How Long Should a Dog Be Left Alone?

The answer to the "home alone" question remains elusive.

Posted Feb 21, 2018

Natt_Bear/Shutterstock
Source: Natt_Bear/Shutterstock

Talking a friend recently, we got on the topic of dogs and how they can rule your life. She admitted that although she loves her dog, Hattie, she often feels burdened by guilt when leaving Hattie home alone. She and her husband and kids go skiing every weekend of winter and spring when snow is on the ground. She described to me a typical weekend day: She gets up at 5 a.m. to walk Hattie, and then they leave for the mountains (a two-hour drive). Hattie is put into her crate when they go. A dog-sitter comes by in the middle of the day to let Hattie out to pee. Then she goes back into the crate. Meanwhile, the family skis all day. Traffic back from the ski resorts is reliably horrible, and they often get stuck; sometimes it takes four or five hours to get home. If they hit bad traffic, my friend calls the dog-sitter and asks her to feed Hattie dinner and let her out again. They often don’t get home until 9 pm.

As she was talking, I couldn’t help but tally the number of hours Hattie was locked in a crate — 14. My friend seemed uncomfortable with leaving her dog for so long, but was willing to do it anyway. My friend is a nice person and a “good” dog owner, by most standards. Yet I found her story unsettling. It seems downright cruel to keep a dog locked up alone for so long. For one thing, being in a space where you barely have room to turn around would be physically uncomfortable. Your muscles would get tight, and your bones would get sore. But thinking about Hattie’s mental discomfort is what really bothered me. She must be bored and, above all, lonely.

I think 14 hours is too long to leave a dog alone, especially in a crate, but what do the “experts” say? The fact is, there is no clear, definitive answer. Although “How long can I leave my dog home alone?” is one of the most common questions asked by dog owners, the answer is elusive. As far as I know, no empirical studies directly address the question of “How long is okay?” If you Google the question, you get a wide variety of answers, none of them based on empirical data about length of time alone and its correlation with loneliness, stress, or welfare.

Here is what we do know: Dogs are social animals, and they form strong attachments to their humans. 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 deprivation of this contact poses welfare concerns. Many dogs are stressed when left alone. Levels of cortisol in the blood increase, and sometimes spike, the entire time the dog is alone. Dogs certainly experience loneliness, and loneliness is painful (McMillan). Ideally, then, we shouldn’t leave our dogs alone much at all.

Despite the lack of focused research into the question, “How long a period of isolation is acceptable?” there seems to be a loose consensus among trainers and veterinarians that about four hours is a comfortable range for an adult dog. This is a target range, which then needs to be individualized. Puppies, of course, should only be left for shorter periods, and never for longer than they can hold their bladder. Older dogs who are less active or more independent may feel comfortable alone for somewhat longer periods of time. One trainer I asked told me, “My unsatisfactory answer is that a dog should be left alone for the least length of time possible.”

Unfortunately, it is likely that many dogs are left home alone much longer than four hours a day. Again, we don’t have good research on what periods of isolation companion dogs in the home actually experience, but many dog owners work full-time, have busy family lives, and perhaps even go skiing on the weekends, so we can only guess that a great number of dogs spend considerable time on their own. A survey of British dog owners found, for example, that more than a quarter of owners believe it is okay to leave a dog at home for 6-to-10 hours a day.

“How much time alone is too much?” is a scientific question, but it is also an ethical one. If, for example, four hours is a reasonable amount time to leave a dog, the implication is that people whose lives make this impossible simply shouldn’t have dogs, since they cannot provide the environment required to give the dog a good life with good welfare. Should Hattie’s family, because they highly value weekend skiing, have chosen not to live with a dog?

Would the ethical problems be less serious if Hattie had the run of the house for those 14 hours, instead of being locked in a crate? Yes. Even better would be if Hattie had the run of the house and a dog door and fenced yard, so that she could go outside to relieve herself when she felt the urge. Yet I don’t think the ethical problem would have gone away.

I know very few dog owners who don’t worry about leaving their dog alone. It is an ethical question each must answer: “How much time alone at home is too long?” It would be nice to have a more definitive answer. Dogs will certainly benefit from greater attention to the welfare implications of time left alone, and hopefully future research can help dog owners answer this question with a greater sense of confidence.

References

McMillan, F. The psychobiology of social pain: Evidence for a neurocognitive overlap with physical pain and welfare implications for social animals with special attention to the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Physiology and Behavior 167 (2016): 154-171.

Rehn, T. and Keeling, L. The effect of time left alone at home on dog welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 129 (2011): 129-135.