Leaving dogs alone: Training with separation anxiety

Anxious dog - separation anxiety

Few dogs like being left alone, but it's important that your dog learns to stay relaxed even in your absence.

Dogs are pack animals so it’s no surprise that being alone is not in their nature. But don’t worry, dogs can learn to stay alone with a bit of help from you. Read on to find out how to train your dog to remain calm and happy when home alone.

Popping out to the shops, a doctor’s appointment, or visiting a friend with a dog hair allergy? These are all situations where your dog cannot join you – regardless of how well trained they are. That’s why it’s vital for your dog to learn to stay alone.

Why are dogs scared of staying alone?

Dogs descend from wolves, which are well-known pack animals. Wolves work together, be it with hunting or rearing their young. No animal is left alone – only sick and weak animals that can no longer aid the pack are left behind.

Our dogs still maintain this instinct, whether more or less deep-seated. So it isn’t surprising that dogs don’t like to be left alone.

Separation anxiety or loss of control?

The level of anxiety individual dogs experience when home alone can vary a lot. And there isn’t always one simple answer regarding the source of anxiety. Dogs are individuals and just like humans, they are formed differently and have different experiences and character traits.

Nevertheless, canine anxiety of being left alone can generally be traced back to one of the following two main causes:

  1. Separation anxiety
  2. Fear of loss of control

Fear of being alone

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are actually scared of being alone. They feel helpless and abandoned without their owner.

In contrast, the concern with dogs with a loss of control is that their owner cannot cope without them. They feel that they have to protect and watch out for them. If their owner sets off without them, they cannot perform this task and feel worried or annoyed about it.

What can I do to help my dog?

The training described below primarily focuses on overcoming a dog’s separation anxiety and fear of being alone. If your dog’s issues stem from a ‘loss of control’, it’s recommended to start somewhere different. In this case, your dog first has to learn that you are the leader of the household pack.

If your dog is suffering from a loss of control, professional help is often needed. Experienced dog trainers or psychologists can help you to recognise and overcome the problem.

How does fear of staying alone manifest itself in dogs?

Fear of staying alone in dogs can manifest in several different ways.

Whilst some dogs bark loudly and howl, run restlessly or even destroy furniture, other dogs suffer in silence. They withdraw, refuse to eat, sleep, and at most whimper gently.

Recognising your dog’s body language and vocalisations is very helpful with treatment to overcome separation anxiety. Some experts advise setting up a pet camera with video function and observing how your dog behaves when left alone.

The video can provide useful information, and help identify the causes of your dog’s fear of being alone.

Dog destroying things © Chalabala / stock.adobe.com
Emptied rubbish bins, nibbled shoes, scratched furniture: These can all be signs of separation anxiety.

Why is it important for your dog to learn to stay alone?

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are under huge stress. Simply never leaving them alone isn’t a solution, and almost impossible in our day-to-day life. Calling the dog-sitter every time you have to nip to the supermarket? That just isn’t practical.

For humans and dogs to live together in harmony, dogs need to understand that they cannot follow their owners everywhere. The calmer your dog reacts towards your absence, the more relaxed you can be about your commitments too.

How long can dogs stay at home alone?

Regardless of how calmly your dog behaves, leaving them alone for a whole day whilst you work is too long. Dogs need a social environment in order to feel at ease.

So how long exactly should you be able to leave your dog alone? It depends! Dogs are unique individuals and there is no standard answer to how long they can stay on their own. As a general guideline, many UK dog charity organizations recommend not leaving any dog alone for more than four hours a day.

Think about your dog’s needs

Whilst some dogs will start barking as soon as their owner reaches for their car keys, others only become restless after being alone for a few hours. However, the limit for all dogs should be no more than four or five hours. By this point, most dogs will need to go outside to relieve themselves.

Regardless of how calmly your dog behaves, the fundamental rule is that they should not be left alone for several hours every day. Very anxious and sensitive dogs can even fall ill or develop depression if they are left alone too often. A dog-sitter or dog-sharing arrangement can help in this case.

Dog playing fetch © Emilia007 / stock.adobe.com
Retrieval games are ideal before leaving your dog alone. If physically and mentally stimulated, you dog will be more relaxed about spending time alone.

The best time for training dogs to stay alone

The saying ‘practice makes perfect’ is certainly true regarding your dog learning to stay alone. If dogs learn as early as the puppy phase that it is absolutely normal for their owner to go out for a short time without them, this will remain normal for them even as adults.

Find out in our article Leaving puppies alone how to train puppies to spend time alone.

