Puppies have a predisposition to be separated from their mother at around seven weeks when you get them. They are very accepting of this because their mother may need to go off hunting and the pups need to stay safely in the den hidden from predators. At this age they are also starting to integrate into the pack and to go off playing with other pups.
Separation stress is an anxiety or phobia of separation. It manifests as vocal whining and barking problems, house soiling, and destructive behaviour.
When you get home it is important to set up a crate or a puppy pen area and right from the start give your puppy plenty of time away from you during the day, and at night also. If there is another pup or toys or anything you can put in the pen or crate to help grab their attention, that will help a lot with the separation and distraction of you leaving them alone for periods of time.
The common mistake people make is thinking that by having the puppy with them all the time and by tending to their every whimper or cry when you put them in their pen, that they are helping them by keeping them happy and entertained and bonding etc., but in reality you are teaching them to bond with you in the wrong way. They need to learn good separation practice or they will develop very serious issues that will be a lot more difficult for them to deal with later in life. What happens when they go into this anxious state is that they won’t learn; they go into what is known as sympathetic arousal, their pupils dilate, they start panting and salivating and pacing around whining and generally stressing out. So it seems whatever you do to try and treat the separation anxiety doesn’t work and it get worse. It starts manifesting into destruction, vocalization, house soiling, escaping, etc. To avoid these things, we start with systematic leaving experiences when they are young. Put them in their crate, tie a small string to the crate and give it a light tug when they whine – this gives them a little fright that stops them whining, and when done consistently enough they will learn to stop whining altogether. The trick is to stop them winding themselves up in to a non-learning state, so by stopping them whining they are not getting the chance to go into sympathetic arousal.
There are a few little tips that can help to distract puppies when you leave them (as this first few minutes is the hardest time for them). One is to scatter a handful of dog biscuits around the pen, kennel or run. Pack a Kong® (rubber chew toy) with dog roll that is hard for them to get out and takes a long time, or give them a bone with some meat on it – these can keep pups entertained for hours. Toys are also useful, and another dog is ideal as they then have a playmate. Taking them for a big walk or run before you leave them will help them to sleep when they have finished finding the treats or chewing the bone, etc. Once they have been separated for a few hours they have mostly forgot about the fear of separation and learn to deal with it a lot faster. Leaving the radio or some music on gives them some comfort along with giving them access to what they consider a social area like the deck or sun room, but we wouldn’t recommend leaving them inside for long periods of time if you can avoid it.