How to help your dog get used to spending time alone

Dogs that were already part of the family pre-lockdown have got used to us being around much more and dogs that have joined us during the last year, might not know any different. 

Whether you are heading back to the office or beginning to socialise again, you want to ensure that your dog doesn’t struggle when you leave them. Dogs are social and it’s not unusual for them to feel worried when they are left, especially for the first time. So, you need to teach your pooch how to spend time on their own and ensure they learn to feel relaxed by themselves.  

Teaching a dog to cope when home alone should ideally start when they are still a puppy. Of course, for many dogs, lockdown has made doing that much more difficult. However, teaching our dogs to cope alone is important to help prevent separation anxiety from developing, so the sooner you can prepare them, the better.  

Is your dog already struggling to cope by themselves? Here’s what to do if your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety. 

Teach your dog how to be alone 

Before leaving your dog home alone, you need to teach them that it is alright and that they will be able to cope on their own. The more you do this before you actually need to leave the house, the easier it will be when you do.  
 
Here are a few ways you can do that: 

  • Make sure they have a comfy bed or build them a doggy den.   
  • Teach your dog to settle down calmly when you are busy, rather than giving them attention when they follow you around.  
  • Use baby gates across doorways to introduce time apart.  
  • Leave them with a long-lasting treat or toy that releases food.  
  • Slowly increase the time you leave them alone while you’re in the house.  
  • Start to build up the time you leave the house for.  
  • Factor some time apart into your daily routine.   

It’s important to build up time apart very gradually and associate it with something positive, like a long-lasting treat. Monitor how your pup responds, and shorten the time left if they show any signs of anxiety. 

It’s normal for dogs to want to be with us, but ultimately you want them to learn to enjoy being by themselves and to not follow you around and rely on your attention. That way, they will be able to cope better when you do leave the house and they are alone. 


Prepare your dog for being left home alone  

Before you leave your dog at home, there are a few things you can do to help them feel calm and relaxed.   
 

Tip 1: Take your dog for a long walk before you go out  

Before you leave your dog alone, make sure they have been out for a long walk. This will give them a chance to burn off some energy, tire themselves out and go to the toilet. That way, they will hopefully be ready to settle down and sleep while you are out.  

Tip 2: Make sure they have everything they need  

Before you go out make sure your dog has access to water and their food or a long-lasting treat.   
 
You could also leave an old item of clothing that smells like you in their bed  and don’t forget that doggy den, which will help make them feel safe and relaxed. Leaving the TV or radio on may also help with this.  

Tip 3: Don’t make a fuss when you leave or return  

You don’t want to make you leaving and returning to the house a big deal for your pooch. Make it as uneventful as possible so don’t make a big fuss of them.  

Start by getting everything ready, so you can leave quickly and calmly. You could also use a word or phrase (such as “see you later”) that helps to establish a routine.  

Tip 4: Don’t tell your dog off  

Dogs develop separation anxiety because they are worried. Telling them off or being angry when they behave in a way that you don’t want is likely to make things worse. If you come home and your dog has scratched up your floor or been to the toilet inside, they won’t know why you’re telling them off as they don’t understand that this is ‘wrong’. Being angry with them may make them worried about you coming home, as well as being anxious about being left. Instead, focus on rewarding them when they remain calm and relaxed.  

Tip 5: Don’t leave them on their own for too long  

Dogs shouldn’t be left alone for more than four hours anyway. But if your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety then you should continue to build up to this gradually. If you do have to go out for longer, organise for someone to pop in or for your pooch to go to doggy day care.  


FAQs:  

A few questions may arise while you are teaching your dog to spend time on their own. Here are some of the most frequently asked to help your pooch prepare to be by themselves.  

What are the first signs of stress in a dog?   

While teaching your pup that being on their own is alright, you’ll want to look out for behaviours that tell you if and when they are feeling stressed or worried. This could include:  

  • Panting  
  • Pacing  
  • Yawning (unrelated to tiredness) 
  • Lip-licking  
  • Vocalising  
  • Urinating  
  • Destructive behaviour 

If your dog is showing signs that they are feeling worried or stressed, take it back a step and progress more slowly. Remember to build up time apart very gradually and always associate this with something positive.  

How long can you leave an adult dog alone?   

At first, you should increase the time you are away from your dog very gradually. A few minutes is enough to start with. Once you have successfully built-up time apart, the length of time a dog can be left will depend on the individual. You should avoid leaving your dog for more than four hours. If you are going to be out for longer then make sure you organise for someone to pop in or look after them. 

What are the benefits of using a baby gate to help dogs get used to spending time alone?   

A baby gate is beneficial as your pooch will still be able to see, hear and smell you without being with you or following you around. Before going through the baby gate, scatter some treats onto the floor or give your dog a chew or food-releasing toy to play with. This will help them to learn that being alone is ok and a positive experience. If they are showing signs that they are worried, you can stay closer to the gate and then build up the distance and time that you are away from it.    

If your dog can’t cope alone and is showing signs of separation anxiety then leaving the TV on or giving them a long-lasting treat won’t suffice. If this is the case, you need to speak to your vet who can check they are in good health before referring you to a qualified behaviourist so you can get advice you on what to do next.   

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