Training with adult dogs

The good news is that even adult dogs can learn to stay on their own. The bad news is that training generally takes much longer. But your patience will pay off and even at an advanced age, your dog will still be grateful to you if they can stay on their own without feeling stress and anxiety.

Learning is better when stimulated

The best condition in which to teach your dog something new is when they are physically and mentally stimulated. If your dog is insufficiently challenged and bored, they won’t be receptive and will barely be able to follow your training.

Before starting with the following exercises, you should make sure that your dog is stimulated and satisfied. This works best when you spend a lot of time with and play with your dog beforehand. Take your pup for a walk, do search and retrieval games and ensure that they have worn themselves out enough.

1. Preparation

Does your dog have a favourite spot in your house or flat? Great. Then after a long walk, take your dog to their favourite blanket or dog bed and give them something to occupy themselves with, such as a chew bone or dog toy.

2. Practising at home

Before you actually leave the house, first start training within the four walls of your home.

If your dog is occupied with a chew bone, dog toy and seems relaxed, leave the room for a brief moment. Shut the door, go into another room and come back after a few minutes.

3. Slowly and flexibly increase the time frame

Ideally your dog won’t even notice you disappearing at the start. After repeating this several times, you can start to slowly increase the length of time you stay away – but not continually. Stay away for 10 minutes, then five, and then 15.

This way your dog will get used to the timeframe of your disappearance being flexible, and realise that they don’t have to get restless after a certain amount of time.

4. Return to a calm environment

It’s important for you to only come back into the room if your dog is behaving calmly. If you enter the room just when your dog starts barking loudly for you, they will simply think that barking is the right method to call you back.

Note: What if your dog is continually barking or whining? Then of course the only thing that helps is to come back at some point. But instead of calming your dog with your words, gestures and hands, you should fully ignore them, and only pay him or her attention again when they have calmed down.

5. Farewell and return

In order for training to be a success, it’s crucial that you don’t make a big drama out of leaving. It would be absolutely counterproductive to stroke your dog for a long time and say goodbye several times before actually closing the door behind you.

Dogs are smart and would immediately notice that there is something strange here. If you are feeling nervous, this may also be transmitted to your dog.

When coming back into the room, you shouldn’t greet and pat your dog exuberantly. Even if it’s difficult, don’t pay your dog much attention and always stay calm and relaxed. This is the best way to communicate to your dog that it’s the most normal thing in the world for you to leave it on its own.

6. Practise variations

Owners will frequently perform the same actions just before leaving the house. We put our shoes, scarf and jacket on, put our phone in our handbag or backpack and reach for our door keys. For dogs suffering from separation anxiety, these actions often become key stimuli and they begin to howl before their owner has even left the house.

The more varied you make your short disappearances in training, the less your dog becomes set on a certain mode of behaviour. Once your pet has learnt to stay by itself, you can of course calmly start again with your usual behaviour regarding shoes, handbag and keys.

You should be flexible until then. Sometimes go out wearing jogging pants and trainers, other times with a dress or suit and sometimes wearing socks or elegant shoes, then only a handbag or keys.

7. Leaving the house for the first time

Can you leave your dog alone in a room in your home and shut the door behind you without them getting nervous? Great! Then you can leave the house for the first time.

Just like training within your home, you shouldn’t do this for the first time when you actually have an appointment. Instead, at first just go out briefly to the letterbox, garage, or water the flowers in the front garden.

Again, don’t make a fuss about leaving and coming back and gradually increase the length of your absence – without becoming too predictable.

How long does training last?

Depending on the age of your dog and how strong their anxiety of being alone is, you may have to calculate several weeks for the training described above.

Sometimes the first signs of success can be seen after two weeks, whilst other times it takes six to eight weeks for an improvement. In principle, young dogs learn quicker than adult dogs, but even adult dogs are capable of learning!

When do I need help from experts?

If you don’t see any progress being made after two to three months despite regular practice, it can be helpful to take expert advice. Vets, animal psychologists, and dog trainers are good points of contact.

Perhaps there is more behind this fear of being alone than you think? Sometimes traumatic past experiences can lead to separation anxiety, which you can only overcome with professional help.

Conclusion: Every dog can learn to stay alone

Every dog (regardless of age) can learn to stay alone with the right training and plenty of patience. Don’t give up hope if progress seems slow. Continue practicing slowly and consistently – even if your dog struggles with being alone at first.

Just be careful that you don’t overdo it with training by focusing too much on quick success. If you notice that your dog is overwhelmed, it’s best to take one or two steps back in training. You will see that in the end, your patience will pay off!

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