Home Alone

Follow these easy tips to keep your dog cool, calm, and collected when you're not around

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Photo © Christopher Maggiore, DU Member

By Gary Koehler

Though relatively rare, separation anxiety is a very real problem for some retrievers. Typically, a dog afflicted with this psychological disorder will act out by barking, whining, chewing, clawing, and engaging in other troublesome and destructive behaviors when left home alone. While there is no quick fix for separation anxiety, there are several steps you can take to prevent it.

Dogs are highly social animals. In the wild, they live and hunt in packs, relying on one another for their mutual survival. Hence a canine's instinct is to stay close to its pack mates. Domesticated dogs share a similar close-knit bond with their human pack mates. Your retriever depends on you for everything—food, companionship, security, and other essentials that a stable home provides. This bond is usually a blessing, but sometimes a dog can become hyper-attached to its owner. 

According to Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, you can help prevent your pup from developing separation anxiety by making him feel secure about his new surroundings when you bring him home. "Crate training is a great way to boost a pup's confidence," Stewart says. "Placing your dog in a crate at night and when you're not home will help ease any anxiety he might feel about being in a strange new place."

Stewart recommends teaching a puppy early on that it's okay to be left alone. "When your pup is two or two and a half months old, tie him out in the backyard or put him in a pen for a couple of hours. Give him water and food, and let him get used to your coming and going," he says. "Dogs need downtime, too—time away from the family. That time outside alone is not a bad thing."

If the dog barks or whines, however, don't give him the attention he is seeking. "Be careful not to go out until the dog is quiet," Stewart explains. "If you go out to reassure a barking or whining pup, all you are doing is rewarding bad behavior."

Oftentimes owners inadvertently set the stage for separation anxiety by playing up a dog's inclination to become excited by your arrivals and departures. This is a mistake. Teach your retriever to be calm. Never make a big deal when you're leaving the house. Keep your departure low key. Do not fawn over the pup or make your going out the door an exercise that generates stress. 

Be similarly restrained when you arrive home. Rushing to the dog's crate and making your return into a celebration can have adverse effects. Approach the crate quietly. There is no need to make a fuss.

While your retriever may bond most strongly with you, he should also receive enough attention from other members of your household to feel comfortable when you are not around. "You may be the one taking the dog hunting, but you should not allow him to get locked into one person," Stewart says. "Have the kids feed the dog and take him for a walk. That will help keep your retriever from getting too attached to you." 

Owners who nurture a sense of confidence in their dogs are on the right path. The more self-assured your retriever feels, the less likely he'll be to panic when you're not around. Start building his confidence early on. Your partnership will last several years. And it is much easier to get things right at the start than to try to break bad habits later. 


During his long and distinguished career with DU magazine, the late Gary Koehler was among our most popular and prolific contributors. We are honored to share this previously unpublished column with our readers. 

Exercise Reduces Stress 
Just because your retriever misbehaves when you are out of sight does not necessarily mean he suffers from separation anxiety. It could simply be that the dog needs more exercise. Long walks and runs should be a regular part of his schedule. Cross-training is good, too. Try taking your dog along when you go hiking, mountain biking, and swimming. Regular exercise releases pent-up energy and reduces stress. The more activities you do with your retriever, the lower his chance of developing separation anxiety.