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Teach Your Dog to Enjoy Alone Time

March 19, 2012

Dear Poncho,

Our dog Tessa is a wonderful addition to our family. She’s smart, lovable, and very obedient. Our only problem is leaving her alone. She cries, barks, and shreds her bed in the crate. If we leave her in the backyard, she chews at our fences, although eventually she settles down. She has also destroyed my car’s door panels when I’ve left her in there for even short periods of time (with open windows, in the shade, and with water, of course).

We don’t know what to do about her complete agitation when she is away from us, and I don’t have time for long and intense training. Please help!

Thank you,
Cara

Dear Miss Cara,

Sounds like your assessment of Tessa’s behavior is right on track: she’s agitated when left alone, as opposed to being bored or angry. I can totally empathize, because I used to dread spending time alone. Now though, after my folks helped me out, I have the confidence to do so, and actually look forward to it. Sure, it’s great being a mama’s (and daddy’s) boy, but frankly I need a break now and then. Allow me to provide my pooch’s perspective.

Here are the four tenets of my Mutt Model:

Know your animal!

Here’s a little insight into dog behavior: we’re social animals. We enjoy being with our family and friends, and don’t do well when left alone unless we’ve been taught to do so. Whether it’s one person, another dog, or a whole crowd, we like the comfort that others bring. Forget the “pack” stuff; by nature, we’re just social–at least that’s true for most of us, though I can’t speak for all dogs.

If Tessa isn’t eating while you’re away and continues to chew at doorways, windows and other escape routes, then I highly recommend that you consult with a certified professional dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist who has experience with your situation. A vet can provide advice as far as medicines that might be helpful, but that topic is outside my scope of practice, so ask them. FYI, this type of behavior can often get much worse over time, so it’s best to deal with it before it escalates.

Whaddya want?

Sounds like you want Tessa to enjoy being alone, in various locations, at various times of the day. And, you’ve also confirmed you aren’t able to put a lot of time and effort into changing her behavior. Fortunately, you do have some options that focus more on management than on active training on your part. So it’s up to you to choose your course of action.

Reward, reward, reward

You’ll want to teach Tessa to be comfortable when alone at home or in the car, to the point that she actually enjoys your leaving. Here are a few quick tips:

  • Be really boring when coming and going! Ignore her before leaving, be really low key when you do leave, and ignore her for a little while when you get home – otherwise she’ll want to cling to you even more, especially if you’re the only action she’s getting.
  • Practice! Perform a lot of dress rehearsals of coming and going. Right now, Tessa can probably read all of the signals that she is going to be left alone, which triggers her anxiety. You’ll need to break up that routine. Try different days and times, just to mix it up.
  • Baby steps! Try not push it too far, too fast. If she is still stressed, you’re moving too quickly.
  • Provide high-value enrichment activities! Give her interactive food toys, chew bones she can’t choke on, and scavenger hunts that she gets only when you’re gone!
  • Get her tired out! Physical and mental stimulation help for a nice long nap.
  • Crate training. It’s great that you’ve already trained Tessa to sleep comfortably in a crate, but if you want her to enjoy being in her crate any other time, you’ll need to mix it up. Have Tessa chill-out in her crate while you’re playing on Facebook or watching a movie. You can even give her a stuffed food toy or bone to chew on while she’s in there.

Please be aware that if you want her to feel at ease in other locations, including another type of enclosure such as the yard, an entire home, or a car, you’ll have to teach her confidence-building skills in those locations as well.

Know Yourself & Your Resources

I respect that you’re able to accept your own limitations when it comes to working with Tessa. All I can say is, do what you can with what you have and be humble enough to ask for assistance when you need it. Look for available resources in your community, such as professional pet sitters, dog walkers, and doggy daycare centers. Doggy play-dates with friends and their dogs might help Tessa feel less anxious, too. Some folks may suggest you bring a second dog into the home to keep Tessa entertained. However, there are no guarantees that this would work, and you could end up with two dogs that have the same issues – talk about double-trouble!

Paws and Reflect

Decide what you’re willing to do to help Tessa. With training, take small steps to reach your final goal, and don’t push too hard. Look for outside options in your community, and talk with a trainer or vet if necessary. Finally, keep in mind that this behavior comes from a more fear-related, emotional place – so be patient, kind, and understanding.


Poncho Mayer is a 10-pound inquisitive canine who knows a lot about human and canine behavior. He and his mom work together running the family business, providing dog-training services to other inquisitive canines and their humans. For additional training and behavior tips, subscribe to their blog.

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Got a question about behavior, training or daily pup life? Email Poncho directly.


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