As a dog daycare, we make a living off people leaving their dog with us while they work. That said, we understand there are many times you must leave your dog at home, this blog article is designed to answer some common questions about keeping your dog happy on his/her own.
It would depend on the dog and their personality, what they find enriching, and their learning history.
Generally speaking, with a well socialised dog, you want to provide them with plenty of enrichment. This means providing an outlet for them to engage in natural species-specific behaviour like foraging and sniffing.
Sniffing is probably the most important thing that you can let your dog do, it’s their primary sense. The act of sniffing can be intrinsically calming to a dog. Engaging in sniffing helps them lower their heart rate. If you think about it, sniffing is a lot less intense than panting so, by slowing their breathing rate, you slow down their heart rate.
Some dogs will perform other natural behaviours. For instance, some dogs really like digging. In this case you might want to give them clamshell pools filled with sand and water. There’s others who might like chewing, and you give them frozen kongs, bones, again, depending on your dog. For some dogs, it’s not safe for them to have bones. So, you’ve got to tailor it to the individual.
There’s plenty of things you can do.
You can make what is called a snuffle mat, which is essentially a rubber mat with bits of fabric tied in to knots and that almost resembles grass and you can sprinkle treats or scents in there and that will get them sniffing and foraging away.
There’s also some natural scents have been shown to reduce anxiety, such as lavender. Obviously, you’d want to introduce it at a low intensity. You wouldn’t want to get a strong diffuser because their sense of smell is a lot stronger than ours. Feel free to get creative here.
You’ve got to see it. The easiest way is to set up a camera. Ideally, you want to see if the dog is engaging in behaviours that are indicative of a positive emotional state, and you’d want a low to moderate amount of arousal (physiological/behavioural excitement).
If your dog is really active and energetic the whole time, that’s probably indicative that they’re quite stressed. It they’re laying down or resting, that’s likely a good sign.
With this in mind, you’d want to watch them because if they were, for instance, almost catatonic in their expression when they’re laying down, that’s probably indicative that they’re shut down and not enjoying themselves.
You want to see some sort of indication that they’re comfortable, (i.e. loose body language) and the ability to sniff and explore in your absence. If your dog is slowly plodding around, sniffing something and then moving on to sniff a Kong- that’s likely a good sign. You want signs that they’re relaxed and calm.
Again, it depends on the dog. Some will have a clinical case of isolation distress where they’re exhibiting signs of a significantly negative emotional state and those dogs are the ones where you’ll need to enlist a professional (such as a veterinary behaviourist) because you might need medication to help your dog build that tolerance.
Let your dog dictate how long it’s comfortable being alone and then just build on from there.
For example, puppies are going to panic very quickly when they’re left alone. So, what you want to do is get them used to engaging with something like a pig’s ear, a kong, or a snuffle mat while you walk around the house, at first, and then you can work on being in a different room.
Then, you can work on leaving. If you train your dog to lie down and stay, that can also be really helpful. You can practice stay as you visit different rooms, and then working on leaving the front door, and you can do that for longer, and longer, for up to about 30 minutes. If you they’re lasting 30 minutes and showing signs that they’re calm, they’re not likely to get isolation distress.
Probably a kong or puzzle feeder. The reason for that is, especially if you’re using that for part of your dog’s dinner or breakfast, it’s letting them work a bit for their food, forage, engaging that natural foraging behaviour which is really, really valuable.
A lot of people just plop the bowl down and the dog eats. That’s all well and good but these animals, in the wild, would be foraging for food. So, if we can provide them with that mental stimulation and getting them doing things instead of them just laying there, that’s going to be really helpful, especially for those people who work full time.
Some people say totally ignore your dog, which the idea behind that is you’re not reinforcing excitement. We would slightly recommend against that. Our suggestion would be that you return in very passive manner and you can acknowledge your dog, as long as you don’t do anything too exciting or interactive.
However, if they’re jumping around, just go and do your own thing, do your errands, check the mailbox and everything else. Don’t make a big deal because dogs have shown that they can respond to our emotionality and our excitement levels.
We want to make departures and arrivals, uninteresting to the dog. So, if you act like it’s no big deal, that helps to communicate that.
The key is to tailor it to suit your dog because it won’t be one size fits all. Allow them to do natural species-specific behaviour, but the way that looks will differ depending on the dog.
So, whether you’re literally just scattering treats in the yard, which you might do for dogs that haven’t had that much socialisation, or giving them a puzzle feeder which would be better for the more active, well socialised dogs- it’s all valuable.
We all need mental stimulation to be happy 🙂