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Do dogs just sleep when left alone?

Leaving your dog home alone

Written by Pure Pet Food Pure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. Rosie Bescoby Rosie is a fully qualified Clinical Animal Behaviourist with a degree in Zoology & Psychology and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling. She is an ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist, a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (No. 1006), and registered as both a Clinical Animal Behaviourist & as an Animal Training Instructor with the Animal Behaviour & Training Council. — Our editorial process

It’s inevitable for most dogs that they will need to be left at home alone at some point in their lives. However, they are a social species and they will always choose to have company available to them, so we need to ensure that we are not leaving our dogs for any length of time that might constitute a welfare issue.

As for how long you can leave a dog alone, the RSPCA recommends that dogs should not be left alone for any longer than four hours at a time, and individual dogs may not be able to cope with this length of time. It is important that no dog is left at home alone in a distressed state.

We need to gradually build the length of time that a puppy or dog can cope with so that they learn to relax and sleep when left alone.

Teaching puppies to tolerate separation

It is natural puppy behaviour to want to follow their attachment figure – in fact, it is a survival strategy. So we need to carefully teach them that it is ok to be separated from you and left alone, preventing any distress from occurring as we do so.

We want our puppies to form a secure attachment with us so that they become independent and self-confident. This means responding to them if they do exhibit any distress and ensuring that they feel safe and secure at all times, avoiding separation anxiety.

For puppy’s first nights, we want to stay close to the puppy so that they settle into their new home seamlessly and we can hear them if they wake and respond appropriately. Gradually we can build distance between us over a period of days or weeks (depending on the individual).

As puppies need to sleep a lot during the day, this provides us with an ideal time to build separation in the home first as we potter around the house and in the garden, leaving our puppy alone. As the puppy drifts through sleep cycles they will subconsciously be aware of lack of company and this will accustom them to being left alone and the fact you always return whilst they are settled.

Building separation with age

Once a puppy can cope with short periods of time left alone (15-30 minutes), we can start to build the time up gradually. It is sensible to use a camera to watch whilst we are out of the house, to be sure that they are settled and relaxed.

Over time, we can build up the time – though be aware that young puppies cannot hold their bladders for long and will need to be left for no more than around an hour until they are around five months old. Once they are able to hold themselves, you can build it up to a maximum of four hours (as long as the individual can cope).

There are no breeds that can tolerate longer separation more than others – it is simply down to individuals. However, some breeds like Labradors, Border Collies, Bichon Frises, Jack Russel Terriers and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to suffering from separation anxiety as they love human interaction, so make sure to build up their training from the very start. New rescue dogs will need to be built up slowly also, using a camera when first left to check how they respond.

Before leaving your puppy or dog alone

It is usually beneficial to have provided your dog with a walk or at least some sort of mental stimulation before you leave them because we want them to sleep whilst they are left alone. Low arousal, slow-paced, sniffy walks are preferable to fast, high adrenaline walks because it will take time for the adrenaline to reduce from the dog’s system.

Dogs must always be provided with a comfortable bed and water when left alone. If you are using a crate, be aware of them getting too hot and not having the option to stretch out somewhere cooler. Ideally, use a crate big enough for a comfy bed at one end and an area with less bedding so they have a choice about where to rest.

If your dog is destroying its bedding when left alone, this needs addressing as potential separation anxiety rather than simply withholding bedding.

Leaving your dog

You can leave your dog with treat-dispensing toys to help them settle when left alone – chewing and licking in particular are self-soothing activities that can lead to sleepiness. It can also be a useful indicator as to whether your dog is relaxed when left alone because anxious dogs will not eat. It is also important that your dog can still cope when they have finished any food you have left with them.

Generally, leaving your dog with access to the area of the home that they normally associate with relaxation will encourage them to rest when left alone. You can leave the TV or radio on if these are normally on when you are home, but avoid putting them on ‘to keep your dog company’ because actually all that can do is signal to the dog you are about to leave which can start to induce anxiety in a dog who might struggle to cope.

Don’t make a big deal of leaving – watch them on a camera if you are worried about how they might react in your absence. When you return, you can talk to them and greet them (they are a social species and it is normal for them to reunite bonds after a period of separation, in just the same way as humans would greet each other when returning home from work, for example) but try to avoid going over the top with your arousal levels and exacerbating your dog’s arousal. Anticipating this sort of greeting can cause issues when left alone.

In summary, the golden rule is to go at your own dog’s individual pace in terms of how long they can cope with being left alone but to avoid leaving any dog for longer than four hours without a break.

