How do you teach your dog to be happy when left alone?
Dogs are social animals, and that’s why they fit into human families so well. Dogs are thought to have been our companions for over 30,000 years, more than 10,000 years longer than horses. Throughout most of our shared history dogs have lived, worked, and slept alongside us as hunters, guards, and pest controllers, but modern life means they must spend an increasing amount of time on their own.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) research in 2019 suggested that as many as 85% of dogs showed some signs of distress when left alone by their owners. With the boom in ‘lockdown puppies’ this figure will now be even higher. Dogs that are unhappy when left alone may be described as having separation anxiety, separation distress, and many behaviourists use the term ‘separation-related disorders’ to cover the complex range of symptoms that they see.
How do I know if my dog is suffering from a separation disorder?
It is normal for your dog to want to come with you when you leave the house. If your dog has been properly habituated to being left, they will quickly settle on their bed. Adult dogs should sleep between 12 and 14 hours a day, so your workday is an ideal time for them to nap. You should come home to a dog who is happy to see you and, maybe, evidence of playing with toys – but not to a scene of devastation.
Signs of stress in dogs
Signs that your dog is not coping with being left alone include:
You may not be aware that your dog is noisy when you are out, so ask your neighbours if they hear your dog during the day. Barking is often triggered by movement or noise outside but can become excessive without a human giving reassurance. Howling is a form of communication and can be an attempt to call out to other dogs and humans. Whining can be heard with excitement, but if your dog is alone it is more likely to indicate anxiety or frustration.
Dogs do not urinate and defecate in the house because they are angry at being left but they may lose control of their bladder or bowel if they are particularly distressed. House soiling can also be seen if dogs are not let out frequently enough. Because emptying a full bladder leads to relief from mild physical discomfort, some dogs urinate as a form of psychological stress relief.
Chewing is an innately relaxing activity for dogs and one which happy dogs will engage in when left alone, but stressed dogs may also chew in an effort to calm themselves. Distressed dogs may scratch doors and skirting boards in an attempt to escape confinement and may rip up toys and soft furnishings out of frustration.
Pet cameras have become affordable and allow you to see how your dog behaves when you leave. Pacing, trembling, panting (when it isn’t hot), yawning (when not sleepy), lip licking, and frequent changes of position all suggest that your dog is anxious and unsettled without your comforting presence. Some dogs may react by lying very still without relaxing or sleeping or may try to get onto your bed or sofa to comfort themselves with your scent.
Why your dog might be struggling to be left alone
Dogs naturally live in social groups, which is why they fit so well into human families. Unless a dog is taught to cope with being left alone from early puppyhood, it is almost inevitable that they will feel a degree of stress, anxiety, boredom, and loneliness. Separation-related disorders (including separation anxiety) have always been a problem for dogs, but many pet professionals think the problem has increased since lockdown.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdowns have led to increased separation problems for several reasons. Existing dogs got used to their humans being at home more with children being home-schooled, adults working from home, and others on furlough or shielding. Many families thought lockdown would be an ideal time to add a canine companion to their family, and a generation of puppies have never been left alone. Suddenly, as life returns to normal, the kids are back at school, the grown-ups are being called back to their offices and the dogs can’t cope.
Some dogs, which have previously been fine on their own, develop separation distress due to a bad experience such as someone trying to get into the house (even if it is only a delivery person!) or loud noises such as fireworks or thunder. Others start to show symptoms due to bereavement after an animal companion dies, even if they didn’t get on. Some dogs are simply bored as their physical and mental needs are not being met even when the family is at home.
Dogs suffering from medical conditions, particularly painful ones, may also show changed behaviour, including separation problems.
Training dogs to feel happy when being left alone
Train your dog to go to their bed (or into a crate, and reward them with a tasty treat. If your dog chooses to go to their bed during training without being told make sure you reward their positive behaviour.
Treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily food intake to avoid unbalancing their diet. You can do this training at dinner time, using your dog’s food as a reward and letting them finish the meal in bed. You are trying to build a positive feeling with being on the bed.
