Just like humans, dogs are social animals and our canine pals like to spend the majority of their time in our company. That’s why it’s essential that dogs should never be left on their own for too long. However, all dogs benefit from learning to manage being on their own for short periods. Otherwise, if you have to leave your dog and they aren’t used to it, it will be very stressful for them.
In essence, teaching your dog to feel relaxed and comfortable when left on their own for part of the day is another aspect of training. And, like learning any new thing, it takes time and patience and needs to be built up slowly. It’s a routine that ideally starts from puppyhood, so it becomes a normal part of life, but is just as important for older dogs, although it may be more of a challenge.
It's alright, you’re still around
Animal charity Blue Cross recommends starting by using a stair gate, placed on the door to the room you have chosen to leave your dog alone in. That way, your dog can still see, smell and hear you. This will help your dog get used to a little bit of distance while you are still in the house. Put a comfortable bed and water in this room, and some safe chew items as chewing is a calming activity for many canines.
This smells of you
Leave an item of clothing you’ve worn recently in your dog’s bed to increase your dog’s sense of security while you’re not in the room. Products such as Pet Remedy or Adaptil can help as they release comforting pheromones to aid canine relaxation.
Music to my ears
Leave a radio on to provide some comforting background noise. This may also help to muffle any sounds from outdoors that may startle or upset your dog. According to Your Dog magazine, research at Colorado State University showed that many dogs respond positively to background music – but choose a station with care. Researchers found that heavy rock music could increase nervousness in dogs, while classical music was most likely to help them relax. Apparently, one of their favourite tunes was Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata!
This is actually quite good fun
Once you have an ideal setting in place, you can begin the training. During the day, randomly pop your dog behind the stair gate with a tasty chew, such as a Kong toy stuffed with treats, close the stair gate behind you and go about your business as normal. Stay in eye and earshot, especially if your dog is young or new to your home. After a few minutes, open the stair gate, ideally while your dog is still engrossed in the treat, but don’t interact with them. This gives your dog the option to either stay in the room or leave, whatever they feel comfortable with, reinforcing that this scenario is nothing to be worried about.
I’m OK with this
Over a period of days, gradually increase the time your dog is left behind the stair gate until you get to a point that they feel relaxed enough for you wander out of sight. Build your dog up to being left in this area for up to half an hour while you are elsewhere in the house. Once your dog is comfortable with this, you can begin to get them used to short periods of time alone in the house.
How long should you leave your dog?
The length of time a dog can be left alone depends on the individual dog, but the RSPCA advises that they should be left for no longer than four hours.
Just popping out
Prepare the area as you normally would and follow the same routine as before. Once your dog is comfortable and tucking into something tasty, get yourself ready and leave the house. Don’t fuss over and excite your dog just before you leave the house – it’s better to just slip out quietly. After a few minutes, return before you dog has a chance to become anxious. Repeat a few times over the course of the day. Gradually increase the time you leave your dog alone to about half an hour over a period of days.
Longer leave times
If you need to leave your dog for several hours, make sure you have built them up to this by following the training plan. It’s also essential that they have been well exercised and had the opportunity to go to the toilet before you leave them. Giving them a small meal may help them feel more chilled out and sleepy.
Every dog is different
If your dog shows any sign of anxiety, take a few steps back and start from where they were last comfortable. Some dogs progress easily, while others take more time to adjust. If you find your dog begins to look worried when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, then you’ll need to ‘desensitise’ them to these particular sounds. You can do this by regularly popping your dog in the area during the day and getting them used to seeing and hearing you pick up your keys, coat or bag. At this point, it’s important not to actually leave the house – just allow your dog to get used to these sights and sounds while they are relaxed and comfortable.
When you come home, keep greetings friendly and low-key. And, if you come home to any little accidents or to find something has been chewed up, never, ever punish your dog – they haven’t done this out of spite for being left alone. These behaviours are a likely to be a result of anxiety or boredom and punishment will only reinforce any negative connotations your dog has of being on their own.
When a dog senses their owner is upset with them, they often display ‘appeasement behaviour’ – ears may go flat, eyes may be narrowed, they may turn their head away, lower their body and put their tail between their legs. Appeasement behaviour is often misinterpreted by humans as guilt, but dogs that ‘look guilty’ are simply responding to an owner’s disappointment, upset or anger and is their way of communicating that they are no threat to you in an attempt to diffuse tension.
Blue Cross advises: “Dogs associate punishment with what they are doing at that moment in time and aren’t able to make a connection between punishment and something they did hours ago. Punishment is not only useless, but it is also likely to make the problem worse. Now, as well as being anxious about being left, a dog will also be worried about the owner returning, which can make any symptoms much, much worse.”
Need professional help?
If your dog is struggling with a separation problem, then it’s well worth seeking professional help. Your vet can refer you to The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or contact the Animal Behaviour and Training Council who will help you find a reputable, positive reinforcement behaviourist or trainer in your area.
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