As the UK tries to navigate out of lockdown, you’ll find that a certain topic is on every dog owner’s mind:
“How is my dog going to handle being on their own again?”
This is a huge concern for so many of us dog owners. After all we’ve spent over a year at home nearly every day with our dogs, and our dogs have gotten incredibly used to having us around. On top of this, they are inherently social creatures, and are not genetically set up for being left to their own devices.
It is, therefore, down to us to teach them how to survive – or even enjoy – time alone.
Even if this is something your dog was fine with pre-lockdown, you may find he/she struggles to go back to normal after having such a chunk of time by your side. So, preparing for this inevitable separation should be on the to-do list for every type of dog owner out there: if you have a dog, and you will need to spend any amount of time away from them, this is a crucial skill.
So how can I do it?
Believe it or not, preparing for these separations is really simple.
You don’t want the first time you leave your pup to be when you need to go to work for four hours. Start with the tiniest amounts of time away, and don’t even leave the house. Think of times in the day when you can pop your puppy into another room whilst you do something without them – this can be something as simple as making a cup of tea in the kitchen! Pop down an interactive toy just before you leave the room and let them play with this whilst you’re somewhere else (don’t put loads of treats in at this stage, they won’t need to interact with it for long). This will build up your dog’s positive association with you heading out, and show them that good stuff still happens whilst you’re away! After you’ve made your cup of tea, come back in and relax with your puppy! As you progress, start building up the amount of time you’re away by changing what you do: for example, instead of making a cuppa, try sorting out the laundry, taking a shower, or changing the bedsheets. If your pup shows any sign of distress, the training has simply moved too fast for them – go back to where they successfully coped with time away from you and make a concerted effort to progress the training more slowly to stay within their comfort zone.
Encourage your pup to wander around the house without you
Building up your pup’s confidence is imperative to successful alone time, especially if you have a ‘Velcro-dog’ who likes to stick by your side no matter what. The best way to do this is to reward any efforts to spend time away from you, but the art is to make it look like the rewards are nothing to do with you.
A great way to do this is to attach something tasty to a fixture in a different room. First, scatter some treats in a room you want to spend time in, such as the living room if you’re preparing to settle in for a cosy night with a movie. This will distract the dog long enough for you to prepare something even tastier without your dog knowing, which is the key to success here. Our go-to for this is filling a Kong in the kitchen with some JR chicken pate or some WOOF peanut butter, and fixing it to the dog’s crate or a child-locked cupboard door using some string.
The big thing is to attach the Kong to something in a separate room to where you want to be. This way, your pup will find the reward only if they’re brave enough to wander away from you. If your pup is particularly reluctant to explore, try tying the Kong across the room from you to start with, then in the doorway, and then just out of sight on subsequent occasions. This will entice them to explore further afield each time in hopes of hitting a tasty jackpot.
Prepare your dog for down-time
Most dogs, when left alone, will simply drift off to sleep to while away the time. To support them to do this, however, we need to make sure that all their needs are met, and they are suitably tired. To this end, get yourself and your dog into a pre-leaving routine. This needs to encompass physical exercise (such as a walk), mental exercise (a quick training session is great for this), and a calming activity (like a lick mat). This should be the order you do them in, too, as this will allow your dog to calm down after the activities, so you do not risk frustrating your dog when you go to leave (and ending up with a ripped-up sofa in the process!).
The time required for each one will depend on the dog, but you need to make sure you allow enough time for this before you’re due to leave. If you’re really in a pinch (we’ve all had those days where we’ve overslept and are running around like a headless chicken), just make sure your pup has toileted, and see if a familiar friend or family member can pop by to help the dog blow off some steam.
By doing all of these, you’re setting you and your dog up to take separation in your stride and making sure your pup is safe and sound without you there.
If, however, you feel like your dog is struggling and needs extra help, find an accredited behaviourist to guide you through the process:
Have you tried any of these with your furry family? Or have you got some more top tips to share? We’d love to hear about your experiences below.