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Is your dog scared of the dark?

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Author: Kate Baker

Kate Baker, lighting and wellness advisor at 4lite

Read time 8-minutes

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The pandemic, separation anxiety, and how you can help your pooch.

Two white dogs look nervously out from underneath a green blanket.

With most of us spending more time at home since the start of the pandemic three years ago, it’s been the perfect opportunity to care for a new pet. 

However, during this time, dogs became accustomed to the constant company of their owners. This means that now life is more or less back to normal, many pooches have found it much harder to be separated when their owner has to leave them home alone, whether they’re going to work or simply popping to the supermarket.

At 4lite, we started to see a trend of people using smart lighting for their pets to prevent their homes being in darkness when they were out. Intrigued, and loving that our products were being used for pets, we wanted to understand more about the issue so we commissioned research to find out dog owners’ experiences of leaving their pet home alone. We asked how many owners were worried about leaving their dog when they went out, how their dog coped, and what they did to ease the transition.

Pandemic pup owners more concerned about going out

The research discovered that 44% of dog owners bought their dog during the pandemic and were much more concerned about leaving their dog home alone than those who were already dog owners.

We found that a significant 82% of so-called ‘pandemic pup owners’ are worried about leaving their dogs home alone when they go out, compared to 66% of all dog owners. And a similar proportion say that the pandemic made it harder for their dog to be left alone (83% of first-time dog owners compared to 60% overall). So, let’s see what’s happening.

Home alone behaviours

As many as 91% of first-time dog owners say their pet exhibits negative behaviours when they are left home alone. The most common home-alone symptom is whining, reported by 50% of owners, but a quarter say their dog barks or howls and 17% report their dog paces around the home. More than a third (39%) say their dog watches for their return all day and 24% say they appear sad or dejected. More extreme behaviours include dogs destroying items in the home (14%), urinating or soiling (11%), producing excess saliva (6%), and vomiting (5%). Worryingly, just over 3% of first-time dog owners report their dog self-mutilates when home alone.

Techniques adopted to reassure dogs

To combat these behaviours, dog owners are becoming increasingly innovative in their techniques to make their dog feel more comfortable when they’re home alone. The most popular method is to leave the TV or radio on, done by 39% of dog owners, while 34% leave the light on and 14% leave the heating on. Just under one in five (17%) report using a smart device to monitor or talk to their pet while other tactics include hiring a dog walker, asking a friend or neighbour to visit, and using dog sitters or doggy day care. Nearly one in 10 dog owners (9%) have sought extra training, 4% have made alterations to their home, while one in 100 report needing to medicate their dog.

The cost of cheering up home-alone dogs

The 4lite research also discovered that most dog owners – nearly 60% – spend more money trying to keep their dogs happy while home alone. The majority (30%) spend an average of £50 a month more, but 14% spend up to £100. Meanwhile, 9% spend up to £300 more each month and one in 25 (4%) admit forking out up to £500 a month on a mix of extra toys, treats, home comforts and alterations, dog walkers and daycare, training, and reduced salary if their work routine has changed to care for their dog.

Scared of the dark

With the research in hand, we spoke to a specialist animal behaviourist to learn more about what people can do to help their dogs get used to being home alone. As we’re lighting experts, we were intrigued to learn how smart lighting may be useful and we learned that some dogs have inadvertently been conditioned to become scared of the dark. With our usual home habits disrupted during the pandemic, many dogs are less used to a dark and empty home. As darkness then becomes associated with the absence of their owner, the dark subsequently becomes a trigger for anxiety. Therefore, being left alone in a dark home leads to distress. 

As we’ve seen in the findings of the research, 34% of dog owners leave the light on for their dog when they leave the house, hoping to avoid this trigger. However, leaving lights on all day is a drain on energy bills – particularly as the cost is so high at the moment. And this is why we believe the trend towards smart lighting for pets comes in. Smart lights can be scheduled to come on automatically at a set time of day, such as when the sun sets or by motion, as well as being able to be turned on remotely. This means that you can keep your light off all day and then turn it on when it’s needed. Of course, this doesn’t negate the potential need for the right behaviourial training for deeper anxiety issues, but for those dogs who are scared of the dark, this can be a real game changer.

Owner tips for leaving dogs home alone

To help owners cope with teaching their dog to be home alone, 4lite has partnered with clinical animal behaviourist and trainer Hanne Grice, founder of Hanne Grice Pet Training & Behaviour, to provide some top tips.

To help owners cope with teaching their dog to be home alone, 4lite has partnered with clinical animal behaviourist and trainer Hanne Grice, founder of Hanne Grice Pet Training & Behaviour, to provide some top tips.

1. Take action: Isolation distress is a common issue as dogs are social creatures. Never just leave your dog without training and expect them to deal with it; learning this behaviour takes time, patience and consistency. 

2. Planned departure training: Encourage your dog to settle in their bed while you work from home. Initially you might need to put their bed by your feet but gradually move it further away and reward them for staying in it. Eventually, the bed can be positioned the other side of a baby gate and then a closed door.  

3. Triggers: Your dog will learn your routine whether it’s picking up keys or putting on your coat. Moving these trigger objects regularly will help break the association between your departure cues and their fear. Repetition and consistency are key.  

4. Gesture leaving: Spend time in another room or outside away from your dog for very short periods of time, videoing to check whether they settle. If they can’t, you’ll need to help them get used to you disappearing for just a few seconds and build this time up very slowly over weeks and months. Rushing this process can create setbacks.  

5. Alone time: Help your dog get used to not being your constant shadow by using a baby gate and shutting this momentarily if you get up to make a cuppa or leave the room, enabling them to build confidence. 

6. Lighting: If your curtains are closed or the room gets dark before you get home, consider lighting which can be calming for dogs particularly if they’ve associated the dark with your absence and become anxious. Lights spontaneously turning on brightly could trigger a startle response so consider a lighting schedule that mimics your dog’s circadian rhythm and brighten slowly. Keep it natural with soft daylight hues by day, transitioning to warmer hues in the evening. Dim light is best and helps promotes relaxation.

7. Be mindful: Most modern lighting fluctuates or flickers but avoid lights with a high-frequency or intensity flicker which can have a detrimental effect on pets. Try not to cast shadows or reflections on surfaces. These could elicit unwanted behaviours such as fear or shadow chasing which may be more prevalent in particular breeds such as Border Collies and Spaniels.  

8. Distraction: If you can, aim to leave your dog on their own every day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes and even if your dog has always tolerated being home alone. You can place an old t-shirt you’ve worn into your dog’s bed and try giving them a toy filled with treats they have to work at to get into, enabling you to slip out quietly. Music or television can be comforting if they’re used to constant noise. Try closing the curtains to reduce visual stimulation – if you do this, you may want to turn on dim lighting.  

9. Getting it right: There isn’t a quick fix to leaving your dog alone. Treat these tips as little nuggets which can all help but be aware of other factors that can contribute to distress when left, including any medical issues or learned associations you’ll need to overcome and you may need to seek individual guidance from a certified behaviourist. Starting the learning process early is essential as prevention is always better than cure.

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