Home alone

When the dog fears to stay alone

Some symptoms indicating that your dog is afraid to stay at home alone are howling or barking when the owner leaves the house, and then later on, scratching doors and windows; bringing the owner’s clothes to the dog’s spot; chewing on furniture or even the floor; and some dogs even throw themselves at the door through which the owner exited. If these describe your dog’s behaviour then it may be afraid of staying home alone.

This is not a training issue, it is a behavioural issue; therefore signing up for classes with your dog will not help this situation. It all depends on what the owner does to make the dog comfortable with staying at home alone. Obedience exercises are very effective as they get the dog thinking, they are also very tiring and therefore relaxing and calming for the dog. These exercises can also raise the dog’s self esteem and make it more comfortable with staying home alone.

Separation problems may result from incorrect raising of the pup e.g. incorrect socialisation. It is important to get a pup comfortable with socialising and, for example, staying home alone within the first 4 months of the pup’s life, as the first 4 months are when the pup’s brain fully develops and learns how to cope with varied situations. Teaching a dog to calmly stay home alone may be a long process with barely visible results at first. Before you start the training/therapy you should consider: am I willing to give my dog the amount of time that it actually needs? – if the answer is NO then you should give the dog away; rushed training will not work, it needs to be done when the dog is ready and not when it suits the owner.

One method is desensitisation and is based on successive exposing of the dog to a stimulus, to which he reacts with minor fear but which is not too overwhelming for him. The process of desensitisation is like watching paint dry on a wall – for sooooo long nothing happens, then suddenly it turns out that the wall is dry and ready to use! But if you touch the wall too early with your fingers, you spoil the whole effect, because your hand has left an imprint on the wet paint and therefore you have to repaint the wall. This process is very time consuming and involves a lot of effort from the owner. If during any stage of this process the dog shows any signs of distress or any unexpected reaction, this means that the new stage has been introduced too quickly. In this case we should go back to doing the previous exercises during which the dog was calm. It is the dog’s decision when the desensitisation process is complete – not the owner’s.The whole point is for the process to have positive outcomes in all stages.

  1. Find a spot for the dog (in the home) – this should be a place which is comfortable and big enough for the dog to lie stretched out. This place should give the dog a sense of security and should preferably be in a corner where it overlooks a large portion of the house.
  2. When the dog is not looking/paying attention, place a few bits of cooked meat in the chosen spot – the meat should have a strong and appetising smell. This should provoke the dog to go to its new spot, and when it lies down, click your fingers and give a command similar to “[dog’s name] go to your spot” – its reward will be the cooked meat that is waiting for it. Repeat this process several times throughout the day; each time the dog lies down on its spot click your fingers and give the command.
  3. You should observe your dog throughout the day, and when it goes to its spot without any stimulus/command, calmly and slowly walk up to it, click your fingers and give it a reward in the form of a piece of meat/doggie’s biscuit whilst making sure that the reward is consumed on the dog’s spot.
  4. A few days later try to get the dog to go to its spot by giving the command “[dog’s name] go to your spot” – this should be done when the dog is in a different part of the house. If the dog completes the given command, click your fingers when the dog is on its spot and give it a treat. If the dog is slow or uncertain this means that you are introducing this phase too quickly. In this case you should repeat steps 2 and 3 more often.
  5. Choose a time when you are at home but will not be accessible to the dog – do not let the dog follow you around, cuddle up beside you or follow you around. If the dog follows you to the bathroom, tell the dog to go away and shut the door.
  6. Change your routine – before you leave the house you always repeat actions, this tells the dog that you will leave it alone. You have taught your dog that every time you put your coat on you are about to leave the house. If before you leave the house you repeat, for example, 10 routines and you have already repeated the 7th then stress builds up in the dog as it knows that you are about to leave. Dogs learn from observations and have very good memories when it comes to routines. Therefore in order to calm the dog down you should put your shoes and coat on, take your keys – do this when you have no intention of leaving the house. Take a walk around the house, sit on the couch, watch TV etc. ignore any nervous behaviour from your dog – howling, scratching, whining etc. Repeat this exercise several times a day. Several days a week until the dog stops behaving nervously.
  7. The next step is to leave the house whilst leaving the dog with a big bone to chew on. You should come back to the house fairly quickly, do not welcome the dog and ignore it when it tries to welcome you. Only when the dog has calmed down, you should sit on the sofa, call your dog and then greet him.
  8. Gradually increase the time that the dog is left alone, each time ensuring that the dog is sent away onto his spot and left with something to chew on. The dog may start chewing, it may stop or even take it to another spot. Ignore this and leave the house without saying a word. When you return, do not greet the dog extensively until it has calmed down. Do not make a scene whenever you leave and return. Every time you leave the house, leave several toys or treats in different places around the house – this will make sure that the dog will find staying at home alone more fun, more like an adventure.

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