How to Calm a Dog That's Left Alone
It can be tough to leave home if your dog can’t remain calm before you go, while you’re gone, when you get back, or all of the above. But keep calm yourself because there are solutions! Try things like creating routines, using cues, giving your dog more and less attention at appropriate times, and providing fun and safe distractions while you’re away. In most cases, new pups, old dogs, and any canine pal in between can learn to keep its cool when left alone.
Easing Anxiety When You Leave
1. Give your dog exercise and attention about 30 minutes before you go. A dog that is bored, feels ignored, or is full of energy is more likely to act out when you leave it alone. Take your dog for a walk, play fetch, or just shower it with attention around a half-hour before you plan to leave. After that, calm things down as you begin your departure routine.
- If your dog is craving attention, give it some while you’re there! Otherwise, your canine pal’s anxiety may boil over when you leave or after you’re gone.
2. Create a departure routine your dog will recognize if it's not anxious. Dogs thrive on familiar routines and clear signals—that’s why they’re so trainable. If your dog doesn't suffer from separation anxiety, try to follow a consistent routine in the 10-20 minutes before you leave. That way, your departure won’t come as a shock to your dog.
- If you head out to work each morning, for instance, do things like packing your lunch and setting your bag out consistently. A solid morning routine is good for reducing your anxiety as well!
- Incorporate dog-specific elements into the routine as well, such as filling the water dish.
- This works best with puppies, but you can also try it with an older dog. However, don't create a routine for a dog that has separation anxiety, as this can make your dog more anxious because they'll know you're leaving soon.
3. Watch for signs of anxiety as you're getting ready to leave. Like people, dogs show their anxiety in individual ways. If you see signs of anxiety building in your dog, keep up your departure routine as normal, acting as though it is no big deal. Don't coddle your dog or tell it you're sorry, and definitely don't yell at it or physically punish it (these are never appropriate strategies for dealing with a dog).
- Common signs of anxiety include shaking, pacing, whining, barking, licking, yawning, drooling, panting, dilated pupils, rapid blinking, pinned-back ears, hiding from you, and a need to go to the bathroom (or having an accident).
- Talk to your vet if you'd like help recognizing signs of anxiety in your dog.
- An very anxious dog may also have separation anxiety, which is a psychological disorder dogs can have. If your dog barks excessively, chews on your stuff, destroys items, or self-harms while you're gone, talk to your vet and a certified animal behaviorist for help. Your dog may need treatment to help them stop these behaviors. In the meantime, don't use a departure routine, as it will likely upset your dog more.
4. Provide a puzzle treat toy that you only use when you’re leaving. Buy a chew toy that you can fill with treats and that requires your dog to work to get its prize. Save this particular toy only for when your dog is being left alone. This gives your dog something positive to associate with your departure, instead of only negatives.
- Offer the treat right as you’re about to go.
- Your dog may end up being happy when you leave!
- Puzzle treat toys also provide a lasting distraction while you’re gone.
5. Leave without making a big deal of it. Some people say to “ignore” your dog when you go, but you don’t necessarily have to pretend your canine pal isn’t there. Instead, focus on making your departure seem very ordinary and unconcerned. Pick up your coat and keys, say a polite but matter-of-fact “goodbye” if you wish, and just head out the door.
- Don’t let on that you feel sad about leaving your dog alone, or get all “lovey-dovey” with hugs and nuzzles. This signals to your dog that it should be anxious about what’s happening.
- Some pet parents use a specific cue word or signal when they go, delivered in the same manner as any other type of cue. “Goodbye” and a quick wave might be the signal you provide, for instance.
- This works best for dogs that don't have separation anxiety. Talk to your vet or a certified animal behaviorist about what will work best for your dog if you suspect or know it has separation anxiety.
6. Practice leaving for steadily increasing amounts of time. Follow your routine and leave for only 5 minutes, then 10, and add 10 minutes to each subsequent departure until you can go for up to 40 minutes without problems.
- At 40 minutes, add 15-20 minutes at a time until you get to 90 minutes. A dog that can handle being left alone for 90 minutes can likely handle being left alone for at least 4 hours.
- If your dog shows a great deal of anxiety whenever you try to leave, contact a certified animal behaviorist to get expert advice that's tailored to your dog's needs.
Tip: If your dog has separation anxiety, you might try putting them in a separate room away from you for short periods of time to get them used to being away from you. For instance, you might start by shutting your dog in your bedroom for 5 minutes. Slowly increase the amount of time up to 90 minutes so your dog gets used to not being around you all of the time.
7. Ask your vet about OTC or prescription calming agents. There are lots of products marketed as dog-calming agents out there, ranging from aromatherapy sprays to over-the-counter (OTC) pills to snug-fitting doggie shirts. There isn’t much scientific support for most of these, so ask your vet for recommendations.
- In severe cases, such as diagnosed separation anxiety, your vet may prescribe an antidepressant or SSRI medication for your dog. If so, give the medication exactly as instructed.
