Leaving Your Dog Alone
Being alone all day can be stressful for your dog
How long is too long to leave your dog alone?
How much isolation a dog can and should endure are two different things. How much time does your dog spend home alone? Is your dog experiencing isolation distress?
We know it’s okay to be apart from our dogs and to leave them home alone, but for how long, exactly? Is there a limit to the amount of time our dogs should spend alone?
A lot of dogs might spend most of their waking hours home alone and seem to do just fine, but is it okay? Are they really fine? I sometimes wonder if, instead, this is something we say to ourselves to assuage our guilt or to avoid taking a harder look at a cultural norm that could use an update.
Let’s look at how social isolation may affect dogs, and what we can do to minimise negative effects and maximise their well-being.
Being alone all day is stressful for many dogs
Let’s start with the most basic of truths: Most dogs will spend time home alone. How long depends on the owners’ lifestyle and schedule. Someone who works an eight-hour day and has a commute, followed by having things to do and evening activities, could conceivably leave their dog home alone for 10 to 12 hours in a single day and on a regular basis.
Dogs have historically been left alone for long stretches without a second thought. As recently as a couple of decades ago, if a family needed to be away from home for a day or two, how the dog felt about being left behind – whether indoors or outdoors – was not an important consideration. As long as he had enough food and water, most owners felt secure in the knowledge that everything would be Ok.
Few people today would admit to leaving their dogs home alone for 24 or 48 hours or more but leaving the dog home for 10 to 12 hours is not at all uncommon – and questioning this practice can sometimes lead to social ridicule. If an owner decides that after being gone all day, they’d rather not confine their dog or leave him alone for an additional few hours in the evening, he might be met with less-than-understanding responses. “You’re not coming out because you want to be home with your dog? That’s crazy! You’re letting your dog control your life!”
Here’s the thing, and we won’t pull any punches: 10 to 12 hours is far too long for a dog to be alone at a time. It’s a very broad statement and there is always the argument that “We’ve always done it this way and our dogs have always been fine!” What this means, though, is that the dogs who appear to be fine have simply learned to cope with something that is entirely out of their control. Being left alone for long periods of time is not a likely choice that they would make if it was up to them. They’ve adapted to our routines, but it’s far from ideal for them.
We count on our dogs to be there for us when we’re ready to interact with them, but in between those moments, we expect them to do nothing and wait. It’s a tall order, but lucky for us, most dogs adapt incredibly well to anything we ask them to.
People whose dogs have difficulty adapting are the ones who go to trainers, asking for help with behaviour problems such as barking and destructive chewing, or emotional issues such as fear, anxiety, aggression, or over-excitement, to name a few. In fact, many trainers and behaviouralists are kept very busy as a result of the lifestyle to which lots of dogs are subjected!
So how long can you leave a dog alone?
Trainers are often asked, “What’s the maximum amount of time a dog can be left alone at a time?” There’s no simple answer to this. We know that in most cases, a dog will manage if he has no choice, but we shouldn’t push the envelope just because we can.
Let’s consider the dog’s basic needs. While not all dogs are alike, most adult dogs should be able to go outside to relieve themselves about three to five times a day (more often if they are sick or elderly) and shouldn’t be forced to “hold it” for more than four to six hours at a time, on average. We know most adult dogs can hold their bladders for more than six hours, but they really shouldn’t have to.
Granted, this is relative. Some dogs, if given the opportunity, will go outside to wee every couple of hours, while others – even with the freedom to do so – might still only wee three times a day.
You know your dog best and are in a unique position to work out what his individual needs are. When you’re home at the weekend, does your dog stick to his usual weekday toileting routine, or does he tend to go out more often? Puppies need to go to the toilet much more often than adults, and although we can set up their “home alone” environment to include a space where they can toilet indoors, there is still the question of how long they should be left alone without human company.
Dogs get lonely
Dogs are social animals and should have the opportunity to interact with people at least several times a day, and with other dogs on occasion, if this is something they enjoy.
It’s even more important to not leave puppies home alone all day. Puppies younger than 14 weeks of age are in a sensitive socialisation period and benefit from lots of social interaction. They should be in the company of their family for significantly more time than an adult dog.
Again, for emphasis: Leaving a puppy home alone all day is a waste of valuable – crucial – socialisation time that can confer lifelong benefits.
Crating a dog during the day
A crate is no place for a dog to spend all day. If necessary, confinement in a small space should be temporary and for short periods of time, say, a couple of hours at the most.
People often say that dogs like enclosed places – that somehow a small enclosed space should instinctively make a dog feel relaxed and safe because it resembles a den. However, dogs are not “den animals” at all. And even if they were, they would be able to leave their dens whenever they please, which isn’t the case with crates.
And if your dog actually seeks out his crate to nap? Does that mean he loves it so much that he’d be alright in it all day? Well, I have a favourite chair in the living room where I sometimes like to curl up and take a nap. Your choice to spend time relaxing in a space without moving, for sometimes an entire hour, is a far cry from being physically confined to that chair, unable to leave it to stretch, eat, drink, go to the loo, or just plain doing something else. It’s time to rethink the use of crates and our dependence on them.
If the main reason for using a crate to confine a dog during our absence is to avoid destructive or nuisance behaviour, a better approach would be to address those behaviours through training, or through management that involves meeting the dog’s physical, emotional, and intellectual needs.
How to minimise your dog's time alone
Here are a few ways you can avoid leaving your dog alone for too long. It can be hard to make this work, but if you dig deep and get creative, you’ll find there are actually more solutions available than you might have thought:
Work from home sometimes
Telecommuting is more popular than ever as technology makes it easy for people to carry out their tasks from a home office.
Take your dog to work with you
Obviously, not everyone is in a position to do this. But have a chat with your boss or the person sharing an office with you and you. Unless you’ve actually looked into it by communicating directly with the person who’s in the position to say yes or no, hold off before crossing the idea off your list of possible solutions. It may seem unlikely, but you may be very pleasantly surprised!
Hire a dog-walker
Dog walkers have been around for ages, but in the last decade, this industry has seen a surge in numbers, possibly because more people who work outside the home are recognising the importance of addressing their dog’s needs.
The types of services offered by professional dog-walkers can range from a quick home visit to a neighbourhood walk, or even day training (when a trainer trains the dog in your home while you’re at work) Doggy, daycare centres, Again, a caveat is needed here; there are some horrible dog-walking services out there.
Come home for lunch
If not every day, then as often as you can during your workweek. If there are several family members in the household, consider taking it in turns at coming home during the day to let the dog out to go to the loo and enjoy a short visit from yourselves.
Arrange for someone to let your dog out
Ask a neighbour, or your co-worker’s teenage niece who loves dogs, or that kid down the street who does odd jobs. Not everyone is comfortable with the responsibility, but you may already have someone you trust to handle this.
Naturally, your dog needs to be comfortable with someone walking into his home while you’re out, and in the best of cases, he’ll be thrilled to receive a midday visit!
Even if your dog is enrolled for just one day a week, that leaves you with only four more to go to cover an average workweek! Of course, not every dog is a good candidate for daycare, but for dogs who enjoy other dogs’ company, even just one day a week is a good step toward meeting his social and physical needs.
Bear in mind that not all doggy daycare providers are alike. Look for clean, well-designed locations with qualified staff who will manage interactions between the dogs and provide necessary rest periods. Also, note that doggie daycare is not the right environment for young puppies.