Posted 6 months ago ago
Getting a new puppy in lockdown will have meant, for most owners, not having to leave the dog alone. Even if one of you needed to go to the shops, or an urgent appointment, someone else in the house would have been able to stay home with DD and keep them company.
But there comes a time, lockdown or no lockdown, when a dog needs to be left alone for the first time. If you’ve been working from home, as lockdown eases you might find you need to try and get your dog used to being by themselves.
You might have already tried a trial separation, with mixed reactions (from you and the dog!). If you felt worried about them, that’s normal. The key is to make sure conditions are right, that the separation isn’t a sudden thing, and that the dogs know you’ll come back.
Rachel Casey, director of behaviour and research at the Dogs Trust charity, explains: “A big worry for us is what the long-term impact of lockdown will have on dogs’ ability to cope when left home alone.
“Dogs that had separation anxiety before the lockdown are likely to get worse when left again as owners head back to work – but we also expect to see new cases developing, because other dogs, and particularly puppies, have learnt to expect company all day.
“If they expect us to be about all the time, it will be more difficult for them to cope once we eventually go back to our normal lives and aren’t in the house 24/7."
She adds: “One of the biggest reasons why dogs are handed into Dogs Trust is because of behaviour-related issues that could have been prevented early on. A rise in problematic behaviours, due to lockdown measures, could mean families have no other option but to give up their dog. The rise in separation anxiety in dogs who haven’t been left alone during the pandemic is a particular concern for the charity.”
When to start?
Nastassja Potgieter runs The Paw House Bristol, which offers home visits, group walks and training, and has plenty of advice for anyone leaving their dog for the first time.
“The earlier the better, really,” says Natasha, adding that alone time is important for your dogs, even from a pup. “Don’t rush it – this is something to take your time over. You can’t just expect a pup to be left alone suddenly, so if you do need to go out somewhere, factor in time for them to settle before you need to leave.”
She says: “It all depends on how your dog reacts to begin with. Let’s say you left them in their area with their crate or a pen around, then leave the room and stand outside the door to begin with. You can shorten the time, but the recommended time is up to eight minutes.” That might not seem like very long, but remember, you are just getting your dog used to you not being in the room. Which for some – and you – may well be the very first time that’s happened, except at night.
Make praise gentle and calm when you return
“Leave them in that room in their safe area until that time is up. When you come back into the room, don’t make too much fuss. When you check on them you don’t want them to ‘miss’ you, so use a soft and gentle tone,” she advises. “Praise them gently and quietly to reassure them everything is OK. Then you can build up to a longer period of time when they’re in a room alone.”
Increase the time – and your confidence
You want to be able to go to the shop, an appointment or to see friends without the dogs, and the idea is to make you and the dog as comfortable as possible while you’re apart.
With that in mind, you can increase the time you leave them, and even perhaps go out of the front door, and sit on the front step or walk around the block for 10 minutes.
Ease them into knowing their safe place with kindness
It’s also important to make sure that your dog is safe and comfortable. If they have a crate, that’s the place to settle them, or in their bed and possibly with a pen around them to make sure they won’t get out and chew things they’re not supposed to. But it’s not about just plonking them in their bed or ‘den’ and leaving. It needs to be a gentle process, so the bed or crate is a safe space they go to when they know you’re going out.
“Let them be comfortable without it feeling like a punishment,” Nastassja advises.
Nastassja Potgieter of The Paw House, Bristol
Self-soothing/crying is OK
Your dog is unlikely to settle immediately, and you need to expect an element of ‘self-soothing’ where they might cry before they settle. “You can’t expect them to just say ‘I’m good over here!’. All they’ve known is to have your company. It’s a gradual process that you introduce them to this alone time, making them see that there is going to be a period that you’re not going to be there,” Nastassja says. “The hardest part when you are doing alone time and not actually leaving is to lock them into the room when you hear them crying. Then you have to wait for them to be quiet before you enter.” The theory with this is that you’re rewarding the behaviour you’d like – them being quieter.
A gently goodbye ‘phasing’
“Some people have Kongs, which you can fill with something like peanut butter and will keep them entertained,” says Nastassja. “Give them that, say goodbye and some people use hand movements as an indication they’re leaving. The same tone is always good to use, and the combination of the two they’ll associate it all in preparation for you to leave.
"But you’re not making such a fuss of them that then you’ll suddenly be gone. It’s about a gentle removal of yourself." Some people set aside toys their dog only has in the pen or crate, so when they see those they get ready to be alone. “You don’t want to force them into the crate or pen, put the toy in there and let them go in themselves,” she adds.
Some people leave the radio on for their dog. “Classic FM can be calming for a lot of dogs,” says Nastassja. Other people use a webcam so they can keep an eye on their pets while they’re out.
Getting help with the process
If you think you’d like help with leaving your dog alone, there are many trainers who are working remotely online via Zoom and other video apps. Dogs Trust has online learning tools too. To help dog owners prepare their dogs for a change in routine, Dogs Trust’s dog school is continuing to run training classes online while face-to-face classes have to be paused, meaning dogs and their owners can still learn through virtual sessions skills they can put into practice as normality resumes. The classes help owners understand their dog’s behaviour and to avoid common pitfalls that can lead to problems further down the line.