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How can I prepare my dog for time alone once lockdown lifts?

Scruffy white dog staring out of the window.

Dogs are naturally social beings and they need consistent training to help them feel comfortable home alone.

© Unsplash

The lifting of lockdown may mean more time alone for your canine companion. Here we look at ways to help your dog adjust to the new normal.

By Greta Inglis

Published on the 17/04/2021, 18:00

If you’ve been wondering how to prepare your dog for life after lockdown, you aren’t alone. A return to the new normal may mean more hours spent alone for your dog, and this has caused concern for many owners in recent weeks. Lockdown has been challenging for humans, but more time at home has meant increased companionship for our four-legged friends, with the extra attention, walks and cuddles that this implies.

If you’ve been working from home a lot recently, your dog may have become your shadow. Leaving your dog alone after lockdown doesn’t have to be stressful, provided the right steps and training are put into place. Here we take a look at how to help your dog feel comfortable and how to prepare them for life once lockdown lifts.

How can I help my dog adjust when I go back to work after lockdown?

Helping your dog adjust to life after lockdown is primarily a matter of preparation. A return to the new normal may seem exciting to us humans, however if we think of it from our dogs’ perspective, they have become used to spending more time than ever before with their favourite people. As naturally social beings, dogs have been bred over hundreds of generations to thrive on interaction and a close bond with their owners. Without training and consistency, your dog may suffer from separation anxiety.

Separation related distress is similar to panic in humans, created by an intense anxiety at being left alone. A dog experiencing this may show signs of stress, such as pacing, whining, barking and drooling. Other physical indications include a lowered tail and body posture, yawning and lip licking. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety may become destructive in the home and may even toilet in the house during periods of stress.

Is your dog showing signs of separation anxiety? Click here for advice from Dr Karen Ingleby BVetMed MRCVS.

Whether your canine companion is a puppy who has never experienced time alone, or an older dog who has simply become accustomed to more company than ever before, there are steps you can take to prepare your dog, before you have to return to work. Consistency, routine and patience are the key words here, building on your dog’s comfort at being left alone.

How can I prepare my dog for when I have to leave the house?

There are steps you can take to help prepare your dog, in advance of actually having to leave them. This will go a long way in keeping them calm and comfortable when you do eventually have to go out.

Gradually increase confidence at home 

Helping your dog feel confident in their own company is important if they're going to feel happy at home alone. Create a safe and cosy space, somewhere they naturally choose to rest, and build positive associations for them. You can do this by rewarding time spent in the area, with food treats and praise.

Once your dog is able to take themselves to their safe space and relax, you can work to gradually increase the time spent here, by guiding them back and praising calm behaviours. Your dog may start the exercise by sitting and looking attentively at you, waiting for a treat. Over time, and as they get more comfortable on their resting spot, look to reward increasing relaxation. Signs of this can include their head down and a relaxed body posture.

Take care to prevent “shadowing”

If you have a velcro dog who likes to follow you wherever you go, you can build up their tolerance for time away from you by closing doors regularly as you move around the house. Start with very short periods, and increase the time as your dog learns you will return. When coming back into a room, enter in a calm manner and with minimal fuss.

Have you ever wondered why your dog follows you everywhere? Take a look at the reasons behind this behaviour here.

Encourage spending more time alone

As dog owners, we love fussing and spending time with our dogs, but teaching your canine companion they can be calm at home without attention from you will really help them once you have to leave. If your dog is used to very frequent interaction, you may need to start with short periods of time. Leave your dog in an area they feel comfortable, having worked to build their confidence beforehand. Leave the room, closing the door behind you, and then return immediately.  Build on duration based on your dog’s tolerance for being alone.

Each dog has their own timeframe for separation training. If your dog shows signs of stress or anxiety, such as pacing, vocalisation or panting, you have moved too quickly in the process and will need to take a step back. It’s important not to rush the process, always returning while your dog is in a calm state.

