It’s important to realize that even the most social dogs need time on their own
When a dog says, “I’ve had enough of you,” there’s no reason to take it personally or to feel snubbed
It’s important to realize that even the most social dogs who love us dearly and who cherish “together time” also need time on their own. We need to recognize and honor when they’re telling us they just need to get away from it all, including us. In Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, Jessica Pierce and I discuss “together time” and “alone time” and focus on dog-human interactions. Our recommendation is to let dogs decide when they want to be with us and when they don’t.
By “together time,” we mean the quality time that you and your dog spend together each day. Together time isn’t just about petting your dog; it refers more generally to all forms of social, emotional, and physical closeness. “Together time” is one of the most important enhancements we can offer dogs, because what they most need from us is us, and that’s the one thing many dogs don’t get enough of. As with children, dogs enjoy new toys and special treats and a fancy new bed, but these aren’t what they care most about. What they really crave is the company of their human companions. Dogs are social animals, and they form strong attachments to their humans. Indeed, selection pressures on domestic dogs have favored the hypersociability gene. Dogs don’t just tolerate human presence; they actively seek it out. It’s safe to say that companion dogs need social closeness with humans, and the deprivation of this social contact poses well-being concerns. The U.K. government recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address the growing crisis of loneliness among the human population of the island nation.1 We could very well also use a Minister of Loneliness for the pet dogs in the world. While Britain has data on the scope of its human loneliness problem—more than nine million people often or always feel lonely, according to studies done by the health ministry—we don’t have good research on the problem of loneliness in companion dogs. But more and more veterinarians and trainers are starting to talk about canine welfare problems associated with social isolation and are connecting the dots between loneliness and growing numbers of behavioral and psychological disorders among pet dogs.
Millions of dogs are left home alone for long periods of time. Some are lucky enough to have access to the full house and a fenced yard through a dog door. Many others are locked in a kennel or basement or bathroom while their owner is gone, presumably to protect the house from destructive behaviors. A survey of U.K. dog owners found that more than a quarter of dog owners believe it is okay to leave a dog at home for over five hours a day.2 Many dogs are stressed when left alone. Levels of cortisol in the blood increase, and they sometimes spike the entire time the dog is alone. Dogs may resort to obsessive barking or to destructive behaviors, such as digging the carpet, chewing the couch, or unstuffing all the pillows on the bed, the very behaviors that can lead owners to lock a dog in a kennel or garage, which further fuels a dog’s anxiety.article continues after advertisement
How much alone time is OK for a dog? Nobody really knows, and surely it depends on the individual dog. Although behaviorists and veterinarians don’t agree on a single figure, there is a loose consensus that about four hours alone is a comfortable range for an adult dog. Puppies should be left only for shorter periods and not longer than they can hold their bladder. Many people wonder whether dogs know the difference between being left alone for ten minutes or for four hours, since dogs don’t exactly watch the hands of the clock turn.
Anecdotally, people report that their dogs seem more excited and offer a more enthusiastic greeting after a longer absence. Backing this up is a study conducted by Therese Rehn and Linda Keeling, in which they observed a small group of privately owned dogs and videotaped what the dogs did before, during, and after 30-minute, two-hour, and four-hour separations. They found that dogs tended to offer more intense greeting behaviors, with a higher frequency of physical activity and attention behavior, after the longer separations. As they note, their study doesn’t confirm whether dogs distinguish between 30 minutes and four hours, but it confirms that dogs are affected by the duration of their time alone.3
The surest cure for loneliness and social isolation is, of course, togetherness. To increase this, look for ways to include your dog in your activities—such as bringing your dog along when running errands or attending a child’s soccer game—and build the structure of each day so that periods of isolation are broken up by together time. People sometimes complain that their lives are ruled by their dog—it’s harder to go on trips, make social plans, or even get necessary work done because they have to be home to “let the dog out.” Exactly. That’s the reality of living with a dog, and that’s why dog ownership is not right for everybody.
