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Left Alone: Helping Your Dog Cope

Dogs are social predators.  "Social" refers to the way which dogs live and interact with each other.  Like humans, dogs form close family bonds.  The principle reason is to be able to effectively hunt and find food, as well as to defend themselves if the need arises.  Dogs thrive, and are most content, when they comfortably live with us in the home and understand their status within our "packs." 


One of the most stressful things to happen to dogs is to be left alone.  Like solitary confinment used in our prison systems to punish prisoners who fail to follow the rules, being separated from the rest of the pack is extraordinaryly stressful, if not downright mental torture, for dogs.  If it were up to our dogs, they would be with us 24/7.


Being left alone and separated from the pack can cause a multitude of stress related behaviors for our dogs.  Excessive digging, barking, peeing, chewing, licking themselves, destructiveness, and shredding thingss are among the behaviors that stressed dogs engage in and can be caused by the stress of being left alone.  Separation anxiety is term which describe a chronic condition when the dog is very destructive when left by itself.  This condition usually takes a year or two to develop in dogs and may even need medication along with training in order to calm the dog.  Most dogs, even somewhat destructive ones, are not suffering from true separation anxiety.  If, however, your dog is exhibiting stress related beahviors when you are away, they are susceptible to developing separation anxiety in the future.


There are seveal ways you can help your dog avoid the stress of being left alone:


1.  First, before you leave your dog alone for an extended period of time, practice leaving for very short periods of time and returning.  This is especially important for newly adopted dogs and puppies.  Remember, as far as they know when you leave you are gone forever!  For some dogs the time period may have to be only a minute.  Slowly work up to longer and longer periods of time.  Your dog will learn that when you leave, you always come right back.


2.  No long and elaborate goodbyes!  Just a "See you later" or "I'll be right back!" will suffice.


3.  Provide your dog with a tiring exercise session or long walk before you leave.  Ensure this includes a potty opportunity.


4.  Give your dog something to do while you are away.  A Kong toy filled with some good biscuits will suffice.  Be sure you test your dog with the Kong before you leave him alone with it.  Some dogs, though not many, can chew pieces off.  If this is the case, get a black Kong.  They are tougher.  Premier Pet Produces also has some great interactive toys available:  "Twist n Treat"; Footballs; Squirrel Dudes (like a Kong); Waggles; and Chuckles.  All of these toys are designed to put kibble, treats, or other food in them and give your dog an hour or so of mental and physical exercise to get it out.  When they are done with it, they are tired and take a nap.  Next thing they know, you are home!


5.  Leave some music on.  NPR stations play classical music during the day and it can be very relaxing to many dogs.  Leaving the TV tuned to Animal Planet can also be entertaining to some dogs.


6.  If you crate your dog he should be in a crate no longer than 4 hours without at least a 15-20 minute break.  Crating a dog for 8-12 hours is way too long for dogs.  Just a short potty break and a refilled Kong or other toy can help enormously with coping with being alone.  There are several local home pet care services available or ask a neighbor or friend if they could help.  Also, be sure the crate is large enough for your dog.  They should be able to easily stand up, turn around and stretch out in their crate.


If you have a dog that you believe already exhibits signs of extreme stress when left alone you should begin a slow desensitization program and incorporate any or all of the above recommendations.  Contact Clicking With Canines for help in assessing your dog and advising on a detailed plan that will help your dog's specific situation.

Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Karen Pryor Academy Faculty Member
P.O. Box 5715
Endicott, New York 13763