“Ever wonder what pets do when we’re not home?” This tagline from the animated movie The Secret Life of Pets poses a question we probably all ask ourselves. It’s hard to leave our dogs alone when we go out, so it’s natural to wonder how they behave without us around. The answer is painfully obvious in the case of separation anxiety that manifests as destructive behavior. But what about the average dog? What does he do with himself when he’s alone?
Several years ago, a team of Italian scientists made video recordings of 30 dogs who had each been left alone at home for 90 minutes (Scaglia et al. “Video analysis of dogs when left home alone”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2013). They found that the dogs spent almost two-thirds of their time sleeping or lying down, not doing much of anything. On average, each dog spent less than two minutes moving around or exploring, about five minutes playing with toys, and around ten minutes making noise, like barking, howling or whining (lucky neighbors!). Other observed behaviors included lip-licking and yawning (which, incidentally, can be signs of anxiety).
The disadvantage of this study is that 90 minutes isn’t really a very long time. What about dogs left alone for hours? A New Zealand study involved owners making audio recordings of 60 dogs left alone for eight hours every day for five days (Flint et al. “Barking in home alone suburban dogs (Canis familiaris) in New Zealand”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2013). The results showed that the average dog barked for just over two minutes per day. Because this was an audio study, there was no record of what else the dogs did with their days, but if we go by the results from the Italian study, it’s likely they spent a large portion of their time lying around and sleeping.*
As much as we might like to, we can’t be with our dogs 24/7. And while some people are investing in pet cams so they can keep an eye on their dogs while they’re out, that isn’t an option for everyone. However, as long as you have addressed any separation anxiety issues, and don’t leave your dog alone for long periods on a regular basis, you can rest assured that he probably does just fine when you’re out.
Maria Ter-Mikaelian is a freelance science writer and animal lover. She obtained her PhD at New York University, where she conducted research on neurophysiology and communication in animals, and she has taught Animal Behaviour at Columbia University.