The Lonely Dog
Last spring Lori Taylor, 39, of Brooklyn, New York, was as happy as she’d been in recent memory. After being laid off eight months earlier, she had a new job, a steady paycheck, and somewhere to go every morning.
But the other member of Taylor’s household—a two-year-old dachshund named Oliver—was markedly less excited. “Oliver had gotten used to me being home with him,” said Taylor. “He kind of freaked out when that changed.” Suddenly her landlord, who lived upstairs, was complaining that the once quiet Oliver was spending his late afternoon hours each day barking.
The pair could not remain in the apartment if something didn’t change.
So Taylor consulted her veterinarian, who recommended as much exercise as she and her pooch could fit in. “I started getting up an hour earlier each day, and walking fast around the park with Oliver for that entire hour to wear him out. It was either try that or move. Luckily it worked.”
Dr. Trisha Joyce, a veterinarian with New York City Veterinary Specialists, says canine exercise is often the first defense against loneliness and other emotional issues that lead to behavior problems in dogs. Below, Dr. Joyce weighs in on how to identify and ameliorate loneliness in your best doggy friend.
Do Dogs Get Lonely?
Dogs are social animals, and generally don’t tolerate long periods of being alone. “Whether it’s ‘lonely’ as we feel it or not, we don’t know, but they do exhibit signs that being alone is not good for them,” says Dr. Joyce. Signs can include behaviors like barking, chewing furniture, excessive self-licking and soiling the house. “Different breeds have different tolerance for being alone,” explains Dr. Joyce. “For example, border collies and other dogs bred to be on high alert are likely to be the most sensitive. Also younger dogs, or dogs accustomed to spending most of their time with others, won’t likely respond as well to long periods of being alone.”
How Can You Identify Loneliness in Your Dog?
Dogs communicate with their owners through their actions. A dog that is injuring itself (like with excessive licking or tail biting) or causing other disturbances (like barking or destroying property) during longer stretches of time spent alone may be reacting to loneliness, which is an especially likely cause if the amount of alone-time has recently increased. Once your veterinarian has ruled out medical explanations for the problematic behaviors, emotional problems can, and should, be addressed.
One caveat: it is important to distinguish loneliness (which crops up during repeated, lengthy periods of being alone) from separation anxiety, diagnosed when dogs become very upset as owners prepare to leave, and then exhibit behaviors like not eating when owner is away, or gnawing at doors and windows even during short periods of solitude. Your veterinarian can help you understand whether your pet’s problem likely results from loneliness or separation anxiety, the latter of which is often treated with a combination of behavioral techniques and medication.
How to Help Your Dog Cope with Loneliness
While quitting your job is not likely a viable option, many dog owners have found the strategies below useful:
•Wear them out. Dr. Joyce notes that a dog worn out from a healthy morning exercise session is calmer and happier throughout the day. Just ask Taylor, who continues to exercise Oliver every morning. (“He’s stopped barking, and I’ve lost 10 pounds!” Taylor says.)
•Entertain them. Dogs do better alone when they have something to do. Interactive toys (like the red rubber Kongs that allow you to hide food for your pet to excavate) can lie around until Fido needs to busy himself with something.
•Buy them company. If a midday dog walker is in your budget, it’s a good option for the lonely dog. Just 20 minutes of social interaction with the walker and others they meet on the street can go a long way toward improving your dog’s mood.
And finally, Dr. Joyce adds, make the most of your time together when you are able to be with your pooch. “Engage with your dog,” she says. “Toss a ball, give him a good brushing, or even just watch some television together. At the end of the day, dogs are happy just to sit on the couch with you, too.”