Teach Your Dog to Be Home Alone in Five Steps

Puppy on its bed.

Dogs are social animals, enjoy company and dislike being alone. We must teach our puppies to be home alone to avoid serious problems later (photo by Roger Abrantes).

You can teach your dog to be home alone in five steps. The earlier you begin, the better.

Number one canine problem behavior is “home alone.” Don’t panic if someone tells you that your dog suffers from separation anxiety. It’s probably not the case. Anxiety is a serious disorder and most dogs don’t have any anxiety when left alone. They are either under-stimulated and burn their surplus energy by wrecking the furniture, they’re having fun and don’t know that it is wrong to destroy human possessions, or the owners have not taught them the desired routines when left home alone. There is a good chance that you can solve the problem with my five steps program.

You’re not alone. Problems with dogs that can’t be home alone (I call it CHAP=Canine Home Alone Problem) is the most common problem all over the world when we keep dogs as pets. Everybody seems to have a different idea as how to solve the problem. Remember the principle: too many cooks spoil the broth. If you choose to follow some other method, please do it and don’t even bother reading the following. If you choose to follow my five steps method, stick to it and don’t listen to what others tell you.

Teach your dog to be home alone in five steps:

  • DLO means desired learning objective.
  • QC means Quality Control and indicates the number of times in a row (or similar criteria) you must have accomplished your DLO successfully before you move to the next step.

1. Teach the dog to associate the bed (crate, blanket, spot, or whatever you have chosen) with positive experiences.

DLO: The dog likes to lie down on the bed. 

QC: The dog goes often and voluntarily to its bed.

  • Throw a couple of treats on the bed of the dog (without the dog seeing it) whenever there are none left.
  • Whenever the dog lies on the bed, reinforce it verbally (don’t exaggerate, so that the dog gets up).
  • Sometimes, pet the dog when it lies on the bed (calmly).
  • Send the dog to bed with a particular signal, e.g. “bed” 10-20 times daily.
  • Send the dog to its bed often when you watch TV, read the news, do computer work, etc.

2. Teach the dog meaning of the word “bed.”

DLO: The dog goes to the bed after you say “bed” without any problems.

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Send the dog to the bed with the word “bed” by pointing to the bed or throwing a treat on the bed.
  • Use only the word “bed.” Don’t say anything else.
  • Reinforce it verbally, calmly so it remains on the bed.

3. The dog lies down on the bed even if you walk away.

DLO: The dog lies down on the bed even if you walk away. 

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Send the dog to the bed with the word “bed.”
  • Reinforce it verbally, calmly so it remains on the bed.
  • Stop reinforcing it immediately if it should leave within 10 seconds and ignore it for a couple of minutes. (Important: those two minutes must be particularly boring for the dog).
  • Start all over until the dog remains on the bed even if you walk away.

4. Teach the dog to stay on the bed.

DLO: The dog lies on the bed for three minutes after you leave the room.

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Reinforce the dog verbally as soon as it lies on the bed after you said “bed.” Be calm.
  • When the dog lies quietly on the bed, leave the room for two seconds, then come back.
  • Repeat, leaving the room at irregular intervals and for irregular periods, e.g. 5 s, 30 s, 4 s, 1 minute, etc.
  • If the dog remains on the bed, do nothing.
  • Should the dog leave its bed, send it back and start all over.

5.  Teach the dog to stay on the bed when you leave the room and close the door.

DLO: You can leave the dog and close the door without any problem.

QC:  Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • As soon as you can leave the room three minutes without the dog leaving its bed, repeat procedures in point 4 but beginning to close the door.
  • The first times, do not close the door, only touch it.
  • The following times, leave the door ajar.
  • Then, leave the room, close the door for two seconds, open it and enter the room. If all is all right, do not pay attention to the dog. Otherwise, start all over with point 5.
  • Finally, leave the room, close the door, stay out for irregular periods, open it and enter the room. If all is all right, do not pay attention to the dog.

Maintaining the good behavior

  • Even when you’re home, leave the dog alone sometimes. Do not pay attention to it all the time.
  • Always stimulate the dog properly before leaving. Remember: too little and too much are equally wrong.
  • Give the dog something to do when you leave. You don’t even need to invest in expensive toys. A plastic bottle full of treats will keep the dog busy for a while figuring out how to take them out (watch the dog the first couple of times and encourage it, if necessary, to toss the bottle around and not bite it).
  • Place the dog’s bed in a central place in the house (living room). Most dogs don’t like to feel isolated.
  • Continue using “bed” and continue making the bed attractive with occasional treats, verbal reinforcing and petting (all very calmly).
  • Make sure the bed is not too clean (most dogs don’t appreciate our flagrance drenched laundry), nor too dirty and is doggy-comfortable.
  • Pick up your keys often (or put on your shoes, cap or whatever you normally do before you leave) so that the dog disassociates these cues with being left alone.

