If you’ll be heading back to work soon after weeks or months at home, it’s a good idea to prepare your furry family for the transition
If possible, before returning to work, start leaving your home for short periods to help your dog readjust (or learn to adjust, if he’s new to the family)
Prepare your dog to be independent by increasing her daily exercise and mental stimulation; also consider creating a special spot for her
Keep in mind that beyond 4 hours without a potty break, and certainly beyond 6, most home-alone dogs become uncomfortable
If your job requires you to be away from home for many hours each day, consider alternatives to leaving your canine companion on his own.
f you’re a pet parent who’s been at home for the last few months due to COVID-19 shutdowns and are preparing to head back to work, your furry family member may need some help adjusting to her “home alone” status — especially if she joined your family very recently and doesn’t realize your normal routine is to be gone for several hours each day.
If possible, before your return-to-work date, start leaving home for short periods several days a week to run errands or shop or take a drive or a walk. This will help your dog remember or realize that she’s safe at home by herself and that no matter how long you’re away (more about this later), you always return.
Encouraging Your Dog’s Independence
The best way to manage a dog who is anxious about being left behind is to help him build confidence and encourage his independence while you’re at home with him, which will increase his ability to manage any anxiety he feels when you’re away.
• Increase your dog’s daily exercise — Engage your dog in at least one rigorous exercise session daily. I can't stress enough how beneficial intense exercise is for not only anxiety, but boredom and behavior problems as well. As often as possible, go for a strenuous exercise (or ball playing) session before you leave the house. A tired dog will feel less stressed when left alone.
• Stimulate her mind — Keeping your dog's mind active is also important. Boredom is the breeding ground for all manner of “bad dog” behavior. In addition to daily activities to engage her brain, your dog should be continuously socialized throughout her life with frequent opportunities to interact with other dogs, cats, and people.
Regular training sessions are also a great way to keep her mind occupied and strengthen the bond you share with her. Nose work, which encourages her to use her natural hunting instincts and scenting abilities, can be a great way to keep her mentally stimulated. Even allowing your dog to have 10 minutes a day of sniff-time in a natural setting will enrich her senses and fulfill her need to experience the world through her nose.
And don't overlook the value of treat-release and food puzzle toys, which not only challenge your dog's mind, but also provide appropriate objects for her to chew. I find the Treat & Train Manners Minder a great tool for this purpose.
It's also a good idea to rotate your dog's toys regularly. If you leave all of them out in a big basket, she may lose interest in them quickly. A better idea is to leave out one or two and put the rest away. In a day or two, swap them out. Also be sure to play with your dog using her toys; rigorous, engaging play sessions several times a day are a great way to her pent-up energy and bond with her at the same time.
• Create a special dog-friendly space — This can be a crate (with the door left open) if your dog is crate trained (which I highly recommend), or a corner of the room outfitted with a comfy, non-toxic dog bed, perhaps an earthing mat or grounding pad, and a favorite toy.
Use positive reinforcement behavior training to teach your dog to respond reliably to a verbal cue such as “Go to your crate,” or “Go to your special space,” and give him the cue if you notice he’s obsessing over your every move while you’re home.
If after implementing these suggestions and returning to work your dog continues to have adjustment problems, especially if you’re concerned the situation is progressing to separation anxiety, it’s important to make an appointment with your integrative veterinarian, fear-free trainer and/or a veterinary behaviorist.
How Long is Too Long to Leave Your Dog Home Alone?
These days, it’s quite common for dogs to be left home for 8 or 10 or 12 hours, up to five or six days a week. And depending on the pet parent’s lifestyle, he or she may arrive home after 10 hours, give the dog a quick walk and dinner, and then go back out for the evening.
“Here’s the thing,” writes certified professional dog trainer Nancy Tucker in Whole Dog Journal, “and I won’t pull any punches: 10 to 12 hours is too long for a dog to be alone in a single stretch.”1
Of course, as she goes on to say, there are plenty of people who argue they’ve always left their dogs, with no issues.
“What this means,” says Tucker, “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 stretches 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.”
It’s important to understand that dogs are social creatures who need opportunities to interact with people several times a day, and many benefit from interaction with other dogs as well. In addition, while there’s no one-size-fits-all rule for the maximum amount of time a dog can be left alone in a single stretch, obviously, potty breaks are a necessity.
Like humans, most healthy adult dogs need a minimum of 3 to 5 opportunities each day to relieve themselves. Older dogs and those with certain conditions such as urinary incontinence need to go out more often. Generally speaking, dogs shouldn’t go without a potty break for more than 4 or 6 hours. (Please note I’m only discussing adult dogs here, since it goes without saying that puppies — for a multitude of reasons — shouldn’t be left alone.)
It’s important to realize that while your dog may be able to “hold it” for longer periods, she really shouldn’t have to. Beyond 4 hours without a potty break, and certainly beyond 6, most home-alone dogs become uncomfortable.
Alternatives to Leaving Your Dog Home Alone While You Work
If you work full-time outside the home, finding alternatives to leaving your dog home alone will depend on your budget, your freedom to manage your time during the day, your family and social support system, and other factors.
See if your employer will let you work from home some of the time — Depending on the kind of work you do, you may be able to do it effectively from home, especially if you’ve been successfully doing it during the pandemic. If so, ask your boss if he or she would be amenable. You’ll never know if you don’t ask!
See if you can bring your dog to work with you, at least occasionally — Again, this depends on the kind of work you do, who you work for, and whether your employer might be open to having dogs in the workplace. (Obviously, if you work for yourself, you can give yourself permission!)
Come home for lunch — If your workplace is close enough, consider returning home at lunchtime to walk your dog and spend some time interacting with him.
Ask a stay-at-home family member or friend to dog-sit — Is there anyone in your family or circle of friends who likes dogs (including yours), is home a lot, and would be willing to care for your dog a few days a week? Perhaps you can offer the person something they need in return, such as pet- or babysitting services.
Arrange for someone to stop by and walk your dog — This could be a friendly neighbor or anyone you know and trust who likes dogs and would be willing to give yours some attention a few days a week. You can also offer to pay a trustworthy neighborhood child or teen to do it.
Hire a professional dog walker — There are a lot of dog walking services around these days, depending on where you live. If you decide to go this route, be sure to do your homework and find a reputable one.
Enroll your pet in doggy daycare — If your dog enjoys interacting and playing with other dogs, a doggy daycare once or twice a week can be a godsend. “Look for clean, well-designed locations with qualified staff who will manage interactions between the dogs and provide necessary rest periods,” advises Tucker.