It’s a term we don’t hear often, but “latchkey dog” represents all the stay-at-home dogs confined to yards and empty houses as we live our busy lives at work and out and about.
Statistics show this to be tens of thousands of dogs in Australia alone, even since the pandemic has allowed many to spend more time working from home.
Depending on the age, temperament, and amount of time left alone, a latchkey dog can really suffer mentally, but there are things we can do as pup parents to make them much happier while we’re out.
The “latchkey dog” problem
Long, routine periods of isolation can trigger problem behaviours for any dog, the family, and even the community.
Barking, digging, chewing, escape tactics are some of the more noticeable traits, but there could be more serious mental stress going on which your dog can’t verbalise.
This “modern malaise” is probably the single biggest problem facing pet dogs and owners today.
As well-intentioned 21st century dog owners, how can we raise a contented dog in our time impoverished
Let’s consider the problems at hand:
What we love most about dogs, such as their desire to belong and be part of our pack, is now working against them as our modern busy lives take us out of our homes and away from our dogs.
Being alone, without a job to do is completely unnatural for dogs.
“Workaholic” breeds such as cattle dogs, Kelpies, and Border Collies react most destructively to “unemployment”, but all breeds like to have a
job to do. In the long distant past this would’ve been hunting, retrieving, or simply being a companion.
Domestication in modern society
It’s hard to believe when you live in suburbia, but only a few decades ago most Aussie dogs would freely roam and socialise with neighbours and neighbourhood dogs.
Legal obligations to keep dogs on-property for their own safety and the safety of others, means dogs can no longer roam freely, which limits their exercise and their own natural requirements to explore.
Satisfying this need for exercise, exploration, and socialisation therefore becomes the responsibility of us as already too busy owners. In order to perform these responsibilities with any degree of enjoyment and success, your dog will need to learn to walk on a lead without pulling, play nicely
with other dogs in the off leash park, and come when called.
But only when we have time.
How to tell if your dog is affected by your busy lifestyle
Sometimes we completely miss the signs when our time-deprived dogs are suffering from being alone too much. Below are telltale signs your dog is affected by being home alone too long:
- Overly excited when you arrive home – jumping and nipping or rolling over, and sometimes submissively urinating.
- Pulls your arms out when you try to walk him on a lead
- Doesn’t come when called if let run in an off leash area.
- Is too wild to be allowed in the house.
- Doesn’t obey any commands except maybe “sit” sometimes.
- Scares children and visitors because of uninhibited excitement behaviours.
- Destroys the back garden by digging and chewing.
- Barks excessively at any minor disturbances.
The Solution – effective time management and planning
The good news is with a bit of thought, planning, and constructive time management you and your dog can live happily ever after even in the fast lane.
In the remainder of this guide we’ll address many ways you can turn your “latchkey dog” into a more settled, much happier pet.
The way to a happy dog’s heart is not through his stomach but through his lead!
Whoever walks the dog regularly will soon be the favoured member of the family. Admit it, a little bit more exercise probably won’t do you any harm either, and there is nothing like those big brown eyes looking longingly into yours to make you stick to that early morning walk.
Dogs are most active at dawn and dusk which fits in well with most work schedules. This is perfect for us Aussie as it’s also the cooler time of day, and you’ll come to enjoy it quickly.
A good brisk walk in the morning (minimum 30 minutes) and a short walk in the evening is the ideal exercise regime for most dogs leaving the middle of the day (while you are at work) for a good sleep.
If you need more motivation, I personally found investing in an Apple Watch a perfect way to get me up earlier in the morning and spending more time walking the dog. Instead of my usual one lap around the park, it became two or three. This helped me extend dog walks to over 30 minutes each morning, which was also a great start to the day calorie-wise.
When you are at home bring your dog in (see Bring the Dog in – Why it’s better to have an inside dog which discusses the benefits of this).
Allowing your dog to join you indoors will go a long way to meeting their need for social interaction. Curling up together in front of the TV is one of the joys of pet ownership for both humans and dogs.
Canines did not evolve as a solitary species. They need feel a part of your pack.
Allocating time in the first year of your dog’s life to basic training is well worth the investment and will be rewarded immeasurably. Training also opens up the door to successful communication.
Dogs already know how to sit, stand, and down. What they need to learn is our words for these behaviours and why they should do it. Contrary to what some people think this does not come ‘hard wired’ in dogs – like children they must be taught human etiquette if they are to become a valued member of our family.
A dog who is a pleasure to walk on the lead, socialises well with others, and who comes when called is a pleasure to own and live with.
Training need not be laborious. There are lots of things you can train your dog to do while sitting on the couch. It is more a mental commitment on your part to have consistent expectations of your dog whenever you are together.
Obviously the more time you spend together the more chances your dog has to learn – another good reason for allowing your dog into the home.
Also, because mental exercise is more tiring than physical exercise, you’ll produce not only a better behaved dog but a quieter, more intelligent one as well.
Leave a key!
Most dogs would rather be inside the den (house) rather than outside- especially if that is where good times are spent with you.
A doggy door providing access to both inside and out is ideal. This gives your dog some degree of control over his environment, and the benefit to you is a less stressed dog.
Leaving the radio or TV on if your dog is the type to fret or bark at the slightest noise is also a good idea. A radio will dull out some of the neighbourhood distractions and make home sound the same as when you are there.
Be Food Smart
There is no reason why your dog should get all of its daily food intake in one sitting. In fact most dogs are happier if fed several times a day rather than just once.
More and more behaviourists such as world renowned veterinarian Dr Ian Dunbar, are recommending taking your dog’s daily calorie requirement, dividing it up and making your dog work for it in various ways.
