Hang on… bear with me… I’m just taking a moment to listen to that sound. Silence. Absolute silence. It’s a very rare phenomenon here at Underhill Towers and, on occasion, it can be blissful! Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a sociable fella and I do miss my family if they’re gone for too long but the peace and quiet of an hour or two at home alone can be a wonderful thing sometimes. Glancing over at Poppy, flat on her back with her legs in the air gently snoring away, I’d say she’s pretty happy with the sound of silence, too! Now, I can pretty much guarantee that if I went out now, she’d probably just carry on sleeping. But not all dogs are happy with being left alone. So, what do you do if your dog isn’t keen on being home alone – how do you get them used to it and how long should you leave them?
The best time to start training a dog to be left is when they’re a puppy. I’m not suggesting you begin abandoning a new puppy from day 1 but it is a good idea to start getting them used to it from a young age. Start slowly, and begin at home – don’t actually go out, but just get them used to being in a different room on their own for a while. Perhaps put your pup on its bed and ask it to stay, then return a few minutes later and give them a treat. Don’t make a huge fuss but praise them. Gradually, extend the time they’re left and work up to shutting a door between you. Pick up your keys and put on your coat to get them used to seeing these actions and not feeling anxious about the sounds. Once they’re happy to stay in a room on their own for half an hour or more, and aren’t showing any signs of distress, you can begin to leave the house for a short period. Again, praise them when you get back but don’t make a huge fuss – you don’t want them to start getting too excited anticipating your return otherwise they may start chewing or being destructive!
Go through this process slowly and at your dog’s pace – some dogs will be far less bothered by being alone than others. If your new dog is a rescue or an older dog you’ll need to be much more patient and responsive to the dog’s reactions. They may have suffered previous trauma, abandonment or anxiety so don’t even begin this training until they’ve well and truly settled into their new home and are very comfortable in their new environment.
Obviously, it’s really beneficial to go through this training as there will always be times when you’ll need to leave your dog for short periods – there are some places they just can’t come with you! However, the Blue Cross recommend that dogs shouldn’t be left alone for more than 4 hours at once. This does vary a lot by breed and also your dog’s individual character but, as a general rule, this is really the maximum length of time they can be safely left – and of course some dogs won’t manage for anything like this period of time without company. Dogs are, historically speaking, pack animals and they enjoy company and companionship. Some more than others will become really anxious about being left.
Sometimes, simple things like leaving a radio on quietly can help dogs to settle and feel less alone. They’re not daft, they know that it’s not you talking in the other room, but some background noise can be soothing and could help to muffle any other sudden noises outside that could disturb or alarm them. Your pooch might also be more comfortable if they’re left with a favourite toy or an item of your clothing so they can cuddle up with your scent.
Before you leave, make sure they’re well exercised and they’ve had chance to go out and do their business. Larger, energetic dogs especially can chew or become destructive if they’re bored; they need something to occupy their minds so helping them to expend their excess energy before you go out will help to prevent this, as will leaving toys like a puzzle ball that can keep them busy.
If you’re making moves to go out an anxious dog may start pacing, scratching at door frames or carpets, chewing, panting, salivating or barking. These are all signs that they’re becoming worried about the situation. When you return, they may have chewed things up (especially things with your scent, which they then scatter around as ‘protection’ or comfort), or toileted in the house. They might be excessively wet from slobbering or drinking a lot. Whatever you return to, if you’ve got an anxious dog it’s really important that you don’t tell them off – what may look like ‘guilt’ on their face when you return is actually just appeasement behaviour. Dogs really aren’t capable of feeling guilty and they haven’t been naughty to ‘punish’ you for going out. That guilty look is just a response to you looking/sounding cross and they won’t associate it with their previous actions (the chewing/barking/messing) at all – they’re simply not capable of this thought process!
Slowly and sensitively try to get your dog feeling more relaxed about being left and, if gradual training doesn’t work (see more tips here) then it might be worth calling on the assistance of a behavioural specialist. Leaving an anxious dog can cause them a great deal of distress and may result in destructive or self-harming behaviour such as excessive chewing, biting or scratching their fur and skin, so it should be avoided at all costs.
If the anxious behaviour has come on suddenly, it could be a symptom of something else so, as with any sudden change in behaviour, it’s advisable to get your four-legged friend checked out by a vet.
If you’re out at work all day, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be a dog owner, but usually a full work day plus commuting time is far too long for your furry friend to be left home alone. Even if they’re not particularly anxious, dogs do like company and will not cope well with being alone regularly for long periods – and that’s in addition to their basic needs like toileting. Fido won’t be able to keep his legs crossed for hours on end (and it’s not good for him, either!).
There are plenty of other options for taking care of your dog, including employing the services of local pet sitters and dog walkers who can, by arrangement, either take your dog out alone, take them for a walk with a group, or just come and sit with them at home as company to break up the day, have a play, and let them in the garden. Costs vary, as does the level of service on offer, so it’s important to find the right person who will accommodate your needs (and those of your pooch!). Make sure you read reviews and speak to other owners before choosing your dog walker or pet sitter, and let them meet your dog so you can be sure they’ll get on well and be happy and settled whilst you’re not there.
There are also ‘doggy day care’ facilities, much like a children’s creche or nursery, where you can take your dog while you’re at work and they can enjoy some time playing and making other puppy friends. This is great for sociable mutts who enjoy other dogs’ company but not so much for those that can be fussy about which other dogs they associate with! Again, read reviews, speak to other owners and visit the facility before taking Fido there so that you know it’s the right choice and your furry friend will be well looked after while you’re working.
Another option is an informal arrangement with family, friends or neighbours – this could even be a reciprocal arrangement with other dog owners who you know well, where you help each other out on days to suit. Again, make sure your dog is happy in the company of any other dogs involved though – leaving them with a dog that they’re scared of would be worse than leaving them alone!
Of course, depending where you work you could always ask your boss if you could take your four-legged friend along to work with you. Office dogs can be very popular and are even said to improve productivity and reduce stress in the workplace. Fido could become an honorary employee!
Anyway, talking of being home alone I’ve just heard the front door so my time is up! Ah well, the peace and quiet was nice while it lasted. C’mon Poppy, wakey wakey! Bring on the chaos!