By Nancy Tucker, CPDT-KA
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 minimize negative effects and maximize their well-being.
Do you know what your dog does all day when he’s home alone? Many dogs sleep most of the day, but some fret in their owners’ absence and look for things to do to alleviate their anxiety – and these stress-relieving things might include barking, chewing inappropriate items, or digging up the carpet!
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 on a daily basis. How long depends on the owners’ lifestyle and schedule. Someone who works an eight-hour day and has a commute, followed by errands 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 he was all set.
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, she’d rather not confine her dog or leave him alone for an additional few hours in the evening, she 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 I won’t pull any punches: 10 to 12 hours is too long for a dog to be alone in a single stretch.
I know, I know. 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 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.
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 come to us trainers, asking for help with behavior 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 of us trainers and behavior consultants are kept very busy as a result of the lifestyle to which many dogs are subjected!
[Some home-alone dogs may experience separation anxiety. For more information about this extreme form of isolation distress in dogs, see Training Editor Pat Miller's article on separation anxiety.]
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 in a single stretch?” 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 eliminate every couple of hours, while others – even with the freedom to do so – might still only eliminate three times a day.
You know your dog best and are in a unique position to figure out what his individual needs are. When you’re home during the weekend, does you dog stick to his usual weekday elimination schedule, or does he tend to go out more often?
Puppies need to eliminate way more often than adults, and although we can set up their “home alone” environment to include a space where they can eliminate indoors, there is still the question of how long they should be left alone without human company.
Yes, 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 socialization 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 – socialization time that can confer lifelong benefits.
Crating A Dog While At Work
I have a number of clients who, prior to consulting with me, had resorted to using crates in an effort to prevent their dogs from doing further damage to their homes through destructive chewing or soiling, or to curb barking at the windows. The irony is that the behavior issues were actually created by too-long stretches of isolation. Crating the dogs only made bad situations worse by increasing the dogs’ level of stress and further limiting their ability to interact with their surroundings.
A crate is no place for a dog to spend an entire day. If necessary, confinement in a small space should be temporary and for short periods of time, say, a couple of hours, tops.
There’s often a comparison drawn between crates and “dens” – 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 okay in it for an entire day? Well, I have a favorite chair in the living room where I sometimes like to curl up and take a nap. My choosing to spend time relaxed in a space without budging for sometimes an entire hour is a far cry from being physically confined to that chair, unable to leave it to stretch, eat, drink, relieve myself, or just plain do something else. It’s time we rethink the use of crates and our dependence on them.
If the principal reason for using a crate to confine a dog during our absence is to avoid destructive or nuisance behavior, a better approach would be to address those behaviors through training, or through management that involves meeting the dog’s physical, emotional, and intellectual needs.
How to Minimize Your Dog's Time Alone
Following 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:
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 work week! Of course, not every dog is a good fit 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.
Keep in mind that not all doggie daycare operations are alike. Look for clean, well-designed locations with qualified staff who will manage interactions between the dogs and provide necessary rest periods.
Come Home for Lunch
If not every day, then as often as you can during the work week. If there are several family members in the household, consider taking turns coming home in the middle of the day to let the dog out to relieve himself and enjoy a short visit.
Hire A Dog-Walking Service
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 recognizing 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 neighborhood walk, or even day training (when a trainer trains the dog in your home while you’re at work). Again, a caveat is needed here; there are some horrible dog-walking services out there.
Work From Home On Occasion
Telecommuting is more popular than ever as technology makes it easy for folks to perform their professional tasks from a home office.
Bring your dog to work with you. Obviously, not everyone is in a position to do this. I frequently work with clients to treat their dog’s separation anxiety, and this suggestion is almost always met with an immediate negative response, “No way, I can’t do that.” However, it turns out that sometimes, it is possible.
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!
Arrange for Someone to Visit Your House and Let Your Dog Out
Ask a neighbor, 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 possible liabilities a scenario like this can present, but you may already have someone you trust to handle this type of task.
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!
Solutions Have Higher Cost, But Worthwhile Benefits
While some of these solutions involve an additional expense, consider it a normal part of owning a dog. When calculating a budget for expenses related to caring for a dog, owners may figure in the expenses for food, toys, maybe some grooming, and the occasional vet visit. All too often, though, money for training and other services like daycare, boarding, or dog walking tend to fall erroneously into the “luxury” category. In reality, these are essential services that contribute to meeting a dog’s needs more completely.
Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Rather than trying to figure out how to best stretch the amount of time we can leave our dogs alone, we should be trying to help our dogs get more out of every day. This idea might take some getting used to, especially since it suggests that our dogs aren’t happy. Sometimes, though, it’s good to question the status quo and ask ourselves if we can do better.