Leave Them Alone!

With more and more Americans getting vaccinated, things are starting to gradually re-open. People are spending more time outside of the house, and people may be trickling back into the office. Starting to return to “normal” brings a whole host of emotions for us humans. It brings a whole set of emotions and challenges for our four-legged companions, too.

Home Alone Again

For a significant number of dogs, their guardians returning to the office or simply leaving them alone for longer periods while they are out with friends can be distressing. Our pets have now become accustomed to us hanging around at home for much of the day. It will be a major transition for them when that is no longer the case.

Even if your pup did just fine alone before the pandemic, that doesn’t mean that they will still be OK  with alone time as the pandemic winds down.

Being comfortable when left alone is a skill, and like all skills, it can become rusty when it is not practiced.

Preparing your Dog for What’s Ahead

First, practice “Gentle Separations” in your home if needed

Some dogs are truly “Velcro Dogs” that want to follow you EVERYWHERE. For dogs like this, start with baby steps like not allowing your dog to follow you into the bathroom when you use it, or having your dog gated outside the kitchen with a tasty bone to work on while you prepare dinner.

Next, practice short separations with you away from home

For example, go and check the mail while leaving your pup home alone. If you have kids, go for a family walk around the block together while your dog practices staying at home. Going to pick up some take out for lunch? Leave your puppy at home with their own snack instead of taking them for a car ride.

Gradually increase the amount of time that you stay away from home

For some of us, returning to post-pandemic life may mean a full 8 hour day at the office. This is a long time for most dogs to be alone. If you know this is in your pup’s future, build that time up gradually. If they are doing OK being left alone for two hours while you hang out with your friends, great! Now, try taking a half day road-trip and leaving your pup home for four hours to see how they do.

You should also consider hiring a pet care professional to break up your dog’s day as you ease back into your new, gone-all-day routine.

For practice separations where you can’t see your dog, I recommend using a phone, tablet, or home security device to monitor your dog and see what they are up to.

Filming your dog will allow you to assess your dog’s level of stress and pace these exercises appropriately. If you aren’t well versed in reading dogs, check out my online Learn to Speak Dog seminar to improve your skills.

For instance, if video of your dog showed that they simply chewed on their frozen Kong alone while you took a 10 minute walk around the block, then you can now leave your dog alone for 20 minutes while you pick up some bubble tea.

However, if you tried to leave your puppy alone for a 15 minute walk around the block, and your video showed that they were whining the whole time and didn’t eat that piece of jerky that you left for them, then you need to scale back to smaller increments of time alone where your pup is successful before building the time back up.

If you’d like to learn more about isolation distress and separation anxiety in dogs in general, an excellent resource is Malena DeMartini’s book Separation Anxiety in Dogs. You can also get connected to a certified separation anxiety trainer (CSAT) on Malena DeMartini’s website.

When to Get Professional Help

Most dogs don’t enjoy being left alone and would prefer to be with their guardian! If your dog whines or looks mildly concerned for a short moment after you leave, then settles down to chew their bone or take a nap, this is within the realm of normal, and you don’t need to worry.

Contact a professional trainer for support if your dog is showing the following signs of distress:

  • Attempts to escape, often focused around areas where the guardian left (such as clawing the door the guardian left through)
  • Destructive behaviors that do not occur when the guardian is around (such as damaging the blinds on the window trying to watch for the guardian to come home)
  • Vocalizing that is often high-pitched or frantic in nature (such as repetitive barking, howling, whining, or crying)
  • Urinating or defecating in a fully housetrained dog
  • Pacing/inability to settle or rest
  • Multiple other stress signs such as drooling, trembling, etc.

Some dogs with more severe anxiety will begin showing stress signs as they pick up on cues that the guardian is about to leave (such as putting on socks and shoes, eating breakfast, grabbing your bag, etc.) even before the guardian leaves the home.

Separation anxiety can severely impact the quality of a dog’s life and will often get worse if it is left untreated. Please get in touch with a professional trainer experienced in treating separation anxiety if you are seeing the signs described in this section.

Behavior modification to improve separation anxiety almost always involves leaving the dog alone for small, gradually increasing increments of time at a pace that they can handle. For many animal guardians, this is easier to do now (during the pandemic) than after we all go back to the office and our lives return to “normal.” Therefore, it’s best to practice alone time and see if your dog is going to need professional help right now than to wait and find out that your dog is in trouble after you’ve resumed your pre-pandemic routine.

It’s best to practice alone time and see if your dog is going to need professional help right now than to wait and find out that your dog is in trouble after you’ve resumed your pre-pandemic routine.

I’m hoping that you and your pup have a smooth and joyful transition to post-pandemic life!

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