Learning to be left alone

While some dogs are quite happy to be left alone for short periods, others may become distressed when separated from their owner. Animals affected by separation related behaviours, or separation anxiety may bark, howl, toilet indoors or be destructive.

Staffy in dog bed © RSPCA

It may not be immediately obvious that your dog is distressed when you go out. Taking videos from time to time can let you know if they are showing less obvious signs of distress such as trembling, pacing around or whining when you’re not in.

If you notice any of these signs you should talk to a vet who may refer you to a clinical animal behaviourist who will find out the cause of the behaviour and treat it accordingly.

The length of time a dog can be left alone depends on the individual dog but we advise that they are left for no longer than four hours so they have opportunities to exercise, go to the toilet, and spend time with people.

Teaching your dog that it’s OK to be alone

One of the most effective ways of preventing your dog from becoming anxious when they are left alone is to teach them 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 a frightening experience and always associated with something pleasant. Never leave your dog so long that they become distressed.

Repeat each of the following stages until you are sure your dog is happy before progressing:

  1. Start by encouraging your dog to go to their bed and stay there with you present for a short while. Reward your dog for remaining quietly in their bed with praise, toys or treats.
  2. Next, ask your dog to stay in their bed as you move away, then return and reward.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 them for longer periods.

Top tips

  • Make sure to give your dog something to occupy themselves while you are out to prevent boredom. Long-lasting treats such as ‘Kong’ toys or chews are perfect. You can tell a dog is worried if they don’t eat something they usually enjoy munching.
  • Your dog will be more inclined to relax when left alone if they have had an appropriate amount of exercise, have toileted and been fed before you go out.
  • 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.

Acknowledgement for this information is made to Dr Rachel Casey, Dr Emily Blackwell and Dr John Bradshaw.

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