There are many behaviours that occur when dogs are home alone but the most common are excessive barking, escaping, destructive behaviours, house-soiling and self-harming.
Home-alone behaviours are common causes of concern for pet owners and, often, for pets.
The most effective remedies are those designed to solve your pet's underlying malady rather than those directed only at the consequences of your pet's malady.
You should remember that some home-alone behaviours are normal behaviours but others are abnormal.
Abnormal behaviours are often welfare-negative for the affected pets and require carefully planned remedies to eliminate the underlying cause.
Lifestyle enrichment and boredom relief are important for most home-alone behaviours but may not cure those that are based on abnormal behaviours, such as anxiety disorders and panic disorders.
Fence changes can be of benefit but won't solve the underlying malady.
Calmatives such as homeopathic preparations, pheromones and medications are often needed for abnormal behaviours.
Why do dogs do what they do?
Barking is the dog’s version of us talking. It may just be happily communicating or it could be territorial/protective/aggressive, which are normal behaviours but often based on anxiety. However, some barking is based on abnormal behaviour, including separation anxiety and panic disorders.
Escape behaviour could be due to boredom (the grass is greener on the other side of the fence) or romance-enhanced emotions (neutering is curative). However, your dog may have an abnormal emotion including separation anxiety, noise phobia or phobia of unknown origin.
Often dogs are destructive in their attempts to relieve boredom or to satisfy genetically-coded drives. But it could also have an abnormal emotion including separation anxiety, noise phobia or phobia of unknown origin.
Dogs house-soil when you are not home because they may be medically unwell (veterinary examination is vital), they may not have the opportunity to soil outside if house confined when you are away, or they may not be properly house-trained. However, there may be an abnormal underlying emotion including separation anxiety, noise phobia or phobia of unknown origin.
Solving home-alone behaviours - Lifestyle Enrichment
The one common factor with all the above is that they occur when you are away from your dog. So, as a broad generality, lifestyle enrichment of the 'home-alone' times is a vital first step.
If your dog's moods are within the 'normal' range, lifestyle enrichment has a good chance of curing the problem. If your dog’s moods are within the 'abnormal' range, additional strategies will be needed and you will need the assistance of your veterinarian.
We refer to lifestyle enrichment as the No Bored Dogs Routine.
Novel methods of providing food
- Place food in a food-puzzle toy - there are many varieties but the new Kong Wobbler is one of the best. If your dog has a lust for food, feed the majority of your dog's food when you are away. You can make your own food puzzle toys using the ‘Carton of Magic’ routine which is described in the No Bored Dogs article.
- Use a timer to deliver the food toys to your dog when you are away during the day (e.g. the Ice Timer and the Sneaky Leaky Milk Carton).
Enrich the back yard
- Sand/digging pits
- Swimming pool – a kid's clam shell works well
- Toys hanging in trees on a bungee
- Timer-delivery of non-food-related toys
- Change toys on a daily basis
- A companion dog works for some but not all dogs
Provide work therapy
- Exercise before leaving
- Agility training and obedience training
- Trick training
Attention to fences
For dogs that escape and for dogs that bark excessively attention to fences is vital.
However, while a perfect fence may stop the escaping and reduce the barking, it doesn’t solve the underlying reason for the escaping and barking.
For escaping dogs; Inappropriate fences are:-
- Picket fences because an escaping dog can get its foot caught in the top
- Wooden fences with a rail on the dog’s side because the rail acts as a ladder (PVC drain pipe installed over the rail makes it slippery)
- The mesh of a wire fence acts as a ladder
- Fences with horizontal rails over undulating landscapes allow exit holes to be dug easily.
Appropriate fences are:
- Generally those that are higher to stop the dog laddering over it or hurdling it (be aware that panicking dogs will still attempt to climb and may injure themselves)
- Solid fences with no 'foot holds' on the dog's side
- Colourbond fences are good but watch the sharp edges
- Solid wooden fences with no rails on the dog's side
- Solid brick or block fences are ideal
- A concrete footing is ideal
- A fence with a 45 degree installation on top, facing into the yard, will stop most dogs laddering over the fence.
Electric and electronic fences
Electric fences such as stock (cattle) fences are not appropriate for dogs.
Electronic fences based on a stimulus collar can be very harmful if they are not installed properly.
They should only be installed by a skilled person who understands the welfare impact of the electric stimulus. Modern electric stimulus collars provide an audible warning first so the dog has a choice not to receive the electric stimulus.
Note that any electric or electronic fence is unlikely to solve the underlying reason for the escaping if it is based on an anxiety or panic disorder.
