Learning to be left alone
One of the most effective ways of preventing your dog from ever becoming anxious when he is left alone is to teach him right from the start that being alone is fun! To do this you need to very gradually increase the time that you leave your dog alone so that it is never frightening and always associated with something pleasant.
The speed that you progress will depend on your dog’s reaction. Never leave your dog so long that he/she starts to become distressed.
N.B. If you do have to go out and leave your dog for long periods of time as soon as you bring him/her home, arrange for friends or family to help out for a while.
- Reward your dog for being relaxed when left alone. Rewards can be toys, treats or praise - a long lasting treat is ideal as you can tell that your dog is worried if it leaves something that he/she would normally enjoy munching. If your dog becomes anxious and does not remain quietly in his/her bed eating the treat, do not offer a reward. Instead simply go back a stage and try leaving him/her for a shorter period next time.
- Repeat each of the following stages until you are sure your dog is happy before progressing. How quickly you progress depends on how well your dog responds.
- Start by encouraging your dog to go to his/her bed and stay there with you present for a short while. Reward your dog for remaining quietly in the bed.
- Next ask your dog to stay in his/her bed as you move away, then return and reward.
- Move progressively further away and for longer. The distance/time that you increase by on each occasion will depend on your dog. If your dog reacts or moves then don’t reward but go back to the previous stage.
- Start going out through the door before returning, then going out and shutting the door, then going out for longer periods of time. When you get to this point start to vary the length of time that you are out.
- Once you reach the stage where your dog is happy to be left for up to an hour you should then have no problems leaving him/her for longer periods. To avoid boredom which may lead to mischief remember to give your dog something to occupy him/herself whilst you are out!
Prevent your dog from becoming bored
There are a number of things that you can do to give your dog something to occupy him/herself whilst you are away.
- Leave a safe, suitable toy/bone with your dog when you go out. Make sure that this is a ‘special’ toy by only making it available to your dog when you go out or when he/she is separated from you in another room in the house.
- Try to leave something that your dog really loves such as a ‘Kong’ stuffed with food (peanut butter or cheese mixed with dog biscuits are usually popular) or a meat-flavoured chew.
- Give your dog a treat ball or cube that you can fill with dried treats – your dog will have to work to get them out.
- All of these things will give your dog mental stimulation and prevent him/her from becoming bored.
- It’s important that any treats must be taken out of your dog’s daily food allowance as overfeeding can lead to obesity which can cause serious health and welfare concerns.
- Remember that when you return home these ‘special’ items should be put away again and only given to your dog when you go out, or when you are in a different room in the house.
Feeding and exercise
Your dog will be more inclined to relax when left alone if he/she has had an appropriate amount of exercise and been fed before you go out.
- Try to always exercise your dog before leaving him/her. Take your dog for a walk, returning home half an hour before you are due to leave.
- Feed your dog a small meal shortly before leaving.
- Always ensure that your dog goes to the toilet before being left alone.
Avoid all punishment
If your dog misbehaves while you are out it is vital that you do not react badly when you come home. Separation-related behaviour problems get worse when owners punish their dogs on their return!
This is because the punishment will be linked with your return rather than the destruction, barking or toileting carried out some time previously. Your dog will then become anxious about what you will do when you return the next time he/she is left alone. As a result of this increased anxiety the dog is more likely to chew or lose toilet control, making the problem even worse.
Many dogs who have been punished in the past when their owners returned will show submission in an attempt to appease their owners. They make themselves as small as possible, putting their ears back and their tail between their legs. Unfortunately owners often think that the dogs look guilty and punish them because they “know they have done wrong”. Even if you take your dog to the scene of the crime, he/she will not be able to associate your anger with his/her behaviour hours earlier – your dog will simply become more anxious the next time you go out.
The RSPCA only recommends the use of positive, reward-based training methods.
Although it is not easy, if you do find a mess when you come home, it is essential that you never physically punish or shout at your dog. Try to even avoid letting your dog see that you are annoyed – let him/her outside before cleaning up.
Acknowledgement for this information is made to Dr Rachel Casey, Dr Emily Blackwell and Dr John Bradshaw.