How to leave my dog home alone safely?

Whether it’s in a crate, a pen, in a closed room, with full access to the house, with a puppy, a rescue or a rehoming, learning to be alone is imperative for your companion. Be careful: learning to stay alone and to stay in a crate or a pen are two separate processes. To see our complete protocole on crate learning, read this article.

Why teach your dog to be alone?

On top of being uncomfortable, and in some cases in a downright panic, a dog that’s anxious about us leaving the house can lead to quite a few problems:

  • Destruction
  • Barking
  • House-training accidents
  • Attempting to flee the house

Does my dog have separation anxiety?

If you’re concerned your dog may have separation anxiety, the thing to do is to contact a CSAT, a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. We strongly recommend our friends and colleagues at Ivy League Dogs for this type of training.These specialists will guide you through the evaluation and, if needed, the process of working on this serious issue.

Myths and potentially harmful “good” ideas:

1. Just give your dog a toy or bone before leaving to fix the issue!

While it’s not bad at all to leave interesting things for your dog to do while you’re away, this cannot be your only solution. Your pet will start being uncomfortable when the fun things are done. He may even learn that giving them a bone means you’re about to leave, thus refuse to eat it.

2. Put your dog in a crate!

Your dog not being able to destroy things doesn’t mean it’s not anxious or uncomfortable about you leaving. Sure, your door won’t get chewed through, but your dog could just as easily get hurt trying to get out of a crate.

3. Use an anti-bark collar!

Nevermind the fact that these tools are getting banned and outlawed left and right, they won’t fix the underlying problem: the stress of being alone. In many cases, the panicking dog will keep barking just as much, and the collar will just add more discomfort to an already unpleasant situation.

Before you start training:

There are a few things you should think about before you start training:

  • If you’re planning on using a crate or pen while you’re gone, make sure you first teach your dog to be happy in there.
  • It is extremely useful to have a surveillance system in place to keep an eye on your pet while you’re out during training.
    • There are a ton of cameras and systems made specifically for this purpose, but an old phone, a laptop or a tablet connected to your favorite video conferencing app works just as well!
    • Try to find a camera angle that lets you see both the entrance and the spot your dog tends to lie down on the most.
  • Consider your animal’s energy and stimulation level. Staying alone without destroying things is far easier for a dog that has a good balance of mental, physical and chewing stimulation during its day.
  • Keep your dog’s physical capabilities in mind. A puppy should never be left alone longer than what it’s bladder can tolerate. If you’re not sure, refer to this resource on potty training. Consider the same for an older dog!

How to teach being home alone:

Here are the rules to follow at all times while you go through the upcoming steps:

1. The main goal is to teach the dog that moving around, leaving and coming back is commonplace and boring. No matter how the dog reacts, we don’t reward or scold it.

2. We never want to see the dog panic:

  • If your pet cries a little, stops and goes to do something else, wait until they’ve been calm for 5-10 seconds and then come back.
  • If the dog cries, barks, scratches non-stop or if you have any doubt that it may be in a panic, come back immediately. The consequences of leaving the dog in that state are far worse than those of coming back while your dog cries or barks.

3. If there was a negative reaction while you were gone, lower the difficulty next time (ex: go down from 10 seconds to 5)

4. Since our goal is to make our leaving boring, the reaction we’re looking for from the animal is neutrality. Your pet watches you come and go, but keeps living it’s life. What counts as success for any step, meaning we’re ready to move on, is to get that “don’t care” reaction five times in a row.

First step: moving inside the home

Before you go grocery shopping or to work at the office, you first need to make sure your puppy is okay with you moving around the house. Get up and head towards another room, then go back to what you were doing. Here’s what these steps should look like:

We want five no-caring reactions before going from one point to the next!

  1. Go halfway towards another room’s door (ex: bathroom), then turn around
  2. Make it all the way to the room’s door, turn around
  3. Enter the room without closing the door, stay there 5 seconds
  4. Stay in the room 15 seconds
  5. Stay in the room one minute
  6. Redo steps 3 to 5, but close the door this time
  7. Make it to 5 minutes with the door closed
  8. Repeat steps 1-7 with any and all relevant rooms (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, etc.) and increase the time you stay gone gradually as we did in steps 3 to 5

Second step: preparing to leave

Before you actually leave, you’ll teach your dog that the routine you go through before exiting is, just like everything, harmless. The goal here is to do each of the actions listed below individually. You’ll then combine two, three, four, until you can perform your entire “getting ready to leave” routine without your pet even flinching.

  • Take your keys
  • Take your wallet
  • Put on your shoes
  • Put on your jacket
  • Take your bag
  • …and anything else you always do before leaving!

Third step: actually leaving (sort of)!

At last, we’re at the step where we’ll start working on leaving the house. To begin, you’ll want to go back to step one and repeat all of the points listed there (1-7) with the door to your home. Once you can stay outside your door a few seconds with the door closed, you can move on to the instructions below. Don’t go through all of that in one day, though! The goal is to space it all out over about a week, more if necessary.

This is where having a camera set up to watch your dog “live” becomes very useful. You’ll be able to come back immediately if your pet panics instead of leaving it in that bad situation for a while.

If your puppy is struggling at one step (ex: 80 minutes), but has no issue at the one before (45 minutes), you can and should create a new step between the two (60 minutes) to help out!

1. Close the door, then leave far enough away that your dog can’t see or hear you, but close enough to come back quickly. Wait 10 minutes and then come back.

  • If you’re watching your camera, don’t panic at the first sign of movement towards the door! However, go back inside immediately if you get barking, scratching or crying for more than a few seconds!

2. Leave for 20 minutes, come back.

3. Leave for 45 minutes.

4. Leave for 80 minutes.

5. Leave for 2 hours.

6. Leave for 3, then 4, then 5 hours, etc.

Don’t forget:

  • Never leave a dog alone in a crate longer than what it can physically tolerate. If you need to be gone for 9 hours but your puppy can’t hold itself for more than 5 hours, ask a neighbour or hire a walker to come take him for a walk halfway through the day.
  • Give breaks to your dog! Don’t come back from a 2 hour absence and then leave for another 3 right after during training.

And there you have it! That’s the entire process detailed right there. Take your time, keep your dog happy and comfortable, and this will go very smoothly.If you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to ask us for help!

By Stephane Fiset, Dog trainer