Leaving Lockdown – Teaching dogs how to be alone.

A contented dog.

Leaving Lockdown without our Canine Companions.

We have faced our first pandemic and have enjoyed lots of time at home with our dogs  Some quiet introverted dogs may have found a busy household overwhelming and will enjoy the peace and quiet as the family returns to work and their lives beyond the home. Other sociable extrovert type dogs may miss the entertainment and our constant companionship. Here is some useful information to help you to help your dogs with the transition as we adjust to our new normal.  We are all in a state of adjustment, so it is important that we provide a strong and secure role model to our dogs.  This means we are responsible for our own behaviour and how it may contribute to our dogs’ emotional state. Therefore, no big goodbyes and no big hellos.  This information is especially relevant for new puppy parents to prevent problematic behaviours developing.  Prevention is always better and much easier to implement than a behaviour modification programme.

 

A Dogs Den or Designated Area.

It is important for a dog’s overall security that they have their own consistent resting area within the home. Ideally this should be away from the door that the owner and family use to leave or enter the house, so that the dog does not see you leave. Glass doors are not ideal in a dog household and can be detrimental to an anxious dog. The designated dog rest area needs to be a place where the owner or family members also relax.  If the dog never sees the owner relax in the kitchen then how can we expect our dog to relax in the kitchen?  Use of an indoor dog crate which is covered with a blanket will help replicate a den.  This can then be used throughout the day by the dog as a safe secure rest/nest area. Pups can be crate/gate trained very easily.  Older dogs may need a training plan. An alternative to a dog crate is a gated area such as a utility room which has been designated as the dog’s area. Do not expect a dog to be contented in a crate/gated area in your absence if he/she cannot relax in it in your presence. This is the rule of teaching dogs to be alone without you.  They must first learn to be alone with you!

Control of social interactions

Imagine you are chatting to your friend on the phone and they suddenly hang up without saying goodbye. How would you feel? Confused? hurt? You might try to call them back.  This is what happens to our dogs when we suddenly stop the interaction without letting them know beforehand that our interaction is over, we are about to hang up. In their confusion our dogs desperately try to reconnect with us by pawing us, getting into our space, following us around or generally being a nuisance.  Therefore, it is only good social manners to inform our dog that the interaction is over before we remove our attention.  This can be done by simply giving the dog a signal (as dogs communicate mostly through body language). The signal I use is to break eye contact by looking away while simultaneously folding my arms, with the verbal cue of ‘that’s enough’.  I then wait with patience for my dog to read my cues and to accept the interaction is over when he or she will eventually walk away.  I never repeat the message. If you repeat it you are giving mixed messages as you are continuing to engage with the dog, this will lead to confusion in your dog as he/she tries to maintain the interaction.  As with all dog training this exercise requires patience.  It is important to remember to acknowledge and praise the dog with a simple smile when it is calm and quietly lying down by itself.

 Boundaries & Doorways

To help to teach the dog to tolerate being left  by itself for short periods, close the door behind you when you leave the room to go to the bathroom, or for any other reason when you may be gone for a few minutes. If we allow a puppy or young dog to follow us around the house, we are potentially creating a clingy dog that cannot cope with being left alone. It is our responsibility as dog owners to provide safety and security for our dogs. This means teaching them how to be alone.   Baby gates help to separate the areas  between the dog area and the rest of the house, if your dog cannot tolerate being left behind a solid door and are very useful to restrict a dog in an open plan living area. Leaving a radio on can muffle other sounds in the house and maintain a level of consistency between your presence and absence. A recent worn item of clothing with your scent on it may also help to reduce your dog’s dependency.  Sometimes I advise owners to find a big dog size teddy bear and dress it in their old clothes so that the dog has something that smells like you to snuggle up to in your absence. (much as we might with an absent love)

The Garden

Is a very underutilised space and is a much more stimulating and interesting place for a dog to be than indoors.  The dog also needs to spend time alone in the garden in the same way as it does in the house.  Scattering a dog’s food around the garden or using lick mats or food puzzles can help to distract and entertain the dog when alone in the garden. Provide the dog with a safe secure rest area to relax in when not otherwise occupied in the garden. Your dog should be happy to be in the garden by itself when you are at home. You can reward your dog for being quiet and calm in the garden by allowing him into the kitchen. The best time to leave a dog is alone is after some play or a brain drain game. Tired dogs will rest easier than an energetic one.

Consistency and Bedtime

I believe dogs should be given a bedtime at least an hour or so before our own.  This helps the dog to settle while it hears us potter around. It also helps to reduce the sudden loss of contact which can lead to over dependency and anxiety. To be fair to our dogs we need to be consistent with the rules. If we break all the rules at the weekend or our down time and then we suddenly expect the dog to adjust when we return to work, we are not being fair to the dog.   Our dogs need consistency for them to feel safe and secure.

Alternatives to leaving your dog home alone in your absence may be asking a family member to pop in and have a cup of tea. Or employing a recommended dog walker or pet sitter.

If you have any concerns that your dog may be suffering in your absence you can use video or recording technology to monitor their behaviour. For professional advice please contact samantha@samantharawson.ie