Put one third into a Kong or smoked marrow bone, and make your dog struggle to get the tasty treats rather than simply vacuuming them out of a food bowl!
Scatter kibble around your garden so your dog has to use his nose and hunt for food.
Take another third and put it in a treat bag for training purposes.
Using food in this way gives your dog a job to do and makes him “work” for his pay packet just as he would in nature. Or just like you do – then in the evenings you can both sit and moan about “the boss”.
Home Alone Toys & Activities
“Home alone” toys such as treat balls and buster cubes which dispense food when your dog pushes them around with nose or paw, are a great way to keep dogs constructively busy and happy.
A sand pit or designated digging area in the back garden laced with goodies to attract your dog is another great way to keep your dog amused – hopefully leaving the rest of the garden unscathed!
A Kong filled with food and hung upside down from a tree branch can also keep a dog amused for ages – especially for dogs who love to grab and tug.
In summer small plastic wading pools can provide hours of entertainment and relief for home alone pooches. Let your imagination run wild and try
to find independent activities that suit your dog.
Related: I go into more depth on the above tips and techniques in Boredom Busters for Dogs.
Dogs learn most quickly and seem to feel most secure with consistent routines.
Dogs who know they spend certain times with you and certain times on their own will quickly adjust to that provided their physical and mental needs are being met on a regular basis.
A typical routine which would satisfy most dogs belonging to working onwers might look something like this:
|6am||40 minute walk including run at off leash park. Met that gorgeous Golden Retriever again and we played.|
|7am||Left with stuffed Kong full of treats, took ages to empty.|
|10am||Slept in the sun for a few hours.|
|2pm||Explored the back garden and found another smoked marrowbone in my secret spot! Chewed to my hearts content.|
|4pm||Must have dozed off again. Think I’ll go in the doggy door and snooze near the front door – getting close to coming home time.|
|6pm||“She’s home! She’s home! She’s home!”|
|7pm||Watch Mum and Dad eat dinner. I got some left over good bits!|
|8pm||On lead walk around the block for 20 minutes. Gee smells are great at night.|
|9pm||Played tug of war with dad on the floor. He’s pretty strong – he won twice, I won once.|
|10pm||Allowed to cuddle with mum on couch in front of TV – does life get any better than this?|
|10.30pm||Biscuit & Bed – good night!|
If you work irregular hours it will be much harder for your dog to adapt. In this case tryto provide some consistency by hiring a professional dog walker or part time carer (see below “Share the Care”).
Making sure your dog has frequent opportunities to eat is also essential as you don’t want to add hunger to the stress of wondering when you’ll be home.
Keep in mind you’re not the only time-short dog owner in your community.
Why not see if someone else has a dog who would rather not be alone all day and take turns letting them spend the day together? Social media dog groups and communities are great for finding people like you, with dogs in the same boat as your dog.
If your dog is the type to prefer people perhaps there is an elderly couple who would love to spend some time with a dog but are not prepared to take on the full time responsibility of another pet of their own?
You may also find the neighbour’s teenager daughter would love to spend an hour with your dog in the park for some pocket money – that’s a win-win for most teenagers.
Doggy Day Care
Doggy day cares have sprung up all over the place, in every city in Australia, and even rural areas. The purpose of doggy day care centres is precisely to meet the needs of “latchkey dogs”.
Doggy day cares are only suitable for highly social dogs and even then most managers suggest only enrolling the dog for two to three days a week as they may get “overstimulated” – sound like kindergarten kids?
If there isn’t a doggy daycare in your area, and you feel there should be, then why not start one yourself? It might be a good business venture as well as being a great way for you to spend more time with your dog and others!
If you are really pressed for time you might consider the services of a growing number of professional dog walkers.
Knowing your dog has already had a good run when you come home is a great way to relax and enjoy your dog without feeling “guilty” or pressured to go out again yourself. If your dog is tricky to handle, you may feel more comfortable with an experienced professional dog walker than the neighbour’s teenage daughter, and your dog may also benefit with obedience.
If you can’t afford a professional dog walker then try asking around the neighbourhood again, there may be someone who walks for fitness who would be happy to take a well-behaved four-legged companion with them.
Take your dog to work?
Some of the happiest and best trained dogs in the world belong to tradies who can take their dogs on the job with them. Just being together so many hours per day usually results in a good working relationship.
Some nurses, shop keepers, and office workers have also managed to bring their well behaved pooches into work with them. It may be just a pipe dream for most of us but there’s no harm in trying.
My first Border Collie loved the car. I think more than he loved the house, garden, or park. Sometimes I would take him to work for a morning, and he would happily sit in the car watching the world go by, and I could keep an eye on him through the office window. Not on hot days, of course.
Need a hobby?
Ever thought about spending your weekends competing in performance sports with your dog? Agility is the fastest growing dog sport in the world and it is easy to see why.
It’s a great way for suburban dogs and owners to burn off excess energy while negotiating jumps, tunnels and other obstacles. Agility enhances training skills while having loads of fun and exercise.
Other activities you might consider are flyball, retrieving trials, earth dog work (for terriers), sheep work and obedience.
Should you get Another Dog?
People often think getting another dog is the answer to the “latch key dog” problem – which may explain why multiple dog ownership is on the rise. We actually thought about having a second child for this very reason, because we didn’t want our toddler to grow up “lonely” – I’ll tell you the advice we were given at the end of this section!
- As often as not, buying another dog simply doubles your trouble, so be warned. There are several points you should consider if you’re thinking about getting another dog for the sake of keeping your current dog happy:
- Are you getting another dog because you want one too or just because you think it will be good for your dog. If you don’t really want a second dog – don’t!
- Does your dog generally like other dