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Help your dog stop crying when left alone

Posted by Jennifer on July 6th, 2011

483222_doggyHowwrroooooooo!!!! Sad, lonely, anxious or bored — dogs that aren’t happy when you leave can make a lot of noise trying to let you know! Separation anxiety takes many forms, and has many different levels of intensity. One of the signs can be a dog or puppy crying, howling, barking or otherwise vocalizing when left alone. Your canine crooner may not be hurting himself or anyone (or anything!) with this behavior, but unless you live in a soundproof studio or way out in the country, it can certainly cause problems with your neighbors! Also, it is a very audible communication from your dog to you, or whoever might be within earshot, that your dog is unhappy. Your dog may have felt “abandoned” before, and if he’s not well-balanced through training, routine and exercise, loosing his protector can feel unbearable.  The good news is there are lots of things you can try to reduce and eliminate crying when left alone!

1. Set a reliable daily ROUTINE. Some newly adopted dogs may vocalize at first when they are left alone, as they are getting used to their new home. Even dogs you’ve had for a while can be upset by changes in their routine, such as your work hours changing, a new roommate, etc.  Put them on a very consistent, reliable routine and giving them time to adjust – at least one week of the same schedule (of eating, playing, & exercise) every day. That includes weekend days! Even if your hour-by-hour schedule varies day to day, make sure your dog’s stays exactly the same.

2. Give regular DAILY exercise. Unspent energy builds up in a dog (just like a human kid) and needs to come out somehow. Better it be running around the block with you, then singing the classics while you’re gone!  Take him for a walk right before you leave. Or engage in an intense play session or other exercise. Make it long enough to tire him out, so he’ll be more likely to sleep while you are gone. And guess what – exercise releases serotonin in a dog’s brain, just like in humans! Serotonin causes a happy calming feeling, and exercise is a way to get it instantly and safely into your dog’s brain, without giving him any drugs.

3. Leave the TV or radio on when you leave. A talk radio station or a news TV channel with people talking general works the best. Put the volume as loud as people would be talking in your home. If you have a CD player, definitely check out Through A Dog’s Ear — the Adopt-a-Pet.com staff uses this for their anxious dogs and they really help!

4. Give him a “food puzzle” toy. Give it to him right before you go, so he will be busy trying to get the food out of them while you are gone. Make sure you get the right size toy for your size dog. Even better, buy four or more different toys, and rotate, so one “new” one each day, putting the “old” one away.

5. Desensitize him to your leaving. You want to “fake” him out the next dozen times you leave. Only go down the hallway to your front door, or down the driveway, then come back… then go down the hallway/block and wait 5 minutes, then come back… then actually leave. He will then think that you are coming back right away and will be less likely to cry. Make sure to combine this with #6….

6. Don’t make a big deal about leaving. When you are getting ready to leave, gather up your things and leave as if you are coming right back – NO hugs, kisses, or dramatic farewell. Don’t say “Goodbye sweetiepie! It will be OK! Mommy will be back soon!” This just gives him a huge alert that you’re leaving, possibly forever – an hour can feel like forever to a dog!

7. Don’t make a big deal when you come home. Follow the same low-key no big deal when you return. This is the hardest for humans! Ignore any attention-seeking (jumping, going crazy) and only reward your dog with calm love and affection when they are ALSO calm, at least 5 minutes after you’ve come home. (You can take them outside immediately if they have to go potty, but do so calmly without fanfare, as you’d do if you’d been home already.)

8. Crate train. Use our crate training article to crate train properly first. Once you’ve crate trained him long enough so you’ve gradually built up the time he spends in the crate when you’re still home, then leave and come back. Increase the time you’re gone by 5 minutes until you’re gone for a half hour. After a half hour, you can increase by 30 minute increments. To help reduce crying, put your dog in his crate a few minutes before you leave, and leave without saying anything.  You might want to try an airline crate so its darker and more secure feeling than a wire crate. Don’t use a blanket to cover the crate – a dog can pull a blanket inside and eat it. Make sure you only use a chew-proof crate pad too.

9. Dark small room. If after trying all that, he still vocalizes when in the crate and isn’t destructive (just vocal), close him in your bedroom and make it dark in there if you can, like by closing the curtains. Some dogs are less anxious when they are confined to a small dark “cave”. Some dogs actually are more anxious in a crate — so you’ll have to do a trial for a few days to see which way your dog feels about it, and if helps the vocalizing or makes it worse.

10. Try natural homeopathic anxiety remedies. The brand that I’ve used that helps my thunderstorm terrified dog the most (and it helps humans too actually!) is Rescue Remedy. They sell it at Whole Foods and at many pet stores too. Some pets seem more affected by it than others, but it can’t hurt. You can also try a “DAP” (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) collar or plug-in, available online at PetSmart.

11. Thundershirt -– I’ve heard from one rescuer I know that at Thundershirt can work miracles on dogs that cry when left alone due to anxiety. You can order them online at PetSmart.com

12. Adopt a friend! This can be an instant cure for some dogs – adopt them a canine friend! Some dogs, especially those with high pack instincts like Siberian Huskies, simply do not do well being left alone, ever. Finding a good match for your dog but who is calm and happy when you leave can have a wonderful soothing effect on a dog who vocalizes when left alone. 

What about medication? There are a few medications (like “doggie prozac”) that your vet can prescribe that may help either relieve anxiety or sedate your dog. Some dogs experience aggression as a side-effect, so proceed with caution.  In emergency situations (where the dog was going to loose their home due to noise complaints) using a humane spray “bark collar” that sprays when the dog barks can work instantly. But with other dogs, a spray collar only increases their anxiety, and then there are others who quickly figure out just how loud they can cry & whimper without setting it off.  I mention medication and the collars in case all the above has failed you, and are at the point where you will try anything to be able to keep your dog quiet, so you can keep your dog.

That’s a lot of ideas and you can try a combination to see what works best for your dog — every dog is an individual and responds differently! Crying when left alone is not an uncommon problem, especially for a dog in a new home. There are more complex “desensitizing” training that can be done too, but it takes more time – and instructions! How do you know if what you are doing is working? We know of one adopter who installed a web cam! Super smart, and they could see instantly how their new puppy was staying upset for less time each day – and when he’d put his Snoopy stuffed toy in the water bowl for a drink!

Written by Jennifer Warner, Director of Shelter Outreach for Adopt-a-Pet.com
and foster home to many dogs and puppies who cried at first when left alone!

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