Home Alone Needn’t Equal Lonely for Inquisitive Canines

Dear Inquisitive Pet Parents,

As we head into the fall season and get back to our usual routines with school and work, it’s not uncommon for dogs to develop behavioral issues. Why? Because they go from being around us humans all of the time to suddenly being home alone.

In fact, most people think of the “dog days” as being the hottest days of the year, but I like to define that phrase as the ideal time of year for dogs — when they get loads of added companionship from house guests, from getting to participate in family vacations and outings, and from having the kids and parents at home more throughout the day! I’m sure you can see why it’s a tough adjustment for canines to go from basking in all that extra attention to waiting all day for the sound of the keys in the front door.

Whether you’re a seasoned dog guardian who’s coming off lots of togetherness time with your canine family member, or you’ve taken advantage of the summer’s relaxed schedule to newly adopt a pup, the tips Poncho and I present below will help ensure a smooth transition for all this fall.

Canine Attention Deficit Disorder?

The pattern of going from the center of attention to complete independence can be rough on a dog (no pun intended). As a certified professional dog trainer, I all too often am contacted from dog guardians telling me their pup is destroying their home and property, or that they’ve received calls from neighbors reporting that their dog is barking and howling incessantly. These are responses to a sudden attention deficit: Some dogs end up bored, some become anxious and fearful, and others don’t really care. To help determine if your dog is bored or anxious, take this inquisitive canine quiz.

So before you place the cover back on the barbecue, Poncho and I would like to provide a few training tips to help your pooch make a smooth transition into your new routine.

Training Tips for Teaching Independence

Unless your dog is accustomed to being left alone for hours at a time, being apart from family — especially for long periods — can lead to behavioral issues like those mentioned above.

Whether you’re taking steps to prevent these problems from rearing their ugly head, or trying to fix an issue that has already started, the course of action is similar:

  • Determine what you want: What’s your ideal situation? To come and go whenever you want while your dog is relaxed at home enjoying some alone time? If so, you’ll want to start with being out of the house for shorter increments of time. Even just leaving the room for awhile, along with ignoring and/or being “boring” as you come and go can help dogs adapt to being alone. Boring is good! Continuous interaction leads to continuous dependence — not healthy for either canines or their guardians.
  • Determine what you expect from your dog: If your dog has never learned to be alone, you’ll definitely want to take steps to train him or her to do so. For those who work from home or are stay-at-home dog parents, think about teaching your dog to be independent through confidence-building activities and outings with others outside the immediate family. You’ll also want to consider crate or confinement training, conditioning your pup to feel comfortable in specific areas of your home.
  • Create a fulfilling environment: Enrichment activities — to motivate your dog to spend time on his or her own — should be used for delivering meals and for mental stimulation. Interactive food toys, scavenger hunts and chew bones are just a few ideas to help provide recreation for dogs. These outlets should be made available when others are home, and even more so when he or she is left alone. Creating an engaging environment helps with building self-confidence, gaining independence, and prevention and handling of boredom-related issues like redecorating the house with their jaws or landscaping the yard through digging. For additional tips on providing enrichment for your dog, check out these blog posts on enrichment.
  • Set up play-dates with others: Scheduling activities for your dog with people other than primary family members is a great way to not only help with independence, but also assist with socialization and expending energy! Asking outside family members, friends and/or neighbors to look after or even walk your dog can be fun for everyone involved. Other options include hiring a pet-sitter or dog-walker, or doggy daycare.
  • Plan and practice: Once you determine what it is you want for yourself and from your dog, you can arrange your dog’s environment to implement the new routine. Begin with integrating training steps into your dog’s daily agenda before your own schedule changes. This way, you’ll be able to concentrate on your dog’s needs, without being preoccupied with yours and that of other family members. Dress rehearsals are key in setting everyone up for success!

Home Alone Dos & Don’ts for Canines

  • DO engage in planning, environmental management and training to prevent your dog from developing behavioral issues due to being alone.
  • DON’T make a big fuss before leaving, nor for the first few minutes when coming home.
  • DO teach your dog to look forward to being left home alone by providing enrichment activities.
  • DON’T go from constant to zero interaction if your dog has never spent time on his or her own, especially for longer periods of time.
  • DO seek assistance from a qualified professional if your dog appears anxious when left alone.

Canine Caveat
Be mindful as to whether your dog appears anxious while you’re getting ready to leave or exhibits any of the following behaviors:

  • chewing and/or digging at doorways and windows within the first hour of being left;
  • not eating when left alone;
  • howling or barking throughout the day; or
  • eliminating in the house when he or she is already house-trained.

If any of the above behaviors occur, we recommend you speak with a certified professional dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist to evaluate and help make the correct diagnosis and receive proper treatment.

Remember, dogs are social animals by nature. The transition period between current and post-summer vacations can be stressful on everyone. But you can still help your dog enjoy the last few dog days of summer, along with a new routine of self-sufficiency and enjoyment. All it takes is knowing what you want, realistic expectations, a little patience and some dress rehearsals.