Most pet parents never want to leave their dogs alone. After all, there’s nothing better than spending time with your four-legged friend – and chances are your dog feels the same way. But even if dogs live in a household where they’re rarely left alone, they should still learn to be on their own.
“Dogs, by nature, are social creatures, so they do better when they’re with their humans,” says Joan Hunter Mayer, a certified professional canine behavior consultant, certified separation anxiety trainer (CSAT), and owner of The Inquisitive Canine. “Still, dogs also need the opportunity to relax in a quiet environment and learn how to entertain themselves, regardless of other animals or humans being around.”
“You need to plan for situations where you’d have to leave your dog for a few hours,” explains Hunter Mayer. But how exactly do you figure out how long to leave your dog alone and how to keep him safe when you do?
How Long Should I Leave a Puppy Alone?
30 minutes? Two hours? The truth is there’s no one-size-fits-all answer because every puppy is different.
“It will depend on the puppy as an individual and their needs, including bathroom breaks, energy level, and lifestyle,” says Hunter Mayer.
Rather than focusing on a specific time, Hunter says it makes more sense to look at what your puppy is getting (or not getting) in a day. “Pet parents will want to set their puppy up for success by satisfying their biological, physical, and emotional needs.”
So if you’re spending time playing, training, and offering enough outdoor time daily, leaving your puppy alone for a few hours should not be a significant issue.
If you want to ensure your puppy enjoys their time alone, make sure they’re getting enough stimulation. Hunter says some of the most important stimuli for puppies are:
Exposure to new and exciting places and things
Scheduled socialization and playdates
Frequent opportunities to learn things and solve problems
Rotation of new and old toys
Without any of the above, your puppy is likely to get bored sitting around the house all day.
How Much Alone Time Is Too Much?
Understanding your dog’s physical and emotional needs will go a long way to answer this question. A social, high-energy adolescent dog may be able to hold their bladder for hours on end.
According to Hunter Mayer, they might also have enough energy to rewire the house, so leaving them alone for long periods might not be the best idea.
“With our dog, we keep it to four hours max before we consider asking for help, but that’s just us,” Hunter Mayer explains. “Would our dog be fine if left alone longer? Probably, but I know he enjoys going out, getting some fresh air, and running around, so we feel better knowing he’s having fun and being taken care of.”
Age also plays a role – a young puppy will need more attention and care (and bathroom breaks) than an adult dog. “Dogs can hold their bladder for no longer than one hour per month of age,” says Hunter Mayer. “This means that at two months of age, puppies will need to be allowed to relieve themselves at least every two hours.” If you are leaving your dog alone for longer than that, you can expect accidents to happen, making housebreaking harder.
What Is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
There’s a big difference between a bored dog who doesn’t want to be alone and one with separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety manifests as a more panicky response. These behaviors include:
Shadowing, or always following their human around
Howling, barking, or whining to excess
Having indoor "accidents" even though they’re housebroken
Chewing things up, digging holes, scratching at windows and doors
Drooling, panting, or salivating way more than usual
Pacing, often in obsessive patterns
Trying to escape
Once alone, dogs with separation anxiety tend to panic. “They stress pant, chew at and destroy escape routes such as doors, window frames, window coverings, even walls,” Hunter Mayer explains.
Many dogs with separation anxiety will pee in the house even if house-trained, while others will bark and howl for hours. “It’s usually continuous howling, often escalating, working themselves into a frenzy, screaming for their human to come home,” says Hunter Mayer.
While boredom is easier to address than anxiety, it can also lead to problems, including household damage. According to Hunter Mayer, bored dogs don’t fall victim to panic when their human leaves — but they often seek out destructive forms of entertainment.
“They’ll wander around and look for something to do, such as empty the trash can, counter-surf in the kitchen, dive into the laundry hamper or decide that the big fluffy pillows make better dog toys than they do pillows,” she explains.
How to prevent separation anxiety and boredom
A dog exhibiting signs of separation anxiety should be seen by a veterinarian to help rule out medical issues and to discuss medications, training, or behavioral treatment that might help.
For busy/working pet parents, there are options to fight puppy boredom. Dogs who are social and good with other dogs may benefit from doggy daycare. More independent dogs might do better with a professional dog walker or pet sitter. “Make sure they are a good match for your dog,” Hunter Mayer says.
Help your dog get used to being alone by varying how long you’re out of the house. “When starting, you might want to leave in shorter increments, building up duration as the dog becomes more comfortable,” Hunter Mayer recommends. “But even then, continue to vary the amount of time, weaving in shorter times or even just leaving the room.”