Obviously, there may be exceptional circumstances and for some dogs – for example, those who are settled when home alone but unable to cope with someone coming to the house to let them out or take them for a walk, or an owner who needs to leave their dog home alone for longer than four hours on an infrequent basis (again, as long as the dog can cope with this).

Do dogs just sleep when left alone?

Dog owners know that having a four-legged friend around all the time comes with countless delights. Our pups love us unconditionally. They make us feel appreciated and special. There’s often little else they look forward to than having us around. And for those of us who deal with depression, anxiety, or stress, these facts likely ring especially true. Dogs have the wonderful ability to help reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness for countless people. Studies have shown that their companionship can reduce anxiety, provide sensory stress relief, and even improve physical and mental illness. But, like humans, dogs themselves can also develop anxiety.

Anxiety in dogs typically takes the form of separation anxiety, meaning that being away from their human guardians produces serious angst for them. Similar to humans, dogs with separation anxiety don’t all exhibit the same behaviors—symptoms range from mildly inconvenient habits to potentially dangerous acts. But unlike humans, canines cannot express their anxiety with words. So, it is ultimately our responsibility as their owners to pick up on physical and behavioral cues and patterns and to respond in a responsible, caring way.

How you can identify separation anxiety

Occasionally, dogs may demonstrate one or more symptoms of separation anxiety, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re genuinely distressed. Some dogs may exhibit anxious behavior, for example, when we’re getting ready to leave, but many of them ease up once we’re actually gone and are completely fine spending time alone. The key to identifying separation anxiety is to observe ongoing patterns linked to your absence—behaviors that are specific to being away from you. Some symptoms, though less severe, should still be taken seriously. These include things like excessive drooling, howling, barking, or whining and irregular urination and defecation patterns. More serious symptoms can lead to self-injury or the development of certain illnesses. These include attempts to escape confined areas (many dogs end up with broken teeth, cuts, scrapes, and damaged paws and nails this way) and a refusal to eat or drink while home alone.

Techniques for treatment

Once you’ve identified these behaviors and linked them to separation, the question then becomes, how can you help your pet better cope with these conditions in a way that’s both safe and effective? It’s important to note that some very common coping techniques can make the situation (much) worse. That includes forms of punishment like scolding, getting another dog so they’re no longer alone (the anxiety is usually the result of separation from the owner, not general loneliness), or obedience training (separation anxiety and lack of training are separate issues). The key to treatment is to countercondition dogs, that is, teach them coping mechanisms that allow them to enjoy, or at minimum tolerate, being left alone. To do this, an association between alone time and positive experiences like eating foods they like or listening to soothing sounds needs to be built.

Something simple you can start with is leaving your dog with a puzzle toy stuffed with their favorite foods, which should be especially helpful during pre-departure. It’ll keep them preoccupied for 20-30 minutes while you prepare to leave. You can provide them with special toys that they really enjoy, but the key here is to strictly allow them to play with these toys only during alone time. You can also leave your dog with articles of clothes that have your scent on them. The last and particularly promising technique is sound therapy—essentially building an association between soothing, comforting sounds and being alone.

How White Noise can Help

For many years, studies have shown the amazing impact that music and other relaxing sounds have on human memory, emotional states, and even healing from physical and mental illness. Certain sounds can greatly reduce anxiety, lower heart rate respiration, and alleviate behavioral issues like excessive barking in dogs. The most promising sounds take the form of longer, sustained notes and consistent rhythms with less complexity. Not surprisingly, loud, abrasive noises can increase adrenaline and make anxiety worse. But gentler, repetitive sounds have great potential to relax the nervous system. White noise — which can sound like television static, rainfall, or even ocean waves — provides a consistent sonic environment that many people have relied on to improve their quality of sleep, reduce anxiety and tension, and uplift mood. Like humans, dogs have unique preferences, so it’s important to play around with different types of white noise (which you can provide with a sleep sound machine) to pinpoint which frequencies your pup enjoys the most. Devices that make it possible for you to keep an eye on your pup from work, for example, abound. The key with all of these techniques is to build specific associations with you being gone and getting to enjoy these different forms of sensory stimuli.

Research that explains why some dogs develop anxiety while others don’t hasn’t been conclusive. But trauma and dramatic life changes are often the cause for dogs that do. Changes of guardianship or family structure, like a family member passing away or going off to college, can certainly result in separation anxiety. Changes in a regular routine, for example moving to a new home or spending longer periods of time alone than is typical, can also be culprits. But even if you can’t pinpoint the specific source of your furry friend’s separation anxiety, it’s extremely important that you take the necessary steps to help them heal and build coping mechanisms that’ll make their lives generally more peaceful and healthy.

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