We’ve all felt that gut punch when – glancing back after you’ve just left the house – you spot your dog’s sweet face staring back at you through a window. She looks wistful, maybe even sad. But is she? And will she be feeling lonely while you’re gone?
If you’ve ever wondered whether your dog is experiencing loneliness when you’re away – or whether she’s sufficiently distracted by the squirrels playing outside, taking a long snooze, and contemplating his next bowl of kibble – you’re not alone. It’s normal to think that our dogs are like us, and assign them the emotions we’d feel in their position.
But it turns out there are specific behaviors we can watch for that can show us if a dog is actually lonely—and things we can do to help them feel better.
Do Dogs Get Lonely?
It’s widely known that dogs are pack animals by nature, genetically wired to be social and have others around them at all times. Some have even been bred to serve as working dogs, toiling side by side with their humans each day. But when humans or other dogs aren’t around, do they actually get lonely?
“I don’t think we ever really know for sure, because we can’t ask them,” says Michelle Mullins, a certified dog behavior consultant who owns Honest to Dog. “But there are certainly some behaviors that would lead us to think they are feeling the feelings of loneliness or feelings that come along with loneliness.”
Signs of Loneliness in Dogs
Mullins says a dog who’s lonely may display certain signs. They may seem more lethargic and be less eager to play than usual. She might spend time roaming the house or pacing around, as though in search of something to do. She might also whine a lot—or more than whine.
“When neighbors say, ‘I can hear your dog barking nonstop and howling,’ that’s one of the tip offs that owners will get – that their dog is not enjoying her alone time,” says Sylvia Koczerzuk, a certified dog behavior consultant who runs Walkabout Canine Consulting.
But how do you know whether your dog is doing this stuff if you’re not there to see it? Try watching remotely through a dog camera or security system. If you’re having trouble interpreting what you see, call in an expert who’s trained in dog behavior.
Another easy tipoff (no camera required) is if you walk out the door and immediately hear your dog start howling or whining. “That is a sign of stress and worry, and not something you want to brush off,” Koczerzuk says. Consider it proof that your dog is not okay with things.
8 Ways to Help Your Dog Feel Less Lonely
Luckily, there are some ways that you can help your dog feel less lonely and cope with solo time. Here are some recommendations.
1. Practice with them. Ideally, your dog should have no reaction when you walk out the door. Seeing you head off should feel as routine as watching you fill the water bowl each morning. That’s why Koczerzuk recommends training exercises beginning with super-short absences that grow longer over time.
2. Make the most of your time together. If you’ll be away for the day, Mullins says it’s essential to give your dog some type of activity or enrichment before leaving, such as a sniff walk or a find-it game. “It also needs to be a priority when we get home,” she says. Reconnecting is key, whether it’s with a walk around the yard, a game of catch or a quick round of tug.
3. Hire a dog walker. If it’s in your budget, a dog walker or trainer can provide both company and exercise for a dog who’s left alone during the day. But Koczerzuk notes it doesn’t even have to be a formal arrangement. A retired neighbor or local kid can also make companionable visitors for lonely dogs.
4. Play some music—if that’s your norm. While leaving the TV on or playing music can both help fill the silence when you’re away, Koczerzuk said these should only be used if they’re “authentic” to your normal behaviors around the home. “When owners start trying to use those things just for absences, you do need to worry about those items being attached to alone time,” she adds.
5. Don’t use the backyard as a babysitter. “Sometimes owners will put dogs in the backyard when they’re away, but I don’t think that’s a good plan,” Koczerzuk says. From dog theft to thunderstorms to possible escapes, an unsupervised yard is “not a safe place” for a dog, she adds. “It’s not going to help prevent anxiety, and it definitely won’t cure it.”
6. Consider a doggie daycare. It’s not a perfect fit for all dogs, but Mullins says some pups will thrive in a group care setting while you’re away.
7. Try a chew or toy. For some dogs, bully sticks can offer a happy distraction when they’re home alone—but first make sure your dog is safe with these. She might also do well licking peanut butter out of a Kong, find enrichment with a puzzle toy, or enjoy seeking out toys you’ve hidden for her. But again, Koczerzuk cautions, these should be items your dog also enjoys when you’re there to avoid creating an association with your absence, and also to be sure they are safe.
8. Look into medication. In severe cases of separation anxiety, Koczerzuk says some dogs may have their symptoms eased by medication. Of course, that one’s a conversation to have with your veterinarian.
When to Seek Help
If your dog is getting into unsafe situations while you’re away – like eating drywall or carpet, destroying parts of your house, or throwing himself against him crate to the point of injury – it’s a sign that his loneliness may have escalated into something more serious than you can handle on your own, Mullins says. That’s when it’s time to seek out help from your veterinarian and a certified dog behavior consultant.
Many signs of separation issues can also be symptoms of a health problem, Mullins notes, “and any time we see health changes—less sleeping, less eating—the first stop needs to be our veterinarian.”