When Mackie Rafe watched footage on Great Morning Britain of her dog ‘climbing the walls’ of her home, when he was left alone for three and half hours, she admitted it was “upsetting”.
She said: “I don’t want him to feel stressed out. I don’t want him to feel that constantly.”
According to the RSPCA, Mackie is just one of many dog owners who are unwittingly inducing anxiety in their pets by leaving them for periods of time.
The charity believes the number of dogs being left alone is increasing due to modern-day lifestyles and a misconception that it is OK to leave them alone all day.
However, most dogs like human company and form strong bonds with their owners and other family members, so can find it difficult being left alone, especially if they haven’t been taught that it is OK, says the RSPCA.
Research carried out for the Channel 4’s Dogs: Their Secret Lives found that 85% of the dogs studied showed signs of not coping when left alone. In the UK, where there are thought to be 8.5 million pet dogs, that’s more than 7 million dogs suffering from stress and anxiety.
“Separation related behaviour and anxiety has the potential to be a significant welfare problem,” says Dr Samantha Gaines, RSPCA dog welfare expert.
"It is a hidden issue as, by its very nature, it only happens when the owner is absent and unless the dogs is filmed when left alone, it can be difficult to know if your dog is struggling.”
What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation related behaviour - most commonly destructive behaviour (often targeted at the door the owner has left through); howling, barking or whining; or defecating and urinating - normally starts within the first 30 minutes of being alone, and usually begins almost right away.
Dogs can also show more subtle signs of being stressed or unsettled, such as salivating excessively, vomiting, self-mutilating or acting in a repetitive way.
The RSPCA recommends, if you’re unsure as to what your dog does when on his or her own, filming them can help reassure you that he or she is OK. This behaviour is treatable so, if your dog is showing these signs, the RSPCA advises you to speak to a vet or a clinical animal behaviourist.
It is also preventable, and there is lots of information available on the RSPCA website for new owners, including a step-by-step guide to teach your dog that it’s alright to be alone.
Tips for leaving your dog on its own
Once you have taught your dog that it’s alright to be left alone, the RSPCA suggests you make sure you also do the following, to ease any separation anxiety:
1. Your dog will be more likely to relax when left alone if they’ve been fed and exercised beforehand. Take them for a walk, returning home half an hour before you are due to leave and feed them a small meal shortly before leaving.
2. Leave your dog with something to keep him busy so that he doesn’t get bored, for example a ‘Kong’ stuffed with food (peanut butter or cheese mixed with dog biscuits are usually popular).
3. Always ensure your dog goes to the toilet before being left alone.
4. Remember not to punish your dog if he has been to the toilet or been destructive while you are out, as it could damage your relationship or make him even more anxious.