Leaving pets at home alone

Posted on: 06 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Advice from the RSPCA to avoid dogs' home alone distress.

stressed dog home alone

Have you ever arrived home to find your dog has trashed your living room? Have you ever wondered why they've done it?

This problem is known as 'separation-related behaviour'.

"It has been estimated that more than one million dogs become distressed and display this behaviour when they are left alone," says Tim Miles, the RSPCA's chief veterinary adviser.

"Typically they will bark, chew furniture, and/or urinate and defecate indoors when left alone by their owners."

"Recent studies have shown that as many as half of pet dogs may show signs of separation-related behaviour at some time during their lives. Dogs of any breed, size or age can show separation anxiety, a behavioural problem which causes them to suffer."

"Separation anxiety is a common reason for dogs to be handed over to rescue organisations but dogs obtained from rescue centres are no more likely to develop this behaviour than dogs obtained from breeders."

It may not be obvious to owners that a dog suffers from separation anxiety. Owners may be completely unaware unless they find evidence of destructive behaviour of toilet problems when they return home. If a dog has this problem it is important to teach them that it is okay to be left alone.

The RSPCA recommends owners try the following tips:

  • Be calm, consistent and predictable with your dog.
  • Reward good behaviour with your attention or with treats.
  • Start and finish all interactions with your dog.
  • Ignore any attention seeking.
  • Never punish your dog as this will harm your relationship and may make your dog scared of you.
  • If your dog looks 'guilty' s/he has simply learned that you are sometimes angry when you return home. Your dog is not able to associate your anger with something s/he did while you were out.
  • Leave your dog alone for gradually increasing periods of time. To begin with, leave your dog for a minute and gradually increase the time you are away.
  • Give your dog something nice to do whilst you are away. For example, leave a tasty chew or a durable rubber toy filled with food.

Research commissioned by the RSPCA's veterinary department which was completed in 2003 concluded that a behaviour test can be used by animal centres to successfully identify dogs that are likely to suffer problems when left on their own in their new homes.

The test involved getting to know the dog and getting the dog used to the test room, assessing the dog's behaviour in the kennel, assessing the dog's behaviour when left alone in the test room for a short period, and contacting every new owner 12 weeks after the dog was re-homed to find out how the dog was behaving.

In 86 per cent of cases the test was effective at predicting which dogs would not react badly to being left alone. It was effective at predicting which dogs would react badly to being left alone in 72 per cent of cases.

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