Once your dog is happy to go to their bed, ask them to ‘settle’ and take a step away. Reward your dog for staying on their bed.
Slowly build up the time your dog stays on the bed before getting a reward, and then how far away you go. If your dog appears uncomfortable or gets off the bed do not punish them but go back a step.
When you feel your dog is ready you can try to leave the room. Do this in small stages staying outside the room for just a second to start with. Once you can spend a small amount of time out of sight, start to close the door.
At this stage, it can be useful to use a remote treat dispenser allowing you to reward your dog for settling on their bed without delivering it yourself.
Build up the length of time your dog spends with the door closed. You can give a food-stuffed chew toy to make time alone a really positive experience. If you have a pet camera, use it to make sure your dog is really ok when you are out of the room.
If closing the door is too much for your dog, use a baby gate to start with so that your dog can get used to spending time on their own while they are still able to see and smell you.
Should you walk your dog before leaving them alone?
Your dog is more likely to settle when left if their physical and mental needs have been met. A walk before you leave your dog will allow them to urinate and defecate, but also provides an opportunity to sniff, and maybe to play and run. If you can’t fit in a decent walk, try some scent work or toy hunting as these are very tiring games.
Do not try to exercise your dog to exhaustion as this may lead to them drinking a lot of water and needing to urinate before you get home! Give your dog some food before you leave as they are more likely to sleep after eating. You can give some of the food stuffed into a robust chew toy for extra entertainment and stress-busting chewing.
How do I practise leaving my dog?
Ideally, start leaving your dog in the house on their own for very short periods of time before you need to leave them for real. Ensure all their needs have been met and that they are safe and secure. Leave calmly without making a fuss just as you have been doing during your earlier training.
Consider using an indoor pen to keep your dog away from doors and windows if passers-by trigger their barking. Leaving the TV or radio on can comfort some dogs and will mask sounds from outside. Routine can reassure your dog so start developing a routine during training.
What should you do if your dog has damaged things while you were out?
Do not punish your dog if you find that they have damaged your house or belongings, or if they have urinated or defecated indoors. Shouting or punishment will increase your dog’s anxiety as they will connect it to your return, not to the damage they have caused. Try to remain calm and casual when you come in, whether you have been out for a minute or a few hours but let your dog out into the garden so they can go to the toilet.
How long can a dog be left alone?
There is no hard and fast rule for how long a dog can be left. The RSPCA recommend no longer than four hours, but older dogs and puppies need more frequent opportunities to go to the toilet. If you need to leave your dog longer than four hours arrange for a friend or pet care professional to visit during the day to let them out. Make sure you are with your dog when they first meet your helper and that the helper understands your routines and training.
If your dog remains unable to cope with being left alone visit your vet to rule out medical conditions. A pet behaviourist may be able to help by offering an individual assessment and treatment plan. If all else fails, the use of pet sitters or day boarding may work for you and your dog.
Breakthrough Dog Food
Dogs are social animals, being alone is alien to them so separation related problems are relatively common.
We want our dogs to be relaxed and feel secure when left at home on their own but the absence of members of the family unit can cause anxiety and stress or frustration.
Feelings of anxiety, stress and frustration are all unpleasant emotions and can upset the normal balance of chemicals in the brain and have a detrimental effect on behaviour.
Breakthrough Startup has a unique formula of ingredients and nutrients which stabilises these brain chemicals allowing a dog to regain composure and relaxation when left alone and allowing alternative behaviours to be established.
How to help a dog with separation anxiety
Most dogs will suffer from some degree of distress when left alone unless they are trained to cope. It is easier to avoid separation problems if you make leaving your dog for short periods of time part of your routine as soon as they are settled in your home.
Separation problems can be seen when your work patterns change, when another pet dies, if your dog has been scared at home, or due to medical conditions. Lockdown has caused sudden and dramatic changes in the number of people at home and has increased the number of dogs suffering from separation-related disorders.
If your dog is still struggling with being left alone, visit your vet to rule out any health problems. If no health problems are found contact a pet behaviourist for an individualised assessment and therapy plan. Consider alternative arrangements such as a pet sitter or day boarding.