Alone Training – The Next Steps

By Abby Huxtable

Many people assume that once crate trained, their puppy or dog will be OK alone. While crate training can help set your dog up to be OK alone, it
is unfortunately not enough.

Yes, your dog has learnt to love their crate – but they have learnt to do so while you are there. You haven’t actually taught them to be OK in the crate while you are not there.

You also may not wish to crate your dog. You may wish them to be in a certain area, such as a pen or a room, or you may be happy to leave them with the run of the house. Any one of these options is fine, as long as it suits the dog and your family, and is safe.

So, how do we teach our dogs to be OK alone?

Hopefully, you have been playing The Flitting Game, and have also been working on making a crate, pen, bed, or room valuable to your dogs. Basically, wherever you plan on them being when you do leave them.

If you have done all of this, your dog will have built up their confidence in being able to be away from you within the home. Be aware that some dogs just like to be with you when you are home. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will struggle when you are gone, but if they can be alone when you are there, you being gone will be less of a challenge for them.

Make sure your dog isn’t hungry or thirsty, has had some exercise, and is ready to settle or knows how to settle in their area.

We don’t need treats in any of this, as the aim is ‘oh, whatever’. It is all desensitisation training.

Therefore, when you are flitting, start to pop out through the external doors and straight back in.

Add the barrier to their area, either the crate door, room door, or baby gate, so you pop out and they remain within, you pop back in again. You may need to do this in stages. So, shut the barrier a quarter of the way, then, when pup is OK with that, shut it halfway, then three quarters of the way, then lean the door shut, and finally shut it properly.

As you increase the duration of this, you can also add popping through the external door and straight back in.

Slowly build up the duration of these absences. Try to do it in a non-linear fashion and always ensure you return BEFORE any signs of distress. If your dog never experiences distress at being left, they will never know to be distressed by you leaving them.

Signs of distress can be:

  • Howling
  • Barking
  • Crying
  • Destructive behaviours
  • Toileting
  • Scratching at barriers

There are also more subtle ones:

  • Yawning
  • Lip licking
  • Scratching themselves
  • Dejected body language (looking sad/worried)
  • Avoiding their area
  • Being reluctant to leave you

A relaxed dog has loose body language, settles comfortably, will change position, and relax, may move around but re-settles easily, and does not look for the exits as he is happy in his area. Such a dog will have a relaxed drink, may play, or eat, and then easily re-settles.

Technology is a brilliant tool here. A decent pet camera can be bought for as little as £25; better ones can be slightly more expensive. You can set up a video call between two devices, or at least record your dog while you are out. Obviously, the recording cannot tell you live information, though, to enable you to return if need be.

It is also good to desensitise to your leaving cues. In plain English, make a list of everything you do before you leave, for example:

  • Put your dog in their area
  • Give them a treat
  • Put your shoes on
  • Get your keys
  • Get your wallet/bag
  • Put your coat on
  • Check the doors are locked
  • Check the mirror
  • Toilet

Then randomly do these things when you are not leaving. Your dog then does not know they are the cues for you to be leaving them, they are just things that happen throughout the day. A handy way of doing this is by making a check list and ticking off when you do a couple of them.

Aim to tick off two or three cues each day, a couple of times each. For example, pick up your keys, wander about with them or go sit on your sofa. Then put them back. Same with your shoes or coat. Do a couple more the next day, and so on. Mix it up, so again, it’s random. Then when your dog doesn’t bat an eyelid at any of those, start to combine a couple of them, again, without leaving.

Then sometimes do a couple and pop out and back in.

Then another couple but don’t leave.

Then a different two and pop out for a bit longer (if your dog is OK with this).

Keep building the cues and the duration slowly, always making sure to return before any distress.

All of this sounds like a lot – you might start to feel as if you are going to be stuck at home for weeks!

Not true. If you have been laying the foundations of the flitting combined with a valuable area of their own, these last few stages can progress very quickly. Each of the sessions are seconds and minutes in length – not hours. You can easily complete them throughout the day and do them often.

As long as your dog remains calm and chilled, you will be able to increase the duration pretty quickly, too.

NOTE: we would never recommend leaving dogs for longer than four hours without some sort of break. Younger dogs can only be left for shorter periods of time, as they cannot hold their bladders that long, which will cause distress in itself.