I have a rescue dog, Jasper, who has always hated being left alone. I’d had two other dogs before Jasper, worked in a kennel as a teenager, grew up with dogs and have done volunteer work as a home checker for a dog charity. So I had quite a bit of experience with dogs but I struggled with this problem – so don’t worry if you’re struggling too.
You need to teach your dog how to be left alone so try to approach this in stages if at all possible.
When You Do Go Out, Make Sure Your Dog is Safe:
I put up physical barriers both to stop Jasper being able to hurt himself and to keep him to one part of the house so he’s not wandering around a large area. For my house these were a gate to the kitchen and a stair gate. The aim is to keep your dog to one or two rooms so that they can’t wander through the whole house. Obviously make sure there is water available and that they are left somewhere familiar. Look around the room and work out what they could hurt themselves on (yes, it is exactly like having a toddler). Assume if they can hurt themselves they will. They are stupid enough to chew through electric cables, they can eat whole boxes of tissues, they can kill themselves by eating the squeak from a dog toy.
Jasper loves chocolate and will steal it whenever he gets a chance. He got into the larder one day and stole several bars of dark chocolate. This impromptu meal involved a trip to the vet, enforced vomiting, a stomach full of charcoal and a sleep over of several days. I’m determined he’s not going to do that again, and the physical barriers of gates are the only way I can be sure of stopping death by chocolate when I’m not around.
New bins with lids he can’t lift with his nose were essential for Jasper. If he does manage to get to them he can’t open them. Again, this is from experience; he was very ill after eating the contents of a bin shortly after he arrived because I just wasn’t expecting a him to be able raid it and eat the contents.
Make Leaving Positive:
I got Jasper something called a lickimat and I really cannot recommend this enough. He wasn’t interesting in a Kong or other toys, but this worked immediately. It uses the idea that dogs lick to calm themselves – licking releases endorphins and so they feel calmer when they lick. The lickimat is plied with various treats, I mainly peanut butter (you don’t have to buy a special dog version but make sure it is Xylitol free), meat dripping mixed with grated carrot (yuk), liver paste for dogs, crushed biscuits or whatever is safe for dogs and will squish into the mat. You can really cram food into it and it’s difficult for dogs to get it all out if it’s sticky.
I approached using the mat in stages. First, I gave Jasper the mat a few times when I was at home so I knew he couldn’t hurt himself with it and that he liked it. I let him watch me preparing it too. As soon as he’d finished I took it away and hid it.
Next I let Jasper have the lickimat when I got ready to go out so he was distracted at that point – a point that used to cause him stress. You have to be aware of where the stress point is for your dog; Jasper knew that shoes and a coat meant I was leaving. When I noticed this I occasionally put shoes and a coat on, kept them on for a bit and took them off again without going anywhere. Now he’s not so sure I’m leaving when I have shoes on so seems less stressed about it. I’m just a strange human who sometimes wears a coat in the house for no reason!
When I make the mat he sees it happening. The mat is so special for him that it is the centre of his attention – this even beats his ball obsession. The mat is ready and he knows it and doesn’t care about anything else. When I’m ready to walk out of the door I give him the mat.
I’ll stress again that he only gets the lickimat when I go out; as soon as I get home I subtly swipe it, clean it and put it out of reach.
Make Sure Your Dog Gets Practice:
Dogs need to practice good behaviours. Most of the time I can keep Jasper with me, but I am aware that if there was an emergency and I had to leave him then if he wasn’t used to it, it would be unfair on him. I make sure he is regularly left alone for an hour or so as it gives him practice.
Like a lot of dogs, during lockdown he went backwards in terms of separation anxiety as he had the whole family around all day. When lockdown lifted I knew I’d have to start all over again with training him to be left alone and it was a real pain.
Getting Extra Support:
I employ a dog walker. I know I’m lucky to be able to do this and that it’s not an option for everyone, but it has been great for Jasper because he loves the different walks he gets a couple of days a week and the new doggy friends he’s made. It’s been great for me because now when I do have to go out for a whole day I know that the dog walker will take Jasper for a decent walk and settle him in afterwards, that he’ll pop in and let him out in the afternoon, or will keep him for the day depending on our arrangement and how long I’m gone for.
If you can’t use a dog walker and you don’t have family or friends nearby that can help you could always try something like ‘Borrow My Doggy‘ so that your dog gets to know someone new who might like to help out occasionally. I’ve done this in the past and it worked well for everyone involved.
It can be very stressful when your dog is anxious every time you go out and it can end up feeling like an insurmountable problem. But there is hope. Jasper is still not where I’d like him to be, but with a little effort and common sense we’ve overcome a range of unhelpful behaviours together, and doing that has really strengthened the bond between us. I loved my previous dogs, but I get so much more from Jasper because I’ve put so much more in. And yes, spaniels are harder work than some dogs and they need a huge amount of exercise (Jasper typically covers about 8 – 10 miles a day on his walk), but they are worth it.