The dog is a social animal: by its very nature, it needs to be part of a group, with whom to share living spaces and ‘family’ activities. As one would predict, its favorite companion is the owner. However a dog often has to deal with the owner’s absences from home as dictated by work or other commitments. In these instances, the risk that the dog could cause minor damage to the home due to boredom has to be considered. Dr. Maria Grazia Calore, a veterinary surgeon, and expert in pet behaviour, has helped us to define some rules to both safeguard the welfare of the dog and the integrity of the domestic space when leaving your dog home alone.
1. Limit the hours that the dog is left alone
A good prerequisite to better manage the loneliness of our dog is to limit the hours in which the animal is not in company. For example, you might want to consider committing to walking your pet at lunchtime, coordinating shifts with other members of the family, or entrusting their care to a friend or dog-sitter. It is also essential not to confuse your dog’s need for socialising with external factors that are of little importance in the eyes of the dog, such as the presence of a garden to play in.
2. Take care of your dog-owner relationship
A good dog-owner relationship helps to alleviate feelings of danger in an animal that has been left on its own. In particular, from a puppy’s point of view, its owner replaces the mother and represents a secure base from which to leave and to return. Through acts of positive reinforcement by the owner, the dog can become more independent, reacting more calmly to detachment from the social group thanks to better management of its emotions.
3. Gradually accustom the dog to being left alone
When you welcome a puppy home, you should get it accustomed to being left alone gradually. Starting by leaving it alone in a room for five to ten minutes. At the same time, you should provide an alternative activity, and not comfort him immediately if it whines. Rather, you should reunite with your puppy in a moment of relative peace, and without making a big fuss, so that it does not associate the return of the person it trusts most to its state of tranquillity.
4. Establish a routine with the dog
Having a predictable routine is an effective weapon to reduce stress in a dog. Respecting fixed times for the different activities, such as feeding, walking, playing and cleaning, helps the animal to better tolerate periods of detachment from the social group.
5. Spending quality time together
Quality time spent together is important for the animal and owner. During each opportunity for social interaction – such as during games, socialisation with other dogs, and at home – the owner should be on hand to provide continuous feedback (in the form of words, rewards or games) that go well beyond strokes and food.
6. Provide the dog with a secure place
The dog should have a secure place (such as a kennel, cover, or cushion) that is synonymous with peace and calm and is not associated with bad memories or In what could be described as a ‘happy island’, the dog is gratified by treats, such as cuddling, games chewy toys and food rewards in his safe place. For a puppy, the safe place could take the form of an enclosure that is located in the most frequented part of the house, so as not to be associated with loneliness. This enclosure is kept open at certain times of the day. When the puppy is placed inside the enclosure you should provide positive stimuli (such as rewards and toys) so that it does not associate being in the area with a punishment.
7. Provide activities for when the owner is away
Offering alternative activities to the dog in times of solitude is key to avoiding damage to your property because dogs, like humans, suffer from boredom. You can use chewy toys to occupy your pet, however they must first be presented to the pet in the presence of the owner, at least in a first phase, to ensure that they are perceived as a reward and not as signaling the absence of the most important person in its life. To keep interest in the toys alive, it is advisable to make sure that they are not always available to the dog.
8. Avoid late punishment
It is preferable to limit, as much as possible, the stress punishment causes to the dog. In particular, it is not recommended to reprimand it for bad behavior (e.g. property damage) after the fact because the dog does not have the tools to link the punishment with what it has done previously. This kind of response, rather, makes it perceive the master as unpredictable and can make it feel more unsettled.
9. Contact your vet in case of sudden agitation
Never underestimate the sudden onset of a dog’s distress at being left home alone. It is probable that a past, traumatic event such as fireworks or a physical ailment, has made the dog associate being home alone with danger. In these cases, it is advisable to contact a vet who specialises in pet behaviour, who will be able assess the possibility of starting drug therapy.