How do I help my dog adjust to spending time alone?

German Shepherd Dog sitting indoors by a fireplace

After a period of being with your dog all the time, such as holidays or during ‘lockdown’, it can be a great wrench for both you and your dog to have to be apart. You will need to start preparing before the big day comes if you can. It may be that your dog came to you during your time away from work – so now it’s time for them to learn it is okay to be alone.

Think about where your dog is to be left

If your dog is new to this, an area of your home needs to be selected that is safe for your dog to start their training. Avoid areas where your dog will see you going out, as this will heighten their anxiety level. Also, avoid areas where your dog can see out of the window as this will disturb them. Think about how things may change through the day – sun, cold, outside influences such as deliveries, neighbours etc. Try to use an area with as little disturbance as possible and not in direct heat, cold or damp.

Dogs like a cosy quiet corner or an area that makes them feel secure

Crates/indoor kennels are a great idea if your dog has already been trained to use one. They have the added benefits of helping your dog to be clean. Your dog will not want to foul their bed area, and if restricted to their crate, they will be more inclined to hold themselves until released. Crates also prevent your dog from running around and getting overexcited, and from having access to chew the wrong things.

However, if your dog is not already used to a crate, introduce your dog slowly and carefully with positive reinforcement. When purchasing a crate you must ensure it is the correct size for your dog. Your dog should be able to stand up and turn around within the crate and their bedding needs to fit inside, alongside a water bowl. It is important to note that your dog can do itself quite a bit of damage with a crate if not properly introduced.

If not using a crate, select a smallish area where your dog can be left to their own devices and cannot do much damage (to property or themselves), and if their bladder lets them down (or worse), the area can be easily cleaned and no one will be annoyed.

Preparing the area

  • Place your dog’s bed, blanket (or crate with comfortable bed/blanket in it) there. It is a good idea to prepare to leave the house as normally as possible.
  • A radio or the television can be left on for your dog, this helps to blank out any external noises that might worry them and also helps to disguise the void that the family has left behind. It is beneficial to leave music on, there is evidence to suggest that calm music can promote calm behaviour in dogs, or just white noise from a radio. Close curtains or blinds to block out changes in weather or any visible external disturbance.
  • Set up a camera so that you can see and communicate with your dog during the training and later, even when you are not there. This is useful and there are many available online.

Place training

Step 1 – making a good association

  • A keyword needs to be chosen that in the future will mean to your dog ‘go to this place’, e.g. ‘place’, ‘bed’, ‘crate’, or ‘blanket’
  • A treat can be used as a lure to get your dog to the positive place. You can do this by throwing it into the crate/bed so that the dog goes to it readily. You could also place it on the dog’s bed so that the dog wants to go there, if the bed is the place you want them to be. Using treats gives your dog a positive association with the place
  • At the end of each training session ensure that your dog knows that the training is over. Stay calm and matter of fact, don’t make a fuss. Leave a high-value treat (the kind of treat your dog loves and cannot refuse) on their bed when they are not looking, so that when they go back to it they will have a nice surprise. Let them find it of their own accord - it doesn’t matter if they don’t go there straight away, it’s useful that they make their own choices to go to their bed too. Remaining calm and matter of fact will help them to deal with the separation to come

Step 2 – staying there longer and learning to separate

During step 2 training, you should stay relatively calm and matter of fact - the reward should come from the place rather than from you. As you are trying to train your dog to relax on their bed, a good time to do this training is when your dog is tired, and they can be encouraged to lie down and perhaps sleep.

Choose a treat or chew that will last a while, e.g. a stuffed Kong. Sit nearby but ignore your dog until they have finished the treat. If they try to come off the bed with the treat, encourage them back with another treat. Once they have finished and before they choose to move, release them yourself by giving them a terminating cue (e.g. that’ll do). This way you are gaining more control and they are starting to understand that it’s good to go to their bed when they are told, and okay to come away when told.

While your dog is eating you should sit quietly on a chair near them and read a book (preferably on dog training!). If the dog is in a crate, the door can be closed, as this will encourage the dog to settle. If your dog is on an open bed, they could be kept on a lead so that you can help them to stay where they are and prevent them from wandering off. If your dog pesters you, ignore them - eventually they will lay down and go to sleep. Leave your dog to sleep for a while (if you can) and then wake them and give a small reward on their bed. Alternatively, just leave a treat with them so that when your dog wakes up, they are automatically rewarded.

Repeat the whole procedure a little later. It can be repeated several times a day to build up a good association with this place and being sent to it. It is not imperative that your dog stays there – it is not a 'stay' exercise, just an exercise in finding a nice place to rest and chew!

Step 3 – lessening your dog’s dependency

Once you have released your dog from its bed area, you should go about your business, staying in the vicinity, but ignoring them to lessen the dog/owner dependency.

The whole procedure can be repeated often until your dog starts to become accustomed to the exercise.

Step 4 – moving away from your dog

Encourage your dog to their place, e.g. their bed, and get them settled using the above steps. Then place another treat or chew toy and move away. Try to ignore your dog so they don’t have the desire to come with you.

Wait a few seconds then go back to the bed area and drop another reward in. Don’t make any fuss, just a simple, calm ‘good boy/girl’. 

Build on this step, going to different positions in the room as if you were teaching your dog to stay. Remember to keep calm, quiet, not excitable or lively – a bit like calming a child down at bedtime.

Step 5 - going out of the room

Ensure it is possible for your dog to move, i.e. by leaving a crate door open. Then repeat step 4. Make sure the treat is long-lasting and move away, but this time go momentarily out of the door. Come straight back and reward your dog calmly with a treat.

The next step is to go out, quietly close the door, calmly come back, reward. This is repeated several times.

Then gradually extend the time that you are just at the other side of the door in the next room – this is the time to use your camera and talk to your dog to tell them how good they are before you come back in – this way they get the comfort of your calm voice without your presence.

If your dog should start to become distressed, the progression is too fast. Take a step back and slowly, little by little, make the time longer that you leave your dog alone while you’re just in the next room.

Once you have your dog settled in the crate, start to go out for very short periods of time and build up. If your dog shows difficulty, then pretend to go out – get your car keys, open and close the front door and then come straight back in again. Keep doing this until your dog isn’t showing as much distress at being left alone.

Note that when you do return, don’t make a big fuss about the welcome. This can also negatively impact on your dog’s behaviour.

Ensure you carry out this training well in advance of having to leave your dog for the first time. Don’t wait until you have to leave your dog to test the training.

Step 6 – building up time

Consider the length of time your dog can be realistically left alone in the house without problems occurring. Adequate allowances must be made for their needs. To expect an adult dog to last more than four hours alone in a house is not fair, to expect a puppy to last this long is even less fair. A couple of hours for a puppy, once they have gone through their training and are happy to be left, is quite sufficient. If you regularly have to leave your dog longer, then consider a dog walker coming in, or some other kind of dog day care.

Remember, the welfare of the animal must come first.

Please note: there are many different ways to train your dog. This is just one method of teaching. If you are ever in doubt, please seek professional advice. 

For more information and advice, you can find a puppy foundation course with The Kennel Club Good Citizen Dog Scheme, browse our full list of The Kennel Club Accredited Instructors or find a dog training club near you.