Puppy Behaviors Often Mistaken for Separation Anxiety

You’ve made the leap and brought home a new puppy or young dog — it’s an exciting time, right? But that excitement can quickly turn to dread when your new pup isn’t sleeping through the night and howling nonstop in their crate, or the 9-month-old dog you adopted still doesn’t quite get the whole potty-training thing. Perhaps your new furry family member just destroyed yet another pair of shoes. You’re exhausted, and you might even feel guilty or that you somehow did something wrong.

Many owners facing the same experience with new puppies or adolescent dogs feel overwhelmed with the intensity of some of these unwanted behaviors. They often assume that their puppy must have separation anxiety, which would certainly explain many of these behaviors. But while some people continue living with the constant barking, destructive chewing, and house soiling, writing it off as an unfortunate part of their dog’s state of mind, others write off the dog completely — in many cases returning the dog to the breeder or shelter. Some things can be done to make life better for everyone!

Many typical puppy and adolescent dog behaviors are the same as symptoms for separation anxiety, including excessive vocalization (barking and howling), house soiling, and destructive chewing. These symptoms can make it difficult to correctly diagnose separation anxiety in a dog under one year of age without ruling out typical young dog behavior due to boredom, teething or other factors. Below are the most common puppy and adolescent dog behaviors that are also symptoms of separation anxiety.

Potty Accidents

House training can be a hard behavior to crack, especially for a toy or small breed (because of their tiny bladders). It’s not uncommon for dogs as old as six to nine months of age to still have an occasional potty accident.

Common reasons for potty accidents in puppies and young dogs:

1. They physically are unable to “hold it” for as long as they are expected to.

  • The rule of thumb for housebreaking is the number of months old + 1 equals the number of hours a dog can be expected to hold their bladder. A three-month-old puppy can be expected to be able to hold it physically for four hours maximum.
    • The majority of housetrained dogs (over nine months of age) can only reliably hold it for up to eight hours, but it’s suggested to allow them a bathroom break at least every six hours. As you probably well know, it’s no fun to have to go with no bathroom break in sight!
    • Drinking a lot of water can cause potty accidents when a dog doesn’t have frequent breaks afterward to go outside. Sometimes all that liquid hits at once, and the urge to go is too much to handle.

2. They’re transitioning from a crate to having more freedom to roam around the house.

  • When you start allowing a young dog more freedom to wander after they’ve been kept confined to a smaller area when alone, it can be tough for them to remember the usual bathroom routine.
    • In some cases, male dogs (and sometimes even females) want to mark the new area.

3. They’re changing from using pee pads indoors to only outdoor bathroom breaks.

4. An underlying medical condition, such as a urinary tract infection or bladder stones.

5. Adopted dogs often regress in their house training when they arrive in a new home.

  • They often need time to adjust to the new environment and routine. Frequent bathroom breaks, rewards for proper outdoor elimination, and a consistent schedule will help make this transition faster.

Dogs with separation anxiety might have accidents inside when left alone. If this behavior is, in fact, due to anxiety, a dog can’t help themselves when they have an accident, and often these incidents are located near an exit point or doorway. The stress they are experiencing causes their body to let it all out. In many cases, the stress results in more severe accidents such as diarrhea or even vomiting.

If your dog is reliably housetrained and only ever has accidents when they are left alone, it’s time to connect with a veterinarian, certified dog trainer, or behavior consultant to address possible separation anxiety.

Barking and Howling

Puppies might be vocalizing for a few different reasons, and it’s important to rule out more common causes of barking and howling before assuming a dog has separation anxiety.

When a very young puppy first leaves its mother and litter, it can be jarring to be sleeping alone suddenly, and often these pups will bark or howl due to the suddenness of being alone. It’s best to keep your puppy’s sleeping area close by so they feel more secure and make sure to provide comforting items for them to sleep with, like a warm water bottle or plugging in a dog pheromone diffuser to help them transition into their new home.

In other cases, a puppy learns that by barking while in their crate or pen, someone will give them attention or let them out. This kind of barking is called demand barking. Dogs are incredibly quick at figuring out how to train us humans!

  • Avoid responding to any barking so that your puppy doesn’t associate the barking as being why they get let out of their crate. Wait until they are quiet for at least two seconds, and then praise and open the crate to let them out.
  • Make sure they have safe and appropriate interactive toys in their crate or pen, are getting enough exercise, and aren’t being left alone in their safe area too long to prevent demand barking in the first place.

Certain breeds tend to bark more than other kinds, so think about your puppy’s instinctual tendencies to be vocal. If you have a Siberian Husky, northern spitz-type, herding, or a hound breed, they most likely will be pretty talkative compared to other breeds. You can help prevent excessive barking in vocal breeds by providing mental enrichment and other brain games along with physical exercise.

If your puppy or young dog is only excessively barking or howling when you leave and doesn’t settle after 10 to 15 minutes, having a certified dog trainer or behavior consultant out for a consult can help with an anxiety diagnosis. It’s beneficial with excessive vocalization to have a video of the behavior to figure out the root cause. Click here to read more about setting up video monitoring.

Destructive Chewing

Puppies love to chew! Teenage dogs love to chew! Adult dogs love to chew! Chewing is a natural dog behavior but is often more common in puppies and adolescent dogs. Some reasons for destructive chewing in younger dogs include:

  • Teething: As a puppy’s teeth fall out and their adult teeth grow in, you might notice more instances of destructive chewing. Dogs do this to ease the discomfort of teething, as often the act of chewing helps relieve any pain or at least distracts them from it. Provide your teething dog with appropriate and soothing toys or chews.
  • It’s fun: Puppies explore the world through smell and taste, and these two senses are closely linked. So, it’s natural and quite fun for them to put everything in their mouth as they try to figure out what it is. And once they realize that it feels or tastes good, or is very entertaining, they’ll continue the chewing.
  • They’re bored: Lack of exercise or mental enrichment can lead to excessive and destructive chewing. By ensuring they get enough physical activity and mental enrichment, you can help prevent your puppy from chewing. Make sure they have appropriate things to chew on when they are alone. Some dogs prefer certain textures of chew toys over others, so consider your dog’s preferences and switch up their toys every so often to keep it interesting for them. For safety’s sake, always keep an eye on your puppy, especially when introducing new chew toys.
  • They’re unsupervised: A puppy doesn’t just know that there are certain things they’re not supposed to chew. A leather shoe is quite an appealing chew toy to a young dog, and if the opportunity presents itself, they’ll most likely sit down and have some shoe chew time. If a dog is allowed too much freedom throughout the home, and certain items are left out, their curiosity might get the better of them and result in destructive chewing. Manage their environment by putting things out of reach that you don’t want them to chew on and utilize crate training or a long-term puppy confinement area to set them up for success.

If your dog is only engaging in destructive chewing when you leave them alone (even when they have other more appropriate chewing options available), connect with a veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, certified dog trainer, or behavior consultant to determine the root cause of their destructive chewing.

Puppies and young dogs are going through a lot of change, with new environments and experiences paired with the physiological and hormonal changes as they mature. These factors make it difficult to definitively diagnose a dog under one year old with separation anxiety, and often the causes of the behaviors discussed above are due to normal, albeit frustrating, puppyhood issues. However, puppyhood is an important time to work on preventing separation anxiety from developing. Investing some time in preventive training will set you and your dog up for future success and calm alone-time behavior.