Familiarise your dog to the routine of leaving the house

Getting your dog used to the sounds and actions of you leaving can really help them feel calm when the time comes. Throughout the day, and at different points on a varying schedule, go through the routine of leaving, without actually going anywhere. Pick up your keys, put on your coat, open the front door, but then resume your normal day at home. This helps show your dog that these actions are part of a regular day and are nothing to worry about. When the time comes to leave, your dog will feel less stressed around these actions.

Will my dog get sad when I leave?

Many of us wonder what our dogs get up to in our absence, so much so, there are even movies about it! Whether or not your dog will become sad is difficult to assess, as we have no way of hearing from our dogs directly in order to understand their emotions. What we do know, is that separation distress is very real for dogs that experience it, and is expressed as a neuro-chemical response to the dog’s fear of being left by themselves. For this reason, the steps above are important to help your dog learn that being home alone is not a big deal and that you will return.

Consistency is really important and can help your dog feel comfortable in difficult situations. With the right training and practice, leaving doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Having built a tolerance slowly over time, prepared your things in advance and worked to familiarise your dog to this routine, you can keep their stress levels down and any potential sadness at bay.

What should I do with my dog when I leave the house? 

Leaving your dog after lockdown can be stressful for both owner and dog. A return to the new normal means very different things for us as humans and our canine companions. With the worry of separation anxiety, going back to work outside of your home may seem daunting.

If you feel your dog is naturally nervous, take a look here at our tips on how to calm them.

Following the steps outlined above and preparing in advance, you can leave your dog at home in the knowledge they will be alright.

Make sure your dog is mentally stimulated 

Entertainment and enrichment are essential when leaving your dog at home, even for short amounts of time. This helps prevent boredom, which can in turn lead to destructive behaviour and vocalisation if left to develop. There are a wide variety of food puzzles and search games available on the market, all designed to mentally stimulate your dog.

Licky mats can soothe anxiety and promote relaxation, while puzzle toys encourage your dog to use their brain. Simply scattering food around the area, or hiding treats in exciting places for search games can encourage snuffling and exploration. This keeps boredom at bay, which is key to helping your dog feel comfortable when left at home by themselves.

Provide physical exercise before leaving them for longer periods home alone 

Physical exercise is hugely important to any dog, strengthening muscles and allowing them to sniff and explore the world outside. It’s a fundamental tool to remember just before you leave the house, as a tired dog is typically less alert and less anxious.

When leaving your dog at home, consider the amount of time your dog is able to hold it in before needing a toilet break. Some dogs can hold it for up to four hours, however puppies in training may only be able to wait one or two hours. Pushing them past this point can lead to accidents, stress and may undo any training progress made. If you are going to be leaving your dogs for long periods of time, a dog walker is a good idea, and arguably essential to factor in to a return to work. They will be able to provide companionship and exercise in your absence, supporting the training and preparation you have already put into place.

Leave your dog in their safe space 

When it comes to leaving the house, make sure your dog has full access to their safe space. This will be the area you have prepared as an area of relaxation and positive associations, and will help your dog when home alone. Ensure the area is as cosy as possible. You may even want to leave an item of clothing or a familiar blanket in the space, to comfort your dog.

Soothing sounds, such as a low level radio or audiobook can be very helpful as well, particularly if your dog is spending more time alone than they’re used to. Often our dogs become accustomed to chatter and noise when their people are at home, and absences can create sudden silences they aren’t used to.

Leaving your dog alone after lockdown can be difficult and upsetting, particularly as we’ve all enjoyed the increased time spent in the company of our furry friends. Leaving your dog doesn’t have to result in stress or worry, provided the right preparation is put into place in advance. Returning to work will be much less daunting in the knowledge that your dog is comfortable and settled at home. With the right planning, the new normal can be positive for your dog too, as they learn to expect fun games, exciting treats, a cosy bed - and most importantly - that you will always come back to them at the end of the day.

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