Leaving Your Dog Home Alone? Here’s How To Handle The Guilt · The Wildest

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Leaving Your Dog Home Alone? Here’s How to Handle the Guilt

Leaving your dog alone at home can be guilt-inducing... but it doesn’t have to be

by Sadhbh O'Sullivan
19 January 2024
young man with black hair cuddling his beagle dog
Dejan Dundjerski / Shutterstock

Like every new dog owner, I am besotted with my seven-month-old puppy, Mona. I love everything about her, even the fact she can’t stop licking my inner ear when given the chance.

But I do miss the small mundane freedoms of pre-pet life. With my dog along for the ride, a lot of life’s basics have become more complicated: going food shopping when out on a walk; heading to an impromptu drink with friends; making decisions based on what I feel like doing, not how close we are to a certain someone’s nap time.

Many places are dog-friendly in the UK. But many aren’t, so considerable planning has to go into everything. And even if every place I wanted to go was dog-friendly, that doesn’t mean I’d always want to take her with me. That could be for her benefit (it would be too overwhelming), but sometimes, I admit, it’s for mine.

Leaving your dog alone at home is a guilt-inducing, scary prospect, to the point that you might choose to cancel plans rather than leave them behind. What if it makes them anxious? What if they destroy things? How long is too long alone?

But we’re here to say that you don’t need to cancel. Not only should you make time for your social life and mental well-being, but there are ways to leave your dog home alone safely and securely.

We spoke to Ingrid Haskal, a professional registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist, to understand how best to approach this, and any pitfalls to avoid.

How to train your dog to be left home alone

While there’s no direct reason why a dog would want to be home alone (as Ingrid says, they “like to be with their owners”), being left behind can keep them out of situations that would stress them out. This could manifest in any way, from them being overly responsive to other dogs to not being able to handle crowds.

Nonetheless, your dog is not going to love being left out, so you have to make them as comfortable as possible with the situation. The key, Ingrid says, is to train them “at the dog’s pace, not yours”.

“You can teach a puppy (from about eight weeks old) to be comfortable with being alone so they don’t get upset when you leave,” she says. This means taking each step very slowly and starting with your pet spending only seconds on their own in a room, then building it up from there.

As long as your dog doesn’t already have separation anxiety, Ingrid adds, this is something “you can train at any age” – with caveats. “If the dog is new to the home, the first thing you’ve got to do is allow them a good amount of time to settle in before you start leaving them alone. Always show patience and slowness.”

The maximum duration you should ever leave your dog alone, she says, is four to five hours.

How can you make sure they feel safe and entertained?

For your dog to feel safe, you have to make sure they are comfortable in the space you’ve trained them to be in - whether that’s a crate, a pen, or the whole home. This comes with training them for short periods to be on their own in spaces they are already happy in.

As for entertainment, Ingrid says that puzzle toys can be a good option, but “if you’re going to go out for four hours, there’s nothing you can do for your dog to entertain them for four hours. The most important thing for the dog when they’re alone is to be comfortable and relaxed. And if a dog is comfortable and relaxed, then they’re more likely to just snooze.”

However, she warns that there are some times when you just shouldn’t leave your dog, even if they are trained and comfortable alone. “If your dog is sick or in pain, or anything like that, don’t leave them alone. Get yourself a dog sitter.” This is also true when there’s fireworks, even if they are otherwise happy by themselves. “The dog could be a perfectly happy dog when left alone until they hear a really loud bang from fireworks, and the dog will then associate the scary noise with being alone. So whenever the dog’s left alone, they’re anticipating scary noises and are going to be frightened. Then you have a dog with separation anxiety.”

How can you make sure they don’t destroy your stuff?

To prevent your dog from being destructive while you’re out, you have to understand why they’re being destructive. Ingrid points to a few main reasons behind destructive behaviour.

“They could be bored. If so, you need to make sure you’ve engaged the dog in activities, mental stimulation and a decent amount of exercise before leaving them alone. Then you can look at the time when you’re out as their downtime.” Given that a normal adult dog will sleep between 14 to 16 hours a day, the time you are out is the time they could well spend sleeping anyway.

It could also be an age thing – as I can attest, puppies want to get into everything. As Ingrid says, “Puppies will get up to mischief because they’re enjoying themselves.” As a pet parent, this means you should train your puppy to be comfortable in a crate or pen, and puppy-proof your house – make sure they have no way of accessing anything you wouldn’t want them to get into, especially if it could be dangerous for them.

If your dog doesn’t seem bored but scared, Ingrid says that could indicate separation anxiety. If that’s the case, she advises doing a programme with the help of a professional qualified behaviourist to teach them that the world is not going to end if they’re by themselves. “I cannot stress enough that they have to be qualified, and if possible with a specialism in separation anxiety. You have to work with them to try and resolve the dog’s fear and that takes a long time,” she says.  

Make sure your dog feels secure when you come back

The great news is that you don’t have to be worried about your dog being hurt by being left alone once you return. They’re happy to see you and will show you as much!

But if they have been up to mischief, Ingrid emphasises not punishing them on your return. “When you come back, do not, under any circumstances, punish the dog. If you punish them when you come back, they will interpret it as punishing them because you’ve come back, not for whatever mischief they did. So when you come back in future, they’ll be frightened.”

girl with short brown hair and glasses in a white shirt cuddling a small black puppy

Sadhbh O'Sullivan

Sadhbh O’Sullivan is a writer, journalist, editor and a newly besotted dog parent – not in that order.

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