Working humans, students, families juggling busy schedules, and those who travel a lot may have to leave our dogs alone more often than we’d like.
Whatever the reason your pet may be alone at the house for long hours or away at a kennel for periods of time, we spoke with Dr. Vint Virga, who is board-certified in veterinary behavior and the author of The Soul of All Living Creatures, to understand how our pets feel when we’re away, how to make the time apart as comfortable as possible, how much quality socialization time dogs crave, and how many hours a day might be too many for pets to be alone.
Alone Time for Dogs: The Basics
It may seem like it’s a natural skill, but puppies need to learn how to be alone, and it’s a gradual process. Generally, puppies work their way up from being under constant care and supervision to being trusted and comfortable being on their own over the course of an eight-hour workday over time. The basics include:
- Creating a safe area for alone time, such as an exercise pen or crate
- Ensuring your puppy has positive associations with being left alone, such as leaving toys with treats
- Increasing the alone time incrementally over a few days
- Checking in on your pup over time to reward and praise them for successfully being alone
- Eventually transitioning to full and free access of the house, once your dog is potty trained and sure of being home alone
How Much Socialization Time Do Dogs Need Per Day?
How much time a dog needs to spend with humans or other dogs will vary by the individual pet, and can’t be generalized by breed, age, or overall health, explains Dr. Virga.
“Some dogs will do better with more alone time than others,” he says. That said, for a general guideline, dogs should get a minimum of two hours of dedicated social time with humans or other dogs on a daily basis, which can be broken up into chunks of time over the course of the day.
How Much Alone Time Is “Too Much”?
Constant companionship isn’t necessary. But a life spent in isolation — such as away in a basement, cooped up in a kennel, or tied up outside all day — isn’t a fulfilling one for dogs.
“For a dog to spend all of their day alone is too much. Dogs are very social animals,” explains Dr. Virga. “Domestication has furthered that. To afford dogs social time is essential to meeting their behavioral” needs.
At a maximum, Dr. Virga recommends dogs spend no more than six to eight hours alone without a chance to relieve themselves.
If your dog will be alone for more than six to eight hours…
To break up long hours away from the family, Dr. Virga recommends finding other ways for dogs to get socialization, such as:
- Going to doggy daycare
- Having a dog walker come by
- Getting a neighbor, friend, or loved one to drop by for a walk, feeding, or even just a quick conversation or some reading time
If your dog will be away from the family over a couple of days or more…
How to best ensure your pet’s comfort during extended time away from the family is much “more individualized depending on their personality,” says Dr. Virga. “Our dog goes away to friends to play with their dogs when we go away for a week or more … In our individual judgment, he’s happier with a family setting … It’s like going away to camp or an extended sleepover.”
Some dogs may prefer staying at home with a caretaker checking in on them a few times per day, having a pet-sitter stay with them overnight, or staying over at a family friend or a dog care facility.
How Pets Feel When Humans Are Away and Signs They’re Spending Too Much Time Alone
In short: Dogs may feel that an important part of their life is missing.
Dr. Virga explains that if you think of a dog’s normal activities like a pie chart, a huge portion of the pie will be sleeping and resting. But since dogs are social creatures, a big part of the remaining hours of the day (the waking ones) might normally be focused on interactive activities with other animals (including us humans).
What follows then, if they don’t get the interaction they crave, they may turn to other things like potentially destructive exploration (maybe of your closet full of shoes?) to compensate. Another clue they may not be getting enough socialization: They may act excessively enthusiastic and exuberant upon your return home.
In the long term, the consequences may be dogs who do not know how to play or interact with humans appropriately, who may be more likely to be apprehensive, avoidant, or anxious around strangers, explains Dr. Virga.
They may even appear bored — while this is a human characteristic — it can manifest itself in dogs who aren’t particularly engaged in what’s going on around them.
You may not even notice the difference in your dog’s behavior, unless or until you give your dog the opportunity to have more social interaction, such as going to doggy daycare or having a dog walker come by on days you’re away from home for longer hours.
“We felt that [our dog] was getting adequate social time per day, three to four hours per day with us,” says Dr. Virga. However, “we didn’t appreciate the difference until we took him to doggy daycare (one day of daycare per week). He became a much more contented dog.” At the end of a day away at daycare, he had an outlet for his energy and was more tired and picking up new skills, like retrieving, faster than he would have otherwise.
Transitioning to Alone Time and Other Changes in the Routine
Dogs have to adjust to changing family schedules — such as the start and end of summer vacation, families getting together at the holidays, kids going off to college, and more — and they can transition to these new routines better if they’re involved in and around for the rituals involved, like hanging holiday decorations, says Dr. Virga, rather than being shut away while the activities are underway.
For a typical daily routine, Dr. Virga recommends giving dogs activity puzzles before you head out the door. This is a great way to signal you’re about to leave and can help keep your dog occupied for up to a few hours while you’re gone.
When Alone Time Causes Problems
“There’s a lot of talk out there about separation anxiety. It’s a real behavioral condition,” says Dr. Virga. But it’s important to tease that apart from a dog that’s bored, unfulfilled, or frustrated as a result of being alone, he explains.
The best way to do that is to visit a vet or a veterinary behaviorist to find out what your dog may be experiencing, as the approach to dealing with separation anxiety and these other behaviors will vary.
Separation Anxiety at a Glance
Dogs may be experiencing separation anxiety or suffering from real stress when humans are not around if they do any of the following when left home alone:
- Bark or howl more than usual
- Destroy things around the house, like furniture, clothes, the doors, windows, or the walls
- Urinate or defecate in the house
- Drool, pant, and salivate more than usual
- Pace around and around
- Try to escape a crate (if left crated)
Another clue is that these warning signs above don’t happen every so often, they happen all the time when you leave the house and the very sight of seeing you prepare to leave may trigger some of these behaviors.
For help with the problem, your dog may need more time transitioning to being alone and more exercise before being at home solo. In some instances, vets may recommend specific treatments for separation anxiety, such as medication or herbal and homeopathic remedies.
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