Home alone – separation anxiety in dogs
Dogs, like us are very social animals. They would naturally live in family groups and have ‘evolved’ alongside humans over thousands of years to ‘work’ with us and live as our companions. Most dogs would choose to spend the majority of their time in our company. Some might actually prefer the company of their own kind, but what is certain, is that being alone just doesn’t come naturally for most.
Although dogs should never be left for too long on their own, if they get used to being left for short periods when young, they are likely to grow up feeling relaxed and comfortable when left on their own for some part of the day.
How long can my dog be left alone?
As a general rule, your dog should never be left alone for more than four hours at a time. However, this will greatly depend on your dog, their age, breed and how they cope with being on their own in the house. Some may struggle being away from their owners for this long and others will be unphased.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs
If your dog is anxious or unsettled about being left at home alone you may see the following:
Your dog becomes distressed as soon as you leave. The first 15 minutes are the worst, during which time your dog becomes extremely upset. All the physiological signs of fear may be present – an increase in heart and breathing rate, panting, salivating, increased activity and, sometimes, a need to go to the toilet. Your dog may try to follow you as you leave, scratching at doors, chewing at doorframes, scratching at carpets or jumping up at windowsills to look for a way out. Alternatively your dog may bark, whine or howl to try and persuade you to come back.
After this frantic period, your dog may settle down to chew something that you have recently touched that still carries your scent. Dogs will often chew scented items into small pieces and curl up in the debris so that your dog forms a ‘barrier’ of your scent around them for security.
On your return, your dog may appear elated and may become very excitable. They may be wet, either from salivating or excessively drinking due to stress.
When you are home, your dog may attempt to follow you wherever you go in the house. They may begin to display anxious behaviours when they see you preparing to leave the house (eg panting, pacing).
How to help your puppy or new dog get used to being left alone
It’s a good idea to teach a puppy or new dog to get used to your absence for short periods of time, even if you don’t intend to leave them alone for long. At some point, you will have to leave your dog at home and if they aren’t used to it, they may become very distressed. The idea is to teach them that being alone isn’t scary at all; it’s actually a time to relax and feel comfortable.
Firstly you’ll need to decide on where you are happy for your dog to be left alone. Some people prefer their dogs to be left in a utility room or kitchen due to ease of cleaning up any potential mess. There is nothing wrong with this – however you don’t want to make the mistake of putting your dog in this area only when you are leaving them. This is because you want them to feel as comfortable and relaxed as they possibly can, and if they only get put in this area when they are left, they may learn to only associate it with isolation.
Preparing an area
Stair gates are fantastic tools to use when helping dogs get used to being left alone. They aren’t as scary as a closed door as they still allow your dog to see, smell and hear you. The key thing is that you’ll be able to help your dog get used to a little bit of distance between you while you are still in the house. Stair gates are best placed on the door to the room you have decided you will leave your dog alone in. Put a comfortable bed and water in this room, and chew items too should your dog need them (chewing is a calming activity). Many dogs will benefit from being left with a radio on low level as this provides a little background noise and ‘company’. It may also muffle any startling sounds from the outside, which might otherwise make your dog jump. Talking stations are best, as opposed to loud music. Putting an item of clothing you’ve worn recently in your dog’s bed may also increase your dog’s sense of security during the following training and when they are left alone. Adaptil products can also be of benefit as they release comforting pheromones, which can help dogs feel more relaxed.
Randomly during the day, pop your dog behind the stair gate with a tasty chew, eg a Kong toy stuffed with treats or smeared with pate. Close the stair gate behind you and go about your business as normal, but try to stay in eye and earshot of your dog, especially if they are young or new to your home. After a few minutes, open the stair gate - ideally you want your dog to be relaxed and still engrossed in the treat. Your dog can decide what they want to do at this point, either stay in the room or leave.
If you find that your dog struggles with this at all, you can make it easier for them by staying in this room with them, but it’s important that you don’t interact with them – just sit there quietly. Once they are used to the idea of being in the room with you (but not interacting with you!) you can start shutting the stair gate for a few minutes.
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 completely. Build your dog up to being left in this area for up to half an hour while you are busy 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.
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.
Return after a few minutes (before your dog starts to become anxious). If your dog is comfortable with this length of time, fantastic! Repeat a few times over the course of day.
Gradually increase the time you leave your dog alone in the house to about half an hour over a period of days,
If your dog shows any sign of worry, take a few steps back and start from where they were last comfortable
Some dogs will progress easily, but others may need more time to adjust, so take the steps very slowly. If you find your dog begins to look worried when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, then you will need to spend some time ‘desensitising’ your dog to these particular sounds. You can do this by regularly popping your dog in the area during the day as before and get 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.
Once they look calm when they see or hear these things (this may take several days), then you can start again with actually leaving the house for short periods of time
Keep greetings friendly, low-key and predictable on your return, even if you come home to find your dog has chewed something or toileted. It’s important to understand that punishment won’t help your dog – just go back a few steps and start again.
If you need to leave your dog for several hours, make sure you have built them up to this with the above training. You’ll need to make sure they have been well exercised and have had the opportunity to go the toilet. For some dogs, a small meal may help as this may make them feel more relaxed and sleepy.
Why are some dogs unsettled when left alone?
There are many reasons why a dog may develop problems when home alone – these are the most common:
The dog has never been left alone in the home regularly or separated from a particular person
There is something that the dog is scared of or worried by either inside the house or outside. This could be something that happens on a daily basis (eg the postman arriving) or something that happened only once (eg a severe thunderstorm). Dogs tend to feel much more vulnerable when they are on their own, so it is easy for them to develop specific fears, especially those who have a sensitive or nervous nature.
An animal companion dies. Normally this would be another dog who shared a close bond with the dog who is left behind, but strong attachments can also be made with other species too, like cats.
Boredom. Typically this affects young, energetic dogs who struggle when left to their own devices. If left alone for too long (especially when not exercised enough) these dogs may find their own entertainment, such as chewing table legs or raiding the rubbish bins.
Dogs who have been in rescue or have been rehomed several times can sometimes struggle with being left, especially in the first few weeks of being rehomed. This is probably due to a variety of factors, including the stresses experienced while in kennels and learning to adapt to a new home.
Why punishment won’t help
It is natural for owners to be angry or disappointed if they return to find damage to their home, mess in the house or annoyed neighbours. Sensing that their owners are upset with them, many dogs will display ‘appeasement behaviour’ – their ears may go flat, their body may be lowered and their tail may go between their legs. Some will look away and narrowing their eyes, as if they are cringing .
Appeasement behaviour is often misinterpreted as guilt, and mistakenly some owners believe the dog knows what they have done is wrong. They may feel that any damage caused or mess in the house has been done on purpose or out of spite for being left alone. Unfortunately, this may mean that the dog is punished in an attempt to stop the behaviour.
Dogs that look guilty are doing nothing more than responding to an owner’s disappointment, upset or anger and it is their way of diffusing tension in response to feeling threatened. Some dogs will also do this if they think they are about to be told off if they have been so in the past.
Any punishment given on returning home won’t help stop the problem. Dogs associate punishment with what they are doing at that moment in time and so a dog will not link the telling off with their actions before their owner came home, even if they are taken over to ‘the scene of the crime’. It is not that they cannot remember what happened; they just won’t be able to make a connection between the 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.
How to help a dog who has separation problems
If your dog has an established separation problem, then it’s best to seek professional help. All cases are different so it’s impossible to develop a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or the Animal Behaviour and Training Council will help you to find a reputable behaviourist or trainer local to you. If your dog was rehomed from Blue Cross, then please contact the centre you rehomed your pet from and we will do our best to help you.