Training a Dog to Be Left Alone
How do you teach your dog to be happy when left alone?
Dogs, like humans, are social animals. They are unusual in that they can accept other animals including humans as part of their social group or ‘family’. The PDSA Paw Report in 2022 suggested that as many as 11% of dogs in the UK were unhappy when left alone by their human family.
More young dogs are reported as showing signs of stress when left alone than dogs owned before the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Although the reasons are complex, they include puppies not learning that it was okay to be left alone as everyone was at home, a lack of access to training classes and trainers, and irresponsible breeding, importing, and rehoming of dogs to meet increased demand during the pandemic
Canine signs of stress
How do you know if your dog is struggling to cope when you leave the house? There may be signs when you return such as a puddle of urine, chewed toys or furniture, and scratched doors or carpets. Your pet may be panting and drooling, or even have tired red eyes suggesting they have been active and not settled.
You may get complaints from your neighbours that your dog whines, barks, or howls for extended periods when you are out. If you are unsure how your dog behaves when left alone monitor them with a camera. Video footage can be very useful in determining the level of distress your dog feels when left and identifying anything which triggers barking and other problem behaviours.
It can be very frustrating to return to a damaged house, but it is important to understand that your dog isn’t being destructive to punish you for leaving but because they are distressed. Scratching at carpets and doors may indicate that your dog is trying to escape to join you. Chewing toys, beds, or furniture is an activity dogs do to relax and comfort themselves. Urination and defecation (peeing and pooping) can happen when a dog panics, but toileting can also induce a feeling of mental as well as physical relief. Barking may be an attempt to get your attention and bring you home, or it can be in response to perceived threats such as the postman, or in frustration at ‘prey’ they can see but not reach such as a squirrel or next door’s cat.
Reasons your dog might be struggling to be left alone
Signs that your dog is not coping with being left alone include:
The main reason that dogs struggle with being left home alone is that they weren’t gently introduced to alone time as a young dog. Separation problems are often noticed when the routine changes abruptly meaning dogs are left for the first time or are left for longer. Some people believed that they would always work from home after Covid-19 but have been asked to go back to work. In other cases, the routine changes because the school holidays end, work hours change, or a family emergency happens.
Occasionally a dog who has previously been settled when left alone will start to display signs of stress when left. This can happen in old dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction or pain that disturbs their sleeping. It may be the result of a scary incident such as a loud thunderstorm, unexpected fireworks, or an attempted burglary. Perhaps saddest of all a dog may be unhappy when their human family leave if another animal companion has died, even if they didn’t seem to get on!
Training your dog to feel better about being left alone
Ideally you should start training your puppy to be happy on their own soon after you bring them home. Choose times when your puppy is relaxed, tired, and has a full tummy to leave him in one room while you go to another room. Make sure you leave your puppy in a safe space and provide safe things for them to chew, lick, and explore.
When you come back into the room with your puppy you don’t need to ignore them, but there is also no need to make a huge fuss if they are relaxing on their bed with a chew. Some puppies find the sound of a radio station comforting, or it may just reduce the chance of outside noises disturbing them. Using a dog appeasing pheromone collar, spray, or pug-in can make the area you leave your puppy feel more like his whelping nest.
Before leaving, walk your dog
If you have an older dog who is showing signs of being unhappy when left, you can start with a similar approach to that for puppies. Ensure they are in a place where they feel safe and secure and are least likely to be disturbed by things outside. Your dog is more likely to settle and rest if all their basic needs have been met so ensure they have had a walk with some mentally stimulating activity like sniffing for scents, that they have been fed, and that they have emptied their bladder and bowels.
It helps some dogs if you have a set routine when leaving. This might look like settling them on their bed with a favourite safe chew treat, putting the radio on, and saying goodbye. Although this seems odd, as long as your initial absences are short and as long as you always return this can help you dog cope.
Build up the time you leave your dog for gradually
Dogs with separation issues often like to follow their people everywhere and become upset when they can’t. One way to reduce the following behaviour is simply to ignore the dog if you haven’t asked them to be with you. Make being with you less interesting! It is even possible to make not following you a better option by leaving some scattered food behind when you get up, or by using a remotely triggered food dispenser so you can reward your dog for not following.
Once your dog chooses to stay in one room while you got to another you can introduce barriers. Start with a barrier the dog can see through, such as a baby gate before working up to a closed door. Build up the time you leave slowly; dog cameras can be useful here too as you can make sure you return before your dog becomes distressed.
Your dog might be able to cope if they know you are in the house, but struggle if your go outside. Again, you need to build this up step by step and remember that though your dog may be fine for half an hour if you are in the house you may need to go back to just a few seconds if you go outside. You dog will also be able to hear your car leave, and this may be a trigger for anxiety so make sure you include this in your being left alone training.
When training a dog to be left alone it is important that they are not left for a period that they can’t cope with. This is challenging and can mean using dog sitters for planned events or even to go to work. There are ways around this such as leaving by a different door if you will be going for longer than your dog can cope with, or always wearing a specific hat for planned training leaves and never for longer ones but this can make overall training times longer.
Don’t punish your dog
Punishing a dog for indoor toileting or destruction when you return can increase their anxiety. Your dog will associate the punishment with you returning rather than with the damage done, and this soon starts to show as anxiety when you leave because after you leave you will come back and might be angry.
When you come home do not ignore your dog, but don’t go nuts with the greeting either! It is sensible to let your dog out to the toilet especially if they have been sleeping then get on with the things you need to do (like putting the kettle on) while your dog sniffs you and calms down. Once your dog is calm and has toileted, then you can have a game.
What is an appropriate length of time a dog can be left alone
There is no hard and fast rule for how long a dog can be left alone. Most dogs with separation issues show signs of anxiety or distress within minutes of their person leaving. Dogs that have been trained to cope alone may be happy for several hours unless they are disturbed or need the toilet.
Most dog organisations recommend that adult dogs should not be left regularly for more than 4 hours during the daytime. If you are away for more than 5 hours, you should arrange for someone to visit and let your dog out for a toilet break. Puppies should be left for shorter periods as they need to empty their bladders more often.
Calming products to help alleviate stress for your dog
When introducing an older dog to being left calming supplements can be useful. Although chews and treats are an important part of separation training it is not recommended to leave dogs alone with some types of chew.
Breakthrough dog food can help reduce anxiety in dogs and aid them in learning new behaviours by raising levels of key neurotransmitters in the brain. The high value TrainUp Treats are ideal for use during a separation training plan.
Most mild separation issues can be dealt with by following the advice in this article. I call these cases ‘FOMO dogs’ who suffer more from a fear of missing out than being truly distressed at being left. More severe cases where a dog is showing signs of genuine distress when left for any period of time may require the help of a behaviourist to choose an appropriate plan of action. Where a dog suddenly starts being unhappy to be left consult your vet to rule out an underlying medical cause such as pain or cognitive dysfunction.
Do you need further advice?
If you need any further advice, please contact the OSCAR Helpline Team on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.