Teaching your dog it's OK to be alone
by Jenna Kiddie
Dogs & Puppy Separation Anxiety Training
Our how-to guide and top tips to make sure your puppy is happy when left alone
Dogs are naturally social animals, so it’s normal for them to feel worried when they’re left on their own. They aren’t born knowing how to feel okay when they’re all by themselves, so it’s important to teach your dog to feel confident and relaxed about being home alone.
Teaching a dog to cope when home alone should ideally start when he is still a puppy. If your dog is already showing serious signs of separation distress, such as making a mess or a lot of noise, then please contact your vet who can make sure he’s in good health, and then refer you to a qualified behaviourist.
Setting your dog up for success
First teach him to be confident and relaxed when you are home, but busy and unable to give him your attention:
- Make sure your dog has a comfy and cosy bed or covered den all of his own, away from the main thoroughfare of the house and distracting activities. Make sure he is never disturbed whenever he is in his bed.
- Encourage him to spend time in his bed when you are engaged in another activity, watching TV or cooking for example, by giving him a tasty chew or a food-releasing toy there. He’ll soon learn to enjoy these times when you are busy and can’t give him direct attention, and he’ll see his bed as a great place to be in by himself. This will help him to cope better when you’re not there at all.
- It’s normal for dogs to want to be with us, but teaching your dog not to follow you around the house is a good idea because it will help him not to rely on you being present all the time. If he does follow you, don’t speak to him, make eye contact or touch him. Don’t feel mean doing this, you’re just teaching him that following you everywhere is boring! This will help him when you actually have to leave him all alone.
- If your dog persists in following you, it’s important that you don’t tell him off or to “go away”. Even though you’re trying to discourage him you might make him anxious and confused so he might seek your attention even more! Remember to ignore unwanted behaviour and reward good behaviour.
Next, start teaching your dog to cope when you move a little further away
It’s important to practice separation gradually and very slowly build up your dog’s tolerance for being on his own. Pick a time to practice when you and your dog are both calm and relaxed.
- You can use baby-gates across doorways to teach your dog that you can be at a distance from him without him having to worry. He’ll be able to see you, hear you and smell you but just not physically connect with you. Just before going through the baby-gate scatter some treats onto the floor for your dog to search for, or give him a toy, chew or food-releasing toy to play with by himself. He’ll be learning that being alone is okay because he’ll be having a good time! If you haven’t got a baby-gate don’t worry, just gently close the door, but be aware you’re completely going out of sight so this is a big step! Stay outside only for a very short time to begin with.
- Start with very short periods (e.g. just one minute to begin with) then gradually build up the length of time you are away from your dog, as long as he remains relaxed.
- Gradually increase the time before you return to the room. If your dog becomes worried or shows signs of anxiety, try staying closer to the gate if you are using one, or go back to leaving him for a shorter duration. If he cannot cope with this level of separation stop and contact a qualified behaviourist for guidance.
Preparing for success when you are leaving your dog alone at home
- Take your dog for a good walk and ensure he goes to the toilet before you leave. Remember to leave him with water and food if he hasn’t eaten already.
- Prepare your things beforehand so you can leave quickly and calmly without agitating your dog by rushing around stressed.
- Establish a leaving routine, use a special word (that you only use when you leave), for example “stay and be good”. Routine lets your dog know what happens next, and consistency helps your dog feel secure.
- Leave your dog with a food-releasing toy or something safe that is long lasting and tasty to eat. Ideally it should last at least 15 minutes and be as delicious and fun as possible, for example a Kong toy stuffed with a his dog biscuits or meat soaked in a little water, or ‘squeezy cheese’, frozen to make it last longer.
- Leave an old item of clothing that smells of you in your dog’s bed.
- Leave the TV or radio on to help muffle any external noises.
- Once he can cope alone, think about how long your dog can go between toilet breaks, and don’t leave him for longer than this period of time.