At some point in their life, your dog will need to be left alone. Unfortunately for us, we just can’t take them with us everywhere we go. (Nor should we ... don't forget about the dangers of dogs, and especially puppies, in hot cars!) An important part of raising your puppy or welcoming a new dog into your life is to help them get used to being alone.
If your dog never learns how to stay calm when home alone for varying amounts of time, they can develop separation anxiety — which is a tough condition to treat. It’s much easier to prevent separation anxiety than it is to fix after the fact, and teaching your puppy or dog how to be alone is the number one thing you can do for anxiety prevention.
Dogs are social creatures and it's important they share in daily life and get to spend time with their family. But taking the time to make sure they will feel A-OK if you need to leave them at home for a bit is essential for their mental well-being.
Follow these tips to help your pup learn that being alone is just fine:
Crate Train Your Dog or Create a Long-Term Confinement Area
You don't necessarily want to just give a new puppy or dog free access to your entire home right away, so it's important to make sure they have their own area to hang out in while you're gone (or while you're home). Crate training is a wonderful option for helping dogs relax while left alone and keeps them out of trouble. Many dogs who are properly crate trained feel more secure in their crate when left alone — it's like being in their own room with their favorite things.
For puppies that are still working on potty training, creating a "Puppy Zone" for long-term confinement is a great option to begin practicing leaving them alone. You can encourage calm behavior by plugging in a dog pheromone diffuser near their zone, or spraying their bedding with pheromone spray (a spritz or two is all that's needed, more is not better). As your puppy gets older or as your new dog acclimates to their new home, you can start allowing access to larger areas of your home when they're left alone, as long as you've made sure everything is puppy-proofed! (See here for a 10-point checklist for Puppy Proofing Your Home.)
Create Positive Associations with Being Left Alone
To help your dog learn that being alone is actually pretty awesome, you want to create an association between your absence and something they enjoy. For many dogs this is something food-related, but you can also keep certain toys specifically for when you leave your dog alone, and put them away when you return.
When you are getting ready to leave, grab a stuffed Kong or another high-value interactive toy or food puzzle and give it to your dog. (When picking out your dog's chew toys, make sure you follow these 3 Simple Steps to Choose the Best Chews for Your Dog.) When you arrive back home, remove the toy and put it away until next time you leave. This way your dog learns that the good stuff only comes out when you're gone.
Read our article Popular Dog Chews That Are Actually Dangerous To Dogs to learn what to avoid when choosing your dog's toys for when they are alone.
Leave your dog alone with their yummy treat for only a minute or two the first time. Leave the room but stay home for the first few times your dog is alone, extending the amount of time they're hanging out without you. As they get used to being alone, introduce actually leaving the home while they're busy working on their interactive toy or chew. A great time to practice this is when you're taking the garbage out, grabbing the mail from the mailbox, or need to do a quick grocery store run.
Keep Your Departures and Arrivals Low-Key
Don’t make a big deal about leaving them at home without you. You want your dog to learn that humans coming and going isn't a huge event. While we all love having our dogs greet us happily when we arrive home, excessive greetings (which include body slamming, seemingly uncontrollable vocalization, or greetings that last a long time) can be a sign of separation anxiety.
In my own experience, when I had two dogs it was simply just too crowded in the entryway of my home when they both wanted to greet me. I decided that I would ignore them as I came in and set my things down, took off my coat and shoes, and when they finally settled in the family room (away from the door), I would go to them for a greeting and some play. Within a few days of practicing, they caught on that the faster they settled down, the sooner I would say hi! Not only did this prevent jumping on me at the door, but it also created a much more settled arrival routine and saved me from tripping over my two Corgis underfoot. Teaching your dog to Go to Bed when you arrive home is a similar training behavior that you can use when you arrive home.
When I leave home and my dog is staying behind, I do tell her goodbye and always say "Be good, I'll be back" as I leave — at which point she usually gives me a look that says "Finally!" and goes to enjoy her Kong that's been stuffed with her breakfast or curls back up in bed. While my dog seems to enjoy her alone time (since she's learned that being alone is pretty great with hidden treats and interactive toys ... or simply the fact that she gets to sleep in some more), dogs who get anxious when you leave will key in to any anxiety you're feeling about leaving them alone. Keep your energy relaxed to encourage your dog to stay relaxed as well.
Provide Lots of Exercise and Mental Enrichment
Ensuring your dog has enough exercise is important for so many behavior issues — and it isn't all about physical exercise either. Mental enrichment is just as important for your pup, and working their brain helps to tire them out just like going for a long walk. If they've gotten enough physical and mental exercise, when you leave them home alone they'll be more likely to sleep!
- Taking your dog on a "sniffing safari" where they get to exercise their sense of smell
- Teach your dog a new trick using clicker training
- Make a dog puzzle for your pup to solve
- Play Hide and Seek — not only does this build strong training cues, but it's a great way to exercise your dog both physically and mentally on a rainy day!
By taking the time to teach your dog that being alone is nothing to stress out about, you'll be saving your pup from unnecessary stress or anxiety later in life. If your dog is already exhibiting signs of separation anxiety or other problem behaviors when left alone, it's best to work with a certified dog trainer who can help you address these and work through the above steps with you.
Have questions or want to share your story about getting your dog acclimated to alone time? Let us know in the comments below!
Puppy Zone: How to Set Up a Long-Term Confinement Area
How to Set Up a Safe Space for Your Dog
Everything You Need to Know About Crate Training Your Puppy or Adult Dog
Choosing the Best Dog Crate for Your Dog and Your Life
What to Put (and Not Put) in Your Dog's Crate
Choosing the Best Interactive Food Toys and Puzzles for Your Dog
3 Simple Steps to Choose the Best Chews for Your Dog
An Introduction to Clicker Training
Short & Sweet Training Sessions
Take Advantage of Daily Dog Training Opportunities