Additional fencing issues for barking dogs
Barking dogs generally benefit from fences that are:-
- solid so the dog can't see through to the territory beyond
- constructed in a position within the garden so the dogs are removed from the property boundary.
If your dog's destructive behaviours involve chewing, digging or scratching at boundary fences, this is likely to indicate either a:-
- Separation anxiety that has extended to a separation panic disorder
- Noise phobia which has extended to a panic disorder
- or a behaviour most conveniently described as a 'back yard panic disorder'.
These problems are serious and need veterinary intervention.
Solutions for serious home-alone behaviours
Some home-alone behaviours of dogs are serious either because the behaviour itself is normal but the consequences for you, your family or your neighbours are serious, or the behaviour is abnormal and the consequences for you and your dog are serious.
Serious home-alone behaviours include:-
- Separation anxiety
- Separation panic disorder
- Noise phobias
- Noise phobias with a panic disorder
- Panic disorders of unknown cause
- Self-harming compulsions.
The solutions for the above require veterinary intervention where your veterinarian would determine:
- if medical conditions are causing or contributing to the problem
- if your pet is able to be 'taught’ to be calmer when you are away
- how to manage the problem
- if calmatives are needed to change your pet's behaviour.
Medical conditions contributing to home-alone behaviours
While there are many medical conditions that could be relevant, some of more common ones are:-
- Any pain-inducing conditions
- Changes in the senses – vision and hearing in particular
- Dermatological conditions, especially for any self-harming behaviour
- Neurological conditions
- Hormonal disorders.
Determining if a pet can be ‘taught’ to become calmer when you are away
Teaching a pet to develop a calm state when you are not home to do that is complex, however, calming strategies at the point of leaving can be useful.
Sometimes an anxiety can be displaced by teaching a dog to focus on the joy of eating at the time of leaving rather than focusing on the owner’s leaving behaviours. The No Bored Dogs Routine and The Carton of Magic Routine can be useful for this.
Sometimes calming massage can teach a dog to be less distressed at leaving time.
An additional technique called the Trial Separations Technique can be used to teach the dog to be calm when you are home so that it is then calm when you leave it.
However, animals in a state of panic are usually in an 'emotional' state where they cannot be taught to be calm and additional strategies are needed.
How to manage the problem
Managing a behaviour means implementing strategies that may not solve the problem in the short term but avoid the problem for long enough to allow other strategies to solve it.
For home alone dogs we use the Denning Principle extensively and combine that with pheromone therapy.
A Den is a small area that your dog is content to be left in, or can access via a dog-door, when you are not home.
The choice of where this Den is located has to be done carefully but if your dog is already known to rest or sleep in an area when you are home, then that area may work well when you are not home.
- Giving access to a laundry via a dog-door
- Giving access to whole or part of your house via a dog-door
- Full-time indoors confinement when you are away, if toileting can be managed
- A manufactured Den in your outdoors area (pagoda, deck, veranda)
- A garage if it is not hot during the day
- A kennel or pen away from the house in a corner of the back garden rarely works well because it's not associated with human activity.
Some dogs require an alternative human and that is often provided by a dog day-care service or dog-walking service.
Using calmatives to change your pet’s behaviour
For serious disorders, calmatives are often essential. Calmatives include:-
- Homeopathic preparations
- Other forms of calming including calming massage.
Pheromones are often implemented for serious anxiety disorders. When they are used sensibly and careful choice is made as to the type of pheromone product, they can be of particular benefit, with research proving up to 70% effectiveness.
- Adaptil Spray which is effective for 1 - 2 hours when sprayed onto a bandana placed around the dog’s neck. This version is often used for distress at the time of leaving or when a dog walker visits and then leaves later in the day
- Adaptil Pheromone Collar which gives continuous effect for one month and is used mostly for dogs that are outside during the day
- Adaptil Pheromone Diffuser which is plugged into a power-point in a room the dog has access to during the day. The diffuser works well in combination with the Denning Principle.
Medications can prescribed by veterinarians for serious anxiety and panic disorders. They can hasten a cure and improve the welfare of affected pets. There are several medication alternatives that your veterinarian will need to consider and your veterinarian’s choice will be affected by:-
- Your lifestyle including your work hours
- The predictability of your pet's unwanted behaviours
- The nature of the anxiety or panic disorder your pet is experiencing
- The age of your pet and other medications your pet is receiving
- Any medical conditions that may exist
Broadly speaking, your veterinarian will choose either a short-acting 'when needed' medication or a slow-onset, longer-term medication that you give daily, even if you will be home for the day. Modern medications are mostly side-effect free when used properly.