Here is some explanation for those of you interested in the principles of these five-steps method:

  • We create a positive association with the bed so that the dog will go often and voluntarily to its bed.
  • We get the dog used to lie on the bed when we are at home either relaxing or doing our home work. After all, the ideal dog is the dog that it quiet at home and active when out.
  • We teach the dog the meaning of the word “bed.”
  • We get the dog used to us leaving the room and coming back as a normal routine.
  • We teach the dog to associate the door with a normal routine.
  • We create a routine for the dog that when there’s nothing to do at home, the best is to go to bed.

You maximize your chances of speedy success if:

  • The dog sleeps on its bed at night and (even better) if it doesn’t sleep in the same room as you.
  • The dog is routinely well stimulated (under-stimulated dogs are more difficult to teach to be home alone)
  • The dog is not hyper-active and over-stimulated (over-stimulated dogs have difficulties in remaining in the same spot for longer periods of time).

Important for you:

  • Be calm no matter what you do.
  • Advance step by step.
  • Be patient.
  • Control your emotions and behavior when you succeed as well as when you fail.
  • If you haven’t anything important to say to the dog, be quiet.
  • It’s your responsibility alone to understand and implement this five-steps program and to adjust them if needed, not the dog’s.
  • If my five steps method don’t seem to solve the problem, it may be that your dog shows genuine separation anxiety in which case you must contact a competent specialist.

Enjoy training your dog and remember that you train your dog primarily for the dog’s sake, not yours!

R-

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16 comments on “Teach Your Dog to Be Home Alone in Five Steps

  1. i loved the way you talk about not allways is anxiety its like oallways talk that messy children have atention deficit

  2. Excellent post! I agree, separation anxiety is becoming a big deal for a lot of dogs, and a lot of owners at a loss for how to deal with it.

  3. I have an issue with your:
    “Send the dog to the bed with the word “bed” by pointing to the bed or throwing a treat on the bed.”
    First It is easier to send the dog to bed than out of it. After all, it is something the dog wants.
    Second.pointing to the bed is absolutely irrelevant since animals, other than human, do not follow pointing. Not even primates point locations as a system of information transfer.
    The pointing here is not a signal that indicates direction. It is simply a sign with a semantic meaning associated to the word bed. You could as well hit your own head while saying bed or pointing to the sky that the dog would follow the command anyway. The dog is paying attention to auditory clues, not the semantics of what you are pointing to. This is important to clarify, because naive people may assume that by simply pointing to wherever they want the dog to go, he will understand.

  4. Hi Anabela,

    Thanks for your comment. You are right except that animals (we’ve tried dogs, horses, cats and seals) do follow the direction of your stretched arm once you’ve trained them into doing that. Repeatedly associating a treat thrown in the same direction of your arm functions as an SD (Sγ in SMAF) and a reinforcer (“!-food”(treat) in SMAF). After a number of repetitions the stretched arm will function as an SD (Direction,arm in SMAF). This is a common and documented signal used by most handlers in canine searching and detection work. The dog goes forward, right, or left depending on your stretched arm signal. The only thing we have to remember is that when the dog faces us and we point to the right, the dog goes to its left and opposite the other way.

    I have always contended that dogs cannot know ‘right’ and ‘left,’ only ‘one way’ and ‘other way.’ Recently, in Australia, I was proved wrong. I met a dog that could do it. I tried all I could to fool it, uncover hidden clues, and it didn’t work. The dog still answered correctly. Don’t ask me how this is possible, for I have no clue and I’m still trying to find a plausible explanation, but it gives us good stuff to think about.

    Enjoy your day,

    R-

  5. Hi Monica and Jen,

    Thanks for your comments. I think it is important to emphasize that CHAP is not always due to anxiety. Many dog owners panic when they hear this verdict. We can resolve and prevent most cases of CHAP without having to recur to pshychopharmaca and complicated behavior modification programs.

    Have a great day,

    R-

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  10. I have a question about your method. What age is best to start your dog getting used to staying home alone? Is it better to start this as a puppy or let them get used to you being there and then start leaving them when a little older?

    • Hi Sarah,

      Start as soon as you can, but of course gradually. Most importantly, teach your puppy to be able to entertain itself, not to depend on you all the time, not to follow you constantly.

      R—

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  12. I’m very pleased to find this web site. I wanted to thank you for your time just for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoyed every part of it and i also have you saved to fav to look at new things in your web site.

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