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  • Writer's pictureStefani Cotten

Teaching your dog to be left alone

The Covid-19 virus forced most of us home for an extended amount of time, which thrilled our dogs. However, now that restrictions have been lifted, many people are having to return to offices and workplaces, and our dogs are having a hard time learning to be alone again.

While some dogs are happy to be left alone for short periods, others may become stressed when separated from their owner. Research suggests that almost half of all pet dogs react badly to being left alone at some point during their lives. Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not doing this because they are trying to “pay their owners back” for leaving them behind – in most cases, they are simply distressed about being separated from their owner.

These dogs may bark, howl, potty indoors or be destructive when left alone. It may not be obvious that your dog becomes anxious when left alone. You may be completely unaware that your dog has been suffering unless you find evidence of destructive behavior when you return home, or receive complaints from your neighbors about your dog’s excessive barking.

Separation anxiety is a common reason for dogs to land in shelters or rescues, but it is important to remember that dogs re-homed from rescues are no more likely to develop this behavior than dogs that come from other backgrounds. There are a number of different reasons why a dog might show this type of behavior so, if you notice signs that your dog is showing anxiety, you should talk to your vet or contact a veterinary behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist will be able to identify the underlying cause of the problem and treat it accordingly.

The length of time a dog can be left alone depends on the dog but it’s advised that they are left for no longer than four hours so they have opportunities to exercise, go potty, and spend time with people. Studies have found that if you gradually introduce your dog to being left alone when they come to live with you, then you are less likely to have a problem later on.

How to teach your dog that it’s all right to be alone

One of the most effective ways of preventing your dog from ever becoming anxious when they are left alone is to teach them right from the start that being alone is fun! To do this you need to very gradually increase the time that you leave your dog alone so that it is never a frightening experience and always associated with something pleasant. The speed that you progress will depend on your dog’s reaction. Never leave your dog so long that they start to become distressed.

  • Reward your dog for being relaxed when left alone – rewards can be toys, treats, or praise – a long-lasting treat is ideal because you can tell that your dog is worried if they leave something that they would normally enjoy munching. If your dog becomes anxious and does not remain quietly in their bed eating the treat, do not offer a reward. Instead, simply go back a stage and try leaving them for a shorter period next time.

  • Repeat each of the following stages until you are sure your dog is happy before progressing. How quickly you progress depends on how well your dog responds.

    1. Start by encouraging your dog to go to their bed or crate and stay there with you present for a short time. Reward your dog for remaining quietly in their bed.

    2. Next, ask your dog to stay in their bed as you move away, then return and reward.

    3. Move progressively further away and for longer. The distance/time that you increase by on each occasion will depend on your dog. If your dog reacts or moves, then don’t reward but go back to the previous stage.

    4. Start going out through the door before returning, then going out and shutting the door, then going out for longer periods of time. When you get to this point, start to vary the length of time that you are out.

    5. Once you reach the stage where your dog is happy to be left for up to an hour, you should then have no problems leaving them for longer periods. To avoid boredom, which may lead to mischief, remember to give your dog something to occupy them while you are out.

Preventing your dog from becoming bored

There are a number of things that you can do to keep your dog busy while you’re away.

  • Leave a safe, suitable toy or bone with your dog when you go out. Make sure that this is a ‘special’ toy by only giving it to them when you go out or when they are separated from you in another room in the house.

  • Try to leave something that your dog really loves such as a ‘Kong’ stuffed with food (peanut butter or plain yogurt mixed with dog biscuits are usually popular), or a meat-flavored chew.

  • Give your dog a treat ball or cube that you can fill with dried treats – so they will have to work to get them out.

  • All of these things will give your dog mental stimulation and prevent them from becoming bored.

  • It’s important that any treats must be taken out of your dog’s daily food allowance as overfeeding can lead to obesity which can cause serious health problems.

  • Remember that when you return home, these ‘special’ items should be put away again and only given to your dog when you go out.

Feeding and exercise

Your dog will be more inclined to relax when left alone if they have had an appropriate amount of exercise and been fed before you go out.

  • Try to always exercise your dog before leaving them. Take them for a walk, returning home half an hour before you are due to leave.

  • Feed your dog a small meal shortly before leaving.

  • Always ensure your dog goes potty before being left alone.

Avoid punishment

If your dog misbehaves while you are out of the house, it is vital that you do not react badly when you come home.

Separation-related behavior problems get worse when owners punish their dogs upon their return!

This is because the punishment will be linked with your return, rather than the destruction, barking or the pottying that was done earlier. Your dog will then become anxious about what you will do when you return the next time they are left alone. As a result of this increased anxiety the dog is more likely to chew or lose bladder control, making the problem even worse.

Dogs who have been yelled at in the past when their owners returned home frequently make themselves as small as possible, lowering their head, and putting their ears back and their tail between their legs. Unfortunately, owners often think that the dog looks guilty and punish them because they “know they have done wrong”. Even if you take your dog to the scene of the crime, they will not be able to associate your anger with their behavior hours earlier – your dog will simply become more anxious the next time you go out.

We only recommend the use of positive, reward-based training methods.

Although it is not easy, if you do find a mess when you come home, it is essential that you never physically punish or yell at your dog. Try to even avoid letting your dog see that you are annoyed, instead let them go outside before cleaning up.

Find a veterinary behaviorist

If these tips don’t help with your dog’s anxiety, please contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist receives specialized education that allows them to identify the cause of your dog’s problem and they can formulate a treatment plan that will work for you and your dog.

To locate a veterinary behaviorist near you, go to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists at and click “find a behaviorist”.

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