Providing Distractions While You’re Gone
1. Hide treats and toys around your home. Try wrapping a treat in a towel, or even freezing a treat in a block of ice. Place some of the pup's favorite toys in random spots throughout your home. Keep your dog focused on finding and getting to treats and toys, rather than worrying about your absence.
- If you don’t provide your dog with positive distractions, it might instead chew up your couch!
2. Fill a “busy bucket” with treats, toys, and towels. Do this in addition to, or as an alternative to, scattering and hiding treats and toys. Add a layer of treats to the bottom of a sturdy, pet-safe bucket, then layer on 1 or 2 toys, and finish with a layer made of an old towel or shirt. Repeat the layers until you fill the bucket.
- It will take your dog a while to work its way down through each layer and uncover all the great surprises!
- Consider using towels or old clothes that carry your scent. Your dog may find this extra calming.
3. Put on classical music to provide a soothing sound. Some dog lovers believe that putting on the TV or radio while they’re away helps their dog feel like it’s not alone. It’s not clear that this actually works, but there is some evidence that soothing music—such as light classical—may have a calming effect on pets. Give it a try and see what happens!
- Some animal shelters use classical music as a calming tool.
- If you do leave on the TV or radio, make sure it’s tuned to a station that won’t broadcast potentially stressful sounds, such as a movie with gunfire and explosions or heavy metal music.
4. Set up a “safe room” with comforts and distractions. Not all dogs can handle—or can be trusted with—roaming your entire home freely. While keeping your dog in a crate is one option, it isn’t ideal for longer absences. Instead, if possible, set up a room where your dog can be safe and active without being overly destructive.
- A kitchen, bathroom, or laundry room can work well because they’re typically easier to clean up. However, you need to be able to close off the room and “dog proof” it by securing cabinets, wires, appliances, and other potential hazards.
- Toddler gates work well to block off open doorways.
- Choose a room with a window, if possible, especially during daytime.
- Make sure your dog has water, treats, toys, a sleeping spot, and the other comforts it needs.
- Practice putting your dog in the “safe room” while you’re at home for longer stretches before doing it when you leave.
5. Hire a dog walker or a dog sitter if you’re gone all day. If you’re gone for more than 4 hours, you’ll probably test your dog’s patience and its bladder! Look into hiring a dog walker to come by and give your pup both company and exercise. Or, have a dog sitter come and spend a few hours with your canine companion instead.
- Don’t hire just anyone for one of these jobs. Do some research, interview experienced candidates, ask for and contact references, and supervise them with your dog to see how they get along.
- A dog sitter or walker can be a huge help, but they’re no substitute for spending quality time with your dog when you’re home.
Maintaining Calm When You Come Home
1. “Ignore” your dog while following your arrival routine. Like when leaving, you don’t need to completely pretend that your dog isn’t there. Instead, come in the door without making any big deal about it and calmly go about your “back at home” routine—put away your keys and coat, take off your shoes, check the mail you brought in with you, and so on.
- If your dog is jumpy and overly excited, greet it calmly and matter-of-factly rather than getting all excited to be back home.
- Try to wait at least 5 minutes before turning your focus directly to your dog.
2. Train your dog to calmly stay on a “meeting mat” near the door. A “meeting mat” is a floor mat or rug kept near the entry door that you train your dog to stay on whenever you return home. First, praise and reward your dog whenever it goes on the mat, then when it remains on the mat for incrementally longer stretches, and finally for staying on the mat and remaining calm the entire time.
- Practice walking in the door and using a cue like “I’m home” or “meeting mat” to direct your dog to the mat. Keep training until your dog can remain calm on the mat for 5 minutes before you reward it with praise and perhaps a treat.
3. Spend quality time with your dog not long after arriving. After about 5 minutes of paying little attention to your dog, go ahead and show it some love! Take it out for a walk (and potty break), play some games, and cuddle up together afterward.
- By waiting at least 5 minutes after you arrive, you’ll teach your dog not to view your arrival as a time for immediate excitement and attention. Instead, it will learn to follow the arrival routine and wait for your full attention.
4. Do not punish your dog for being excited to see you. It can be tempting to shout at or scold a dog that keeps jumping up and barking when you come in the door. You may even feel like physical punishment is deserved. However, negative reinforcement (punishing wrong behavior) is never as effective with dogs as is positive reinforcement (rewarding right behavior). Focus on withholding praise when your dog is being bad and giving lots of praise for being good.
- If you have trouble keeping your cool while trying to train your dog, or just aren’t having much success in general, don’t be ashamed to hire a pro—either by taking your dog to classes or having a trainer come to your home for sessions.
- Talk to your vet if your dog has serious anxiety or hyperactivity issues before you leave, when you’re gone, or when you return. If the vet diagnoses your dog with separation anxiety, they may prescribe medication, recommend professional training, or both.
- Let guests know beforehand that your dog tends to be hyperactive when someone comes in the door. Not everyone appreciates a dog jumping up on them unexpectedly! Training your dog to stay on its “meeting mat” when someone arrives can be really useful in this case.