Spending weekends, summers, or long holidays relaxing at home with your pets is always a good way to spend one’s off-work days. Their mere presence reduces feelings of loneliness, stress, and anxiety in most humans. According to the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, the feeling is mutual for most pets.
However, whether it’s a short vacation or a temporary work-from-home setup, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, you will have to return to spending most of your day away. Sooner or later, you have to prepare yourself – and your pet – for the inevitable: separation anxiety.
The reason pets “act up” when left alone
Separation anxiety looks very different in humans and in animals. For us, it’s pining over the pets and counting down the hours until we can come home to see them again.
For animals, most especially dogs, emotional distress brought about by separation anxiety leads to loud, destructive, and inconvenient behavior. In more severe cases, your pet may even attempt self-harm or just refuse to eat when you’re not around.
How long can dogs be left alone at home?
There is no hard-and-fast rule as to how long sociable pets such as dogs can be left alone. Generally, though, puppies that are less than 18 months old should not be left alone for more than two hours. For older dogs, experts recommend a maximum of four hours of alone time to prevent behavioral issues.
Whatever, you do, never leave a dog unattended for more than 10 hours. Doctors say doing so could cause intense isolation distress for dogs.
Ways to train your pet to be alone
Note that even fish in aquariums and domesticated rodents can feel separation anxiety when left alone. So understandably, there’s no one formula to help your pets cope when you go back to work. More often than not, you would have to do ‘trial-and error’ on the following measures to see which ones would work.
1. Set a regular schedule and set clear boundaries
Although they have no formal sense of time like humans, animals respond well to having a regular schedule. This is the reason why dogs know exactly when it’s time to ask their master for treats or go for walks. If you have just brought home a new pet, you have a golden opportunity to familiarize them with the feeling of not being with you 24/7. Try to bring home new pets on a weekend so that you have enough time to train them before you start a new work week.
Now, even when you are at home for the whole day, practice “going out” and “coming home” at the same time you expect to do so when you’re back at work. Remain out of your pet’s sight for at least twenty minutes at a time, and do not bring them with you everywhere you go.
One common mistake that new pet owners make is letting their pets follow them around the house – even in the shower. Remember that your pet will only crave the level of attention it got used to, so be mindful of your actions when you’re home.
Another useful trick would be to designate strict play times which would coincide with the time you’ll be getting home from work. This is the only time you should give your undivided attention to your pet. Even so, limit it to an hour – nothing too long – in case you have to completely leave the house for days in the future.
2. Get your pet settled on a routine, too
For dogs and cats, it’s not enough to familiarize them with your routine. They need their daily schedules, too. Use weekends to guide your pet into what they should be doing for the whole day.
For instance, you could try encouraging your kitten to take a nap in the cat condo after lunch. Once he/she wakes up, take out some of his/her other toys (which will also be accessible when you’re gone). After an hour, take your pet to relieve itself. You get the drift – it’s all about filling your pet’s day with different activities it can copy when you’re not around.
3. Make alone time fun for your pet
You know how time passes by really quick when you’re having fun? It’s the same for our animal friends. They need something to distract them from the fact that you’re not at home with them. For dogs and cats, there are a lot of puzzle toys you can buy in order to keep them entertained. Toys that periodically release treats whenever your pet bites on a certain part or hurls it across the room strong enough would keep them stimulated for hours on end.
Needless to say, it is essential to keep your pets well-fed while you’re away. Programmable food dispensers got you covered on this front. Some smart feeders will even let you dial in and speak to your pet remotely through a mobile device. Products like these will allow your pets to feel your presence even when you’re not actually there.
White noise is also said to help ease anxiety in most animals. You may set up your smart speakers to play music for your dog when you’re not around. Amazon Prime Music already has some cool playlists to calm animals ready to stream straight off if you have a subscription. You can also observe for yourself if there are certain sounds or music that calm your pets down and let it play when you’re not around.
More recent studies suggest that audiobooks might also be helpful in keeping our pets calm. Check out Cesar Millan’s Guide to Audiobooks for Pets on Audible. However, make sure you listen to a couple of audiobooks with your pets first, so they know that it’s not a cause for alarm when they start hearing strange voices at home. If you simply set an audiobook to start playing when you’re at work, it might cause your pet to worry and panic that there may be intruders in the house.
Aside from sounds and white noise, pets can also find comfort through aromatherapy. You can try pet calming diffuser kits that emit relaxing fragrances like Lavender to keep your pets calm when alone, while also keeping the house smelling fresh for hours. Others emit pheromones, like their mothers would do to give them a sense of security and comfort. Collar versions are also available to calm nervous pets while on the move.
4. Downplay your departures and arrivals
The goal is to make your “away time” as little of a deal as possible so that your pet will not fear your absence. If you show that you’re too sad in the morning when leaving and too excited in the evening when you return, you might be communicating to your pet that he/she should also feel sad when you’re gone.
Stay cheerful in the morning and be quick in saying goodbye. A “See you later bud!” or a reminder to “Be a good girl!” wouldn’t hurt, but don’t make a big thing out of it. Similarly, always be calm when greeting your dog when you arrive home at the end of the day. Hide the fact that you’re very excited to be with him/her, too.
Instead, do a quick greeting at the door, then ignore your pet for the first few minutes of your arrival. Change clothes, freshen up, and maybe prepare dinner first before you give attention to your pet. Give him/her time to calm down before playtime starts.
5. Reward good behavior
Some pet parents recommend crate training in order to prevent pets (especially dogs and cats) from trashing the place when left alone. However, this does not really teach pets how to be responsible alone.
It might take a little more patience and a little more time, but it does pay to train your dog not to tear up pillows whenever you’re gone instead of just confining them to a small space when you’re at work. In fact, keeping them caged or locked up while alone might heighten their anxiety and increase behavioral problems.
Whenever you come home to a clean house without torn-up pillows, spilled water, or chewed up shoes, give your friend a special treat. Eventually, they will associate good behavior with positive experiences, and they will keep doing it.
6. Anxiety medicine and professional behavior training
If you tried all of the methods mentioned above but none of them seem to work with your pet’s separation anxiety, it might be time to seek professional help. Your vet might be able to prescribe medicine to help with anxiety in more severe cases. Adopted pets and rescues who have had negative experiences on the streets or with previous owners might need a lot of work, so you need to be patient.
You may also enroll your furry friend to a behavioral training school if home-training does not seem to be working.
7. Consider getting an older, more mature pet
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals believe that getting an older, more mature dog as a companion for your current one might help with anxiety issues.
Older rescues who already have a lot of experience being alone could teach your younger one a few tricks about being calm when you’re not around.
8. Sign up for doggie daycare/dog walking services
Leaving your pet in a ‘daycare’ for animals would be your best, last-resort bet if nothing else works. There, your pet will get to interact with other animals and professionals who know how to take care of him/her.
Professional dog walkers and pet sitters are also a call away for days when you have to be out for longer than 10 hours. Remember that a tired dog is a calm dog, so even just an hour of walking in the middle of the day can help your dog remain peaceful until you get back.
As a final note, do understand that even though they cannot express a lot of what goes on in their minds, animals respond well to mindful masters. As long as you create an overall home environment where your pet feels safe and happy, it is unlikely for your pet to reward you with behavioral problems.
All you have to do is give him/her enough time to settle down, keep them occupied, stimulated, and of course, well-fed. Sooner or later, your pet will learn to trust that every time you head out the door, it’s only a matter of time before you walk back in – so they have nothing to be anxious about.