We also must think about the signals we send our dog. A dog trainer friend of Jessica’s told her about a family who had hired him to help with a behaviorally challenged dog. The dog would cry and scratch in his downstairs kennel all night, while the family was upstairs trying to sleep through the disturbance. The trainer observed that the family and the dog spent the evenings before bed together in the living room and kitchen, playing games and watching TV. The dog was very much part of the activity and given a lot of attention. As the family got ready for bed, they gave the dog extra love and petting, and then they escorted him to the kennel, where he would spend the night separate from everyone else. The dog was being given very mixed signals; he was part of the family pack until, suddenly, he wasn’t. In this case, the trainer recommended letting the dog sleep upstairs with the family. They did, and the dog was much happier, and everyone was finally able to get a good night’s sleep. (See also “Should Young, Old, and Sick Dogs Be Banned From the Bedroom?“)article continues after advertisement
Sometimes people try to address the problem of a lonely dog by bringing home a second dog so that the dogs have company even when their human is gone. This can be helpful for many dogs, and in the best cases, two or more dogs living in the same home will become best friends and add much enjoyment and enrichment to each other’s lives. But adding a second dog is not a surefire cure for loneliness. The social bond between dog and human is unique; the human fills a role that cannot be filled by another dog. Studies suggest, for example, that separation anxiety is generally no better in dogs left with another dog than in those left alone. Other research shows that human social contact provides more comfort to a socially isolated dog than one of the dog’s own siblings.4 So, if you are gone for long hours each day, adding a second dog to your home may simply result in having two lonely dogs rather than one. Furthermore, multiple-dog households have their own challenges. A new dog can change the social dynamics of the family in ways that make things more difficult rather than easier. Dog-dog aggression can be a serious problem and can sometimes lead to untenable situations, where one dog will wind up needing to be rehomed. Pissing matches might also ensue. (See “Pissing Matches in Dogs: Territorial, Lots of Fun, or Both?“)
Just like people, dogs may want to have some time to themselves. This is particularly the case in homes with children or with a lot of activity and stimulation. It is important for every dog to have a “safe zone”—a place the dog can retreat to and be allowed not to interact or be touched. Mishka, a somewhat zaftig husky with whom I shared my home, loved to nestle in a corner behind a bed when she’d had enough of her humans. She made it clear what she was doing, and there was only room for her. When she was ready to interact, she’d have to back out of her husky cave, which she did with impressive agility. Some people provide their dog with a crate or kennel—with the door always open—that is designated “dog property” and is off-limits to children and other humans in the house.
As you become fluent in dog, or dog literate, you’ll know what your dog is asking of you. When it wants to be with others, try to give it the opportunity, and when it wants to be alone, let it go off on its own and be sure it has a place where it can relax and feel safe. Pay careful attention to individual differences among dogs—there is no universal dog, and what works for one might not work for another. Some of the dogs with whom I shared my home and heart were highly social and didn’t often ask to be alone, whereas others needed much more time on their own and knew how to request it. And sometimes the timing was perfect—we both needed a break from each other. Afterwards, our companionship would be rekindled, and we had loads of quality time together.article continues after advertisement
When a dog says, “I’ve had enough of you,” there’s no reason to take it personally or to feel snubbed. Of course, it’s also possible that when a dog is asking for what seems to be too much time alone, there’s something wrong, and consulting a veterinarian would be a good idea. For example, heightened sensitivity to noise can indicate a dog is in pain. (See “New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior.“) This is why it’s essential to know your dog well.
Stay tuned for more discussions on the social behavior of dogs. Honoring what they want and need is essential for having the best relationship you can have with your canine companions. Sometimes we’ve had enough of them and need a break, and sometimes the same is true for them.
- Some of the above is excerpted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. I thank Jessica Pierce for her collaboration on this and other projects.
- Psychology Today and I are not responsible for advertisements that appear embedded in this essay.
1) Ceylan Yeginsu, “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness.” New York Times, January 17, 2018,
3) Therese Rehn and Linda J. Keeling, “The Effect of Time Left Alone at Home on Dog Welfare,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 129 (2011): 129–35.
4) David S. Tuber et al., “Behavioral and Glucocorticoid Responses of Adult Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris) to Companionship and Social Separation,” Journal of Comparative Psychology 110 (1996): 103–8.
Bekoff, Marc and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New world Library, Novato, California, 2019.
Original article first published on Psychologytoday.com on Jan 09, 2019 and republished here by kind permission of the author. Marc Bekoff Ph.D. also publishes regularly for Psychology Today and you can see his other essays here.