Search engine results tell you it’s safe to leave your dog home for 4 hours, but perhaps your gut instinct tells you otherwise. Your gut is probably right. A dog’s age, health, and temperament are all important factors in how much time your dog can comfortably handle being left alone.
“The guidelines aren’t meant to be written in stone but to understand that many dogs won’t be uncomfortable within a 4-hour time frame,” says the head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. That said, plenty will. Here’s what you need to consider when thinking through whether your dog can go that long.
Your pet’s age
Dogs at either end of the life cycle often need contact with people that’s more frequent than every 4 hours — not only for more bathroom breaks but also for more attention and reassurance. Consider that a puppy can hold in his urine for his age in months plus one, on average, meaning that a 3-month-old dog can make it to the 4-hour mark without soiling the house. But a puppy also craves human attention, and 4 hours alone will prove too long for his sense of security. Geriatric dogs, too, may yearn for your company and the comfort it brings — not just for the bathroom walks that are needed more frequently in later years, but also for your reassuring presence.
It’s not only older dogs who have health issues that impact how well they can manage time alone. A recent surgery, pregnancy, and myriad other conditions that could affect a dog of any age should be considered before leaving your pet alone for more than 4 hours. A dog who has recently been laid low by a painful illness, for instance, might be feeling insecure and may need you there to feel safe. And tending to medical needs like carefully timed insulin shots for diabetes might also require a tighter schedule.
Your dog’s temperament will play a large role in determining how well he can handle your absence. Anxious animals, especially those with separation anxiety, as well as dogs who enjoy interaction and have energy to burn might be left unnerved by an absence that stretches beyond half the work day. Even dogs who seem like they’re okay when you arrive back home after considerable time away might not be. “Someone could lock me in my office for 5 or 8 hours and I can sit with my legs crossed,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “I wouldn’t die, and I might look no worse for the wear. But I would be hungry and thirsty, and if I didn’t have work to do, there is only so much looking out the window to fill the time.”
That’s how you have to think of it for your dog. One way to understand what time alone feels like for a dog, Dr. Borns-Weil suggests, is to look back on the recent COVID experience that left so many of us with “a great deal of time on our hands with nothing to do. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling to not have control over your environment, to suddenly need to depend on delivery of groceries and its unpredictability.” With that experience in mind, read on for tips on how to make your time away as stress-free as possible for your pet.
In your absence
- Have a contingency plan. Sometimes you are asked to work late, find yourself in a serious traffic snarl, or enjoying an evening out and want to stay later than you originally planned. Is there a neighbor or neighborhood dog walker who can check in on your pet while you’re out?
- Provide gadgets that dispense food in your absence.
- Consider doggy day care if you have a social pet who enjoys playing with other dogs and being tended to by people when you can’t be there.
- Keep the television or radio on.
- Install a doggie door if you have a fenced-in yard and your dog weighs at least 15 pounds so he won’t be carried off by a large bird or other predator.
- Provide a crate with a towel over the top and sides so your dog can cocoon in his den.