Author: Jennifer Berg, CPDT-KA
(This is for general information only. Please consult a reputable, force-free dog behaviour professional for advice specific to the behaviours of your dog.)
This pandemic has been hard on some dogs as they learned to adjust to family members being home but occupied with work or classes. As people return to the office and school, dogs may have a difficult time adjusting to the increased time alone. This is especially true for “pandemic puppies” who may find themselves alone for the first time in their lives, but it can also be the case for dogs who are out of practice. Here are some tips for helping your dog learn to be relaxed and content when alone. (More information and detailed instructions are available in my book Teach Your Dog How to Be Alone: a simple, concise step-by-step guide.)
Train it before you need it
Start the training as soon as possible. It takes time to teach a dog how to be relaxed and comfortable when left alone, and while some dogs can learn it in a week, some may require many weeks. Keep in mind that elderly dogs and dogs in pain or ill-health may be less resilient to stressors. If your dog has never been left alone, has had a history of being distressed when left alone, or has an unknown history of being alone and you are unsure how your dog will react, it’s a good idea to start at the easiest level and progress gradually with very small steps.
Try a short, very easy test run
Set up a device that allows you to observe when your dog is alone, perhaps through a live video feed or as a recording you can view after you return. Look for the smallest signs of stress and adapt your training as needed.
Learn to read your dog
Is your dog comfortable and relaxed or merely “fine” when alone? Learn to read subtle canine stress signals to ensure you aren’t missing some very subtle indications that your dog is not fine (e.g., nose/lip licking, yawning when not tired, shake-offs, panting). If you see signs of stress make things easier for your dog.
Plan for success
Create conditions that will make it easier for your dog to feel safe, content, and relaxed. Choose times of the day when your dog is more likely to settle and have a nap. It can be helpful to provide an object to occupy your dog for the first few minutes after you leave (e.g., a food-dispensing toy or a chew) but be sure it is an object safe for your dog to have unsupervised.
Consider carefully whether to crate or not to crate
A dog can be taught to feel safe and relaxed while alone without the use of a crate. A crate is a tool that can help in some cases, but it needs to be used wisely. Some dogs may panic when they are closed inside a crate, especially if they associate it with things that cause them distress, such as being alone for too long. Ensure your dog enjoys entering their crate and relaxing in it before you attempt to leave your dog alone in it. You can help convince your dog that their crate is a wonderful place to be by keeping the crate door open and feeding meals and special chews and treats in there. When your dog isn’t watching, place treats or a new toy in their crate so that when they go in there on their own, it is instantly reinforced that crate is a great place to be. Teaching a dog how to be alone starts by ensuring they feel safe and relaxed and an essential part of that means letting them have choice and control in the training process. Coaxing, pressuring, or tricking your dog to enter their crate is not a good training plan.
Address barking and other unwanted behaviours appropriately
Barking, house soiling, and destructive behaviours are common symptoms of isolation-or separation-distress. Caregivers might be tempted to turn to devices and training advice that promise guaranteed quick results through the suppression of these symptoms of distress, but this leads to wasted time and money, emotional trauma to the dog, and an escalation in problem behaviours. Please consult a reputable, force-free dog behaviour professional if you need help, and consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical cause that could be contributing to unwanted behaviours.
Jennifer Berg, CPDT-KA has over 16 years’ experience providing force-free, science-based dog training. She is certified with the CCPDT and is a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Copies of her book Teach Your Dog How to Be Alone: a simple, concise step-by-step guide can be purchased at a variety of online book retailers; Visit oberhund.com for information on purchasing a printed copy.