Dogs are sociable animals. They want to spend time with their family members, and do not like being left alone. It is not good mentally for a dog to be regularly left alone for long periods of time. However, with today’s busy lifestyles it is inevitable that dogs will have to be left alone at some point – and they need to be able to cope with this! If they are not taught how to cope, they will inevitably find their own coping strategy – which may not be desirable to you – barking/howling, defecating/urinating, destruction, self harm. If your dog really struggles with being left alone, his anxiety could become a serious problem and affect his and your quality of life!
Teaching your dog to be happy when you are out of sight is not simply a case of making him sleep in a different area from you, or to get used to you going out of the house – you need to build own time into his daily routine.
Start early by introducing him to a crate
Crates, used properly, are not prisons – but havens for your dog. You can teach him that the crate, wherever it is, is a safe quiet place where he can relax. Introduce your dog to a crate as soon as he comes home! Make sure it is cosy for him; put his favourite toys in there – and some very tasty snacks. Let him find the crate himself – so place the snacks and toy in there and leave the door open. Do not make a fuss when he goes in – if he finds the snacks and drags them out to eat let him be, just keep randomly placing exciting tasty stuff in there for him to find. He will soon realise what a good place the crate is, and want to stay in it for a little while! Whenever he goes in and spends time there, give him some more tasty food while he is in there – to reward him for staying there – but do not shut the door!
What about when you are not there?
Crates can help with house training your dog – and helping him cope with being left on his own. For this, though, you are obviously going to want to shut the door! The more used you get him to the crate with the door open – the easier this is going to be!
Personally, I find the practice of leaving a puppy in a room on his own to cry and scream the first night he is home cruel and unnecessary! He has been torn from his mom and litter for the first time ever and is suddenly on his own in a dark unusual place – this must be extremely traumatic for him – and whenever I have done it in the past I have felt extremely stressed too! You want to build the best bond you can with your dog – and yet you are subjecting him to this trauma!
Learning from past experiences, I always take new puppies into the bedroom in their crates on their first night. Having got them comfortable in their crate during the day they sleep in the crate close to the bed with the door closed. If you play with them just before bedtime, this makes sure they are sleepy. They can smell and hear you, and settle down to sleep. All the puppies I have done this with have slept right through the night – with no toilet accidents! (You do need to make sure you take them outside before bed and absolutely must wait for them to at least urinate before you bring them back in to bed.) If you leave a (safe) toy in the crate he will have something to occupy himself with if he does wake.
Gradually, over the next few weeks, if you do not want your dog to sleep in the bedroom long term, move the crate a little bit further away from you. Remember – small steps, so the dog hardly notices. It could take a few days or longer to even get out of the bedroom! Every dog is different. Gradually move the crate just outside the room – but leave the door open, so he can still see/hear you, and then gradually get the dog used to not being able to see you. If possible, put the crate in another, empty room upstairs, with the door open so that he can still hear and smell you before you even think about taking the crate downstairs. This will not be too traumatic, because he will still be able to smell and hear you. Eventually, over time, you will end up with the crate where you have decided you want it to be long term. Take it slowly, if you move too quickly, just go back a step and start again.
This does seem longwinded, but I find it much less stressful for all concerned. When you eventually get the crate where you want it – leave all the doors open if you can to start with – so that he can still smell you and know you are there through the night.
Even if you do not need to leave your dog alone during the day – you still need to do so, so that he learns that he cannot always be by your side.
Religiously continue with keeping that crate an exciting place by hiding treats/new toys under and amongst the blankets so that your dog regularly visits it and gets to value it as a safe place. Move the crate around rather than leave it in one place! Get the dog attached to the crate – not the room where it is. This will make going on holiday and visiting friends and family much easier for him in the future.
Gradually, over time, when the dog is in his crate, give him a yummy treat (eg. stuffed Kong) and once he is tucking into it, close the crate door and go into another room for a little while. Do not make a fuss about this. Do not say anything to the dog. Act as though it is completely normal. Stay away for a short time (only five or ten minutes to start with – whatever your dog can cope with) and then come back, open the door and really praise the dog. Do this regularly, gradually building the time that you spend away from the dog, and building in short trips away from the house. Some trainers use signs to indicate to the dog that this is going to be “alone time”. They may hang a wind chime out or some similar sign. The dog soon learns that when the chime is hanging it is alone time – but it is ok, because they are in their favourite spot, and their family members ALWAYS come back if they wait. For this to work though, you must remove the chime immediately you return! Always leave the dog something to do while you are gone – a Kong, a safe toy to chew on.
As always, this process should be done in small steps, and if you are in a position to be able to spend time at home, and gradually build up the time, then that, again, will make the whole process less stressful.
During this whole time, introduce your dog to as many different people as you can, and let other people do things with them without you if possible. This all helps with ensuring the dog does not become too dependent on you and able to cope if you cannot be around. Also, if your dog follows you everywhere you go around the house, make some areas inaccessible to him – eg the bathroom so that he learns that he cannot follow you absolutely everywhere.
Remember, there are no hard and fast rules for how long this will take. Some dogs are naturally clingier than others are; others can quite happily be on their own relatively quickly. Help them by gradually, but continually moving towards your final goal, rather than using an all or nothing approach!