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Home Alone

The Home Alone Dog

by Pat Renshaw

"Now, Muffy. Mummy has to go out and leave you, but here’s your toys and water and cookies. Now, you be a gooood girl and Mummy will see you soon. Here, let Mummy give you a big hug and kiss. Now, please, be a good girl."

Is Muffy consoled? NO. Does Muffy understand any of what Mummy said? NO. Is Muffy confused? YES. Does Muffy feel anxious? YOU BET!

One of the worst elements of being a 9 to 5 out-of-the-house dog owner is the guilt that we heap on ourselves at leaving the little one at home "all by herself." So, we turn ourselves inside out to dote on the dog, even more than we normally would, just prior to our leave taking.

On our return home, our guilt-ridden behaviour intensifies. "Oh, Muffy. Did you have a good day? Did you miss Mummy? I wuv my widdle Muffy. Oh, Mummy’s sorry she had to leave her little baby. Want something to eat? Want to go walkies? You Mummy’s little love?"

Is Muffy consoled? NO. Does Muffy understand any of what Mummy said? NO. Is Muffy confused? YES. Does Muffy feel anxious? YOU BET! Does Muffy have ANY idea what is expected of her? I doubt it.

Confronted with these displays, Muffy will do one of two things; shrug her shoulders and go find a corner, curl up and go to sleep for the next eight hours (highly unlikely) or, watch the door close and then, because "Mummy" has instilled such a sense of anxiety, Muffy will look for an outlet for her frustration such as, chewing furniture, defecating, urinating, shredding curtains or paper or barking while running helter-skelter throughout the house.

How did Muffy’s owner make Muffy anxious? She just hold her how much she loved her and how much she would miss her (assuming that Muffy would miss her as much!) and made a BIG fuss of her when she left. Mommy acted like this was a BIG problem? Why would that give Muffy an anxiety attack?!

Dogs are wonderful creatures but they are creatures of habit and routine. Once a routine is established, dogs are quite happy knowing what’s what, what is likely to happen next and what is expected of them when it does.

Does Muffy know what’s happening? (Mummy’s leaving! Aghhh!!) Does Muffy know what’s going to happen next? (When Mummy comes home again, she’s going to be upset! Aghhh!!) Does Muffy know what’s expected of her while Mummy is gone. (Aghhhhh! What to do? What to do??)

How do we avoid this scenario?

First of all, DON’T be guilty because you’re leaving the house for the day. This is a fact of life and dogs are very clever creatures. However, they communicate in dogese ... not English. They understand your para-language (whining and cooing, etc) and your body language and they interpret it accordingly. Although some dogs have a fairly extensive vocabulary, much of their interpretation of what is actually said (as you understand it) is by your para and body language.

So, how do we get out of the house? In the words of Ian Dunbar, "Close the door." Too simply stated? Then teach your puppy that you are leaving the house ... daily ... and that he has to learn to like (or at least, tolerate) his own company. Puppy (or dog) should be confined to an area (oversized crate or a room where he cannot destroy things), given his supply of water, toys, cookies, Kong toys ... anything to keep him amused. Tell him, in a normal tone of voice, "Ta, ta. Look after things while I’m gone, Kid. See you later." Then, simply leave.

Is Kid consoled? NO. Does Kid understand any of what was actually said? NO. Is Kid confused? NO. Does Kid feel anxious? NO.

When you return? Leave the puppy (or dog) in his confined space but troop through and say, "Hi. How’s it goin’? Cool your jets and I’ll come and get you in a minute." Then, hang up your coat, put your purse down, go change your clothes, grab a beer as you pass the fridge and then, and only then, go and let Kid outside for a piddle and a frisbee throw (or whatever Kid considers fun!).

Does Kid need consoling? NO. Does Kid understand any of what was said? Maybe, although probably not. Is Kid confused? NO. Does Kid feel anxious? NO. Does Kid have any idea what’s expected of him? YOU BET! Is Kid happy with his routine and his owner’s expectations? Probably.

How do we get a Kid and not a Muffy? Ideally, you start from the minute your puppy enters your home. If your regular routine is to be out of the house during regular working hours, that’s the routine your puppy is introduced to at the start. It is far easier for an eight-week old puppy, who has limited life experience, to handle this fact of life. This puppy learns his routine early and becomes accustomed to being alone.

