Yikes! My Dog Can’t Cope With Being Alone
Posted by Kim Campbell Thornton on 11/23/2007 in Dog Behavior
Dogs are pack animals, and they love to be with their people. That’s one of the many reasons they make such great companions. In some cases, however, a dog’s need for human attention becomes extreme, making him prone to separation anxiety when no one’s home to keep him company.
If your dog pees or poops in the house when he’s left alone, chews destructively, especially at doors and windows, or the neighbors report that he barks when you’re gone, he’s not necessarily misbehaving. He may have separation anxiety, a behavior problem that affects up to 15 percent of the nation’s 73.9 million dogs.
Dogs with separation anxiety are unable to cope with being alone. They may have been poorly socialized, lack self-confidence, or simply have never learned how to be alone. Besides being noisy or destructive, dogs with separation anxiety may drool excessively, pace, lick themselves incessantly, or refuse to eat or drink. When their people are home, they may be clingy, insisting on being as close to them as possible. While separation anxiety can be frustrating, behavior modification can help.
It is vital to teach your dog that arrivals and departures are nothing to worry about. Whether you’re leaving or coming home, be matter-of-fact. Overly emotional greetings or farewells can teach your dog that your absence is something to worry about.
Set up cues that will help your dog feel comfortable with your departure. Give a treat or a special toy before you depart, leave a t-shirt with your scent that he can snuggle with, or turn on the radio or a CD.
To use music as a way of calming your dog, start by playing it during a relaxing time of day, such as when you’re getting ready for bed. Your dog knows that you’re going to be there for a while, so he’ll settle down and go to sleep. Choose something like soothing harp music. Give your dog a few days to associate the music with this relaxing time, then set up a departure conditioning experience, combining the music, a special treat, and your departure and quick return. Your dog learns that good things happen when you leave and that you come back right away.
If you start early, you can teach a puppy that being home alone need not involve chewing the woodwork, barking, or licking himself raw. With patient conditioning, older dogs and newly adopted shelter dogs can learn this lesson as well. If your dog is crate-trained or in the process, put him in the crate while you’re doing housework or otherwise going in and out of the room. Seeing you go out and come back every few minutes reassures him that you’ll always return.
If you have an older dog with some obedience training, place him in a down-stay as you go in and out of the room. At first, you may only be able to leave the room for 10 seconds before he breaks his stay and comes in search of you. Don’t scold, but place him back in position and leave again. Return quickly before he has time to get up. As he becomes comfortable with this, gradually increase the amount of time you’re gone: 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and so on.
You can also condition your dog to short periods of your absence by taking him with you on errands. Leave him in the car while you pump fuel, run into a convenience store for a quart of milk, or make a bank deposit. Your dog learns automatically that you’re gone for a minute or two, you come back, and being left alone isn’t a big deal. Of course, it’s important to take into account the weather and your schedule. On hot days, cars heat up rapidly, even with the windows cracked. Never leave your dog in the car on a hot day unless you can see the car and know you’ll be only a few minutes—picking up the dry cleaning, for instance. And don’t take your dog if your errand will take more than five minutes.
For dogs alike, part of successfully staying alone is the ability to entertain themselves. Whether your dog stays in a crate, in an exercise pen or dog run, behind a baby gate or is well-trained enough to stay out on his own, he needs toys or activities that will stimulate his mind without encouraging destructive behavior. Treat-release toys, or food puzzles, are ideal solutions. These toys all work by extending the time it takes a dog to get a treat or kibble. He focuses on getting at the food rather than being anxious or distressed by your absence. Match the food puzzle to your dog’s personality. You don’t want to make it so easy that he doesn’t have to spend any time at it or so difficult that he gives up in frustration.
Give your dog plenty of attention and play when you’re home. That way, he’ll be more satisfied and comfortable when he needs to stay by himself. Get involved in a dog sport such as agility, teach him to track, go for a walk at the same time every day, or simply set aside a regular time for the two of you to be together while you read or watch television. Even a regular grooming session is a good way for the two of you to share quality time.
The ability to hang out comfortably while you’re away is one of the most important skills your dog can learn and will benefit both of you throughout his life. With training, exercise, and preventive measures, you can help him develop the self-confidence he needs.
– By Kim Campbell Thornton, author of 10 books. She writes a monthly pet column for MSNBC.com and lives in Lake Forest, Calif.