Home Alone

Some rescue dogs find it hard to cope with being left - here's how their owner can help.

Home Alone

Naturally, dogs are social creatures. This means that dogs who live in single pet households need to be taught how to cope with isolation. However, even dogs who live with other dogs need to be taught how to cope when their owner is not around or when their canine buddy is not there, e.g. if one dog needs to stay overnight at the vet's surgery. To expect a dog to stay at home and guard the house quietly, without messing on the carpet or chewing the furniture is unrealistic unless you give acceptable alternatives. Of course, there are some dogs who live up to these high expectations, but these dogs should be thought of as the exception rather than the rule.

Even if you are around for most of the time, it is still important to teach home alone skills. What if you are called away on an emergency? Will you really have time to arrange for your neighbour to come round to stay with the dog? What if you need to leave your dog with someone else - can you be confident that he won't mess or chew their house? What if your have friends round that don't like or are nervous of dogs? Can you happily leave your dog in another room without spoiling their visit?

With a little forward planning and preparation, most dogs learn pretty quickly how to cope when they're left alone. You can begin by leaving your dog confined in his cage or in one room, e.g. the kitchen, with the door closed while you stay in another.

Leave him with his stuffed Kongs, bones and favourite activity toys. Investing in these hard-wearing, safe toys could save you having to replace your 3-piece suite, your front door or your kitchen units. After a few minutes, open the door and let him have free access to you again.

Don't make a big deal about this or fuss him too much. The idea is that being alone is rewarding (i.e. he gets to play with his favourite things) and getting access to you, in this situation, is pretty uneventful. If he whines or scratches do not open the door. Wait until he's quiet, even for a second, and then open the door. Opening the door when he's fussing will teach him that making a fuss causes you to return to him - the opposite of what you actually want him to learn!

If you can't leave your dog alone in a room when you are in the house to monitor his progress, it is unreasonable to expect to be able to leave him completely alone when you have to go out. Therefore, you should practise this and get your dog into a routine of going into his room. Often the kitchen is a good choice as it is easy to clean should he have an accident. Simply give him his chew toys, ensure he has bedding and fresh water and say goodbye in a low key manner.

Then, when you do go out for real, go through the same routine as before. He should be confident in the knowledge that being left is rewarding, and that you will come back to him so there's no need to worry.

If the worst happens and you do return to mess or destruction, DO NOT SCOLD YOUR DOG. To punish a dog for behaving naturally is self-defeating and can make matters worse.

Dogs cannot make the mental leap required to link pooing half an hour ago or chewing the cupboard door five minutes ago with your anger now. To them, it will seem as if they are being punished for no reason. You will seem unpredictable and scary.

Now, I can almost hear the chorus: "He knew he'd done wrong because he looked guilty!"

Dogs don't understand the concept of guilt, but they do understand threatening body language and verbal punishments. Which is why they try to make themselves small and insignificant. They are trying to appease you, not show you that they're sorry for their behaviour. Punishing your dog for trying to appease you only makes him try even harder to appease you, and become more worried.

So, instead of teaching him not to behave that way again, you are actually making it MORE likely that he will mess or chew. This is because he is now worried about your reaction when you return home, and so becomes stressed. Stressed animals mess and stressed animals chew.

So, what do you do if you come home to chewed cushions or wet floors? Simply remove the dog from the area and clear up. Then look at the possible reasons for the behaviour and address the dog's training needs. There are many reasons for dog messing when left, including:

  1. Your dog is not fully house-trained
  2. You left him for too long
  3. He was worried at being alone
  4. He was ill

There are also several reasons for chewing and scratching when left, including:

  1. It's great fun
  2. Your dog was disturbed by a sound outside
  3. Your dog didn't have any appropriate toys to play with - he was bored
  4. Your dog was worried at being alone and wanted to find you

So, what needs to be done? More practice sessions? Better toys? Better guidance for using the toys? Come home sooner? Take the dog to the vet for health check? Leave the radio playing softly to help mask outdoor sounds? Give some remedial cage training?

By looking at the possible causes and their solutions it should be easy to actively train your dog to be happily left at home alone.

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