It's inevitable for most dogs that they will need to be left at home alone at some point in their lives. However, they are a social species and they will always choose to have company available to them, so we need to ensure that we are not leaving our dogs for any length of time that might constitute a welfare issue.
As for how long you can leave a dog alone, the RSPCA recommends that dogs should not be left alone for any longer than four hours at a time, and individual dogs may not be able to cope with this length of time. It is important that no dog is left at home alone in a distressed state.
We need to gradually build the length of time that a puppy or dog can cope with so that they learn to relax and sleep when left alone.
It is natural puppy behaviour to want to follow their attachment figure – in fact, it is a survival strategy. So we need to carefully teach them that it is ok to be separated from you and left alone, preventing any distress from occurring as we do so.
We want our puppies to form a secure attachment with us so that they become independent and self-confident. This means responding to them if they do exhibit any distress and ensuring that they feel safe and secure at all times, avoiding separation anxiety.
For puppy’s first nights, we want to stay close to the puppy so that they settle into their new home seamlessly and we can hear them if they wake and respond appropriately. Gradually we can build distance between us over a period of days or weeks (depending on the individual).
As puppies need to sleep a lot during the day, this provides us with an ideal time to build separation in the home first as we potter around the house and in the garden, leaving our puppy alone. As the puppy drifts through sleep cycles they will subconsciously be aware of lack of company and this will accustom them to being left alone and the fact you always return whilst they are settled.
Once a puppy can cope with short periods of time left alone (15-30 minutes), we can start to build the time up gradually. It is sensible to use a camera to watch whilst we are out of the house, to be sure that they are settled and relaxed.
Over time, we can build up the time – though be aware that young puppies cannot hold their bladders for long and will need to be left for no more than around an hour until they are around five months old. Once they are able to hold themselves, you can build it up to a maximum of four hours (as long as the individual can cope).
There are no breeds that can tolerate longer separation more than others – it is simply down to individuals. However, some breeds like Labradors, Border Collies, Bichon Frises, Jack Russel Terriers and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to suffering from separation anxiety as they love human interaction, so make sure to build up their training from the very start. New rescue dogs will need to be built up slowly also, using a camera when first left to check how they respond.
It is usually beneficial to have provided your dog with a walk or at least some sort of mental stimulation before you leave them because we want them to sleep whilst they are left alone. Low arousal, slow-paced, sniffy walks are preferable to fast, high adrenaline walks because it will take time for the adrenaline to reduce from the dog’s system.
Dogs must always be provided with a comfortable bed and water when left alone. If you are using a crate, be aware of them getting too hot and not having the option to stretch out somewhere cooler. Ideally, use a crate big enough for a comfy bed at one end and an area with less bedding so they have a choice about where to rest.
If your dog is destroying its bedding when left alone, this needs addressing as potential separation anxiety rather than simply withholding bedding.
You can leave your dog with treat-dispensing toys to help them settle when left alone – chewing and licking in particular are self-soothing activities that can lead to sleepiness. It can also be a useful indicator as to whether your dog is relaxed when left alone because anxious dogs will not eat. It is also important that your dog can still cope when they have finished any food you have left with them.
Generally, leaving your dog with access to the area of the home that they normally associate with relaxation will encourage them to rest when left alone. You can leave the TV or radio on if these are normally on when you are home, but avoid putting them on ‘to keep your dog company’ because actually all that can do is signal to the dog you are about to leave which can start to induce anxiety in a dog who might struggle to cope.
Don’t make a big deal of leaving – watch them on a camera if you are worried about how they might react in your absence. When you return, you can talk to them and greet them (they are a social species and it is normal for them to reunite bonds after a period of separation, in just the same way as humans would greet each other when returning home from work, for example) but try to avoid going over the top with your arousal levels and exacerbating your dog’s arousal. Anticipating this sort of greeting can cause issues when left alone.
In summary, the golden rule is to go at your own dog’s individual pace in terms of how long they can cope with being left alone but to avoid leaving any dog for longer than four hours without a break.
Obviously, there may be exceptional circumstances and for some dogs – for example, those who are settled when home alone but unable to cope with someone coming to the house to let them out or take them for a walk, or an owner who needs to leave their dog home alone for longer than four hours on an infrequent basis (again, as long as the dog can cope with this).