Preparing Your Dog to Be Left at Home Alone

Whether your dog is new or old, these tips will help ease its transition from lockdown to normal life.

Jen A. Miller

May 27, 2020

“Dogs are highly social, which is why we get along with them so well,” said Patricia B. McConnell, certified applied animal behaviorist and author of “The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs.” “If all the sudden, they go from ‘everybody home all the time’ to ‘nobody home all day long,’ it can lead to some serious behavioral problems.”

This can mean accidents in the house, chewing on the furniture when you are away, or worse.

Want to avoid that? Here’s how to transition to a new normal, for both of you.

The members of your household probably haven’t left the house for an extended period of time for what, weeks? Months? The 17 years this quarantine has felt like? So, start transitioning as cities and states reopen by leaving a little bit at a time. But not for too long. Start “unbelievably slow,” said Dr. McConnell. Leave a handful of treats on the ground and, while the dog is eating them, “everybody walks out the door,” she said. Come back in five seconds. Next time, leave for 10 seconds, then walk to the mailbox and back, then take a longer walk or a long drive.

Make sure you are mimicking the routine you’ll have when you go back to work: Get your wallet and keys, leave through the door you’ll go through. This way, the dog gets used to the cues that mean you are leaving — and coming back in through the same spot.

Make sure your dog is left in a safe space that it knows — and don’t lock it in a room that’s unfamiliar. That safe space might be a crate, though not all dogs like being in a crate. (My first dog, a Jack Russell terrier, loved her crate; the dog I have now, a cattle dog mix, couldn’t be bothered.) Other dogs are just fine being left to lie wherever in the house they want.

The best space for your dog may not be one with a view either, said Sarah Wilson, dog trainer and author of “My Smart Puppy: Fun, Effective and Easy Puppy Training,” especially if your dog barks a lot. “When they’re screaming out the window at everyone who’s going by, their brains are flooded with all of this confusing and upsetting brain chemistry, which doesn’t go away on its own instantly,” she said. “It’s not a game for them when they’re barking hysterically out the window.” If a crate doesn’t work for that dog, it may work to use a baby gate to keep it in a room it likes, but without access to a window.

If your dog has gotten used to walks every four or five hours, what’s going to happen when that’s not an easy option? Can you come home to walk the dog? Will you hire a dog walker, or take your dog to a doggie daycare?

Dr. McConnell suggests you figure out how you’re going to engage your dogs’ brain if the level of physical exercise you are currently providing it is not an option. You can teach them new tricks, or try new walking routes, which engages their brains because dogs will work to analyze new smells.

“Even if it’s just once or twice a week, pop your dog in the car and go somewhere different,” said Dr. McConnell.

Dogs with separation anxiety may go to the bathroom in the house, or chew or rip up things that are not their toys. But don’t punish the dog when you come home, said Katherine A. Houpt, professor emeritus of behavior medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, because dogs will forget what they did and by then they will “no longer associate punishment with the action.”

Your dog may also get clingy and follow you around the house, pace when it thinks you’re leaving or drool. That also means the dog is experiencing separation anxiety and you need to work a little bit more to help it.

If you are frustrated or feel like nothing is working, reach out for help. Call your veterinarian to make sure that nothing is physically wrong with your dog. If it is behavioral, then your veterinarian may recommend calling a dog trainer or animal behaviorist. Dr. McConnell said to look for a certified applied animal behaviorist or a certified professional dog trainer. Trainers should use positive reinforcement instead of force and coercion.

Your veterinarian may also recommend anti-anxiety medication for your dog, if the anxiety persists despite making the recommended changes. You may also consider anti-anxiety medications if your dog’s behavior is causing harm even if it’s not destructive — such as if your dog’s barking is annoying your neighbors to an extreme degree.

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