Folks who are fortunate enough to have the summer months free from the workplace, often think it is an ideal time to acquire a puppy. Not so. This eight week old puppy is ’trained’ that people, and sometimes kids, are available all day and all night every day and every night. Then, when he passes his fourth month birthday, the house empties and he finds himself totally alone. This is a difficult adjustment for a young dog. What happened? Was it something he did? Where did everyone go? Where’s my entertainment? This puppy should be trained, prior to school beginning again, in short spans of time gradually built up, that he will be left alone, confined, with his own company.

Your dog is an adult and you find that you are returning to the workplace? All is not lost. Start teaching your dog that there are times that he will be alone. Put your dog in his spot, give him his toys (even adult dogs love stuffed Kongs) and with no fuss or bother, leave the house. When initially teaching your dog this new "game", just leave him for an hour or so and return. Build up the length of time that he’s alone gradually. Again, no fuss or bother. If you don’t make a big deal of this, neither will he. He may not even notice you were gone!

Being a 9 to 5 out-of-the-house dog owner is a 90’s way of life for many of us. Teach your puppy or dog to handle this. Spend quality time with the dog during the evening hours and you’ll both be happier for it. And, prepare yourself. If you teach Muffy that your going and coming is nothing to concern herself with, in no time, Muffy won’t give a hoot if you leave her for the day or not. Ever notice how much dogs sleep? That’s what she’ll do with her day. Play a little and sleep a little and sleep a little more. She will, however, just like Kid, be very happy to herald your return!

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  • If your dog is to be a home alone dog, crate train (or confine him to a safe spot in the house) early. Teach him, while you’re at home, that there are times that he MUST be alone so that he can better handle the solo flight when the time comes. A word of caution here; if you’re not going to crate train your puppy (and shame on you for your dark ages attitude!) because you think that a "cage" is cruel, please don’t replace the crate with your dark, dingy basement. You dog would much rather be in his crate in the kitchen or the family room where he’s surrounded by familiar things than relegated to the basement! ("Like, what did I do wrong?") Your dog, if you trained him correctly, sees his crate as his safe haven, his den, his private place. He has no understanding of the English - "cage".
  • Give him a supply of safe toys to amuse him. Some of my favourites are oversize Nylabones, knot ropes (washable), Kong toys stuffed with cheese or peanut butter (dishwasher safe) and sterilized bones (available at many dog show vendors) stuffed with goodies. The dog works for hours trying to get the good stuff out of the Kongs and bones! If he’s busy with this, he’s not thinking about chewing your antiques!
  • Let the dog follow you around the house as you go through your morning routine. Don’t train your dog to be anxious about your leaving. Speak in a normal voice, be chatty if you wish, but normal and matter-of-fact. "This is your lot in life, Kid. See yuh. Guard." When you’re ready to leave, leave ("close the door").
  • When you return, say hello, get yourself sorted out before you let the dog out of his spot (and by that time he’ll have settled a bit) and then let him out to run about the yard with merry abandon! If you go about your business before you attend to him, he’ll learn that he waits his turn so to speak. He learns self control.
  • Sometimes leaving a radio on a soft music station, low volume, helps an anxious puppy or dog. Dead quiet can be a little unnerving at the best of times! A radio also helps to mask the sounds of the leaves falling, and of the squirrels and other sundry wildlife thundering through your yard while you’re away.
  • If, after all this, you still cannot bring yourself to have Muffy be at home alone, consider getting a kitten. Dogs are very social animals and another living creature in the house for Muffy to snuggle up to or to watch wander about the house may be just the ticket. Caution: think logically about getting another dog to keep Muffy company. You just may double your trouble!
  • If your lifestyle is such that you are away from the house working all day and many of your evenings as well, relieving your work-related stress, reconsider getting a puppy. They can handle you being away for the day but not half the night as well.
  • If you just can’t modify your behaviour to make the home alone dog a happy one, consider hiring a responsible neighbourhood child to go in at lunch time and after school to spend some time with your dog. This little break in the day may be all the dog needs to reassure him that he hasn’t been abandoned.
  • If none of these tips work for you, before making the drastic decision to euthanize or place your dog in a new home, contact your veterinarian for the telephone number of a behaviour consultant who can meet with you and discuss your problem one-on-one.
  • Don’t think that because you are away from the house for the day that you should deprive yourself of the comfort and companionship that a dog provides. Simply train him to be by himself and to enjoy his own company. And leave the guilt to someone else! Neither of you need it.

    © Pat Renshaw

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