Changes during the first few months after adoption, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 5, Issue 2, 2010

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA, Dip.CBST

(Excluding for the Headline, this article ("story") has not been edited by MiBiz News and is published from a web feed or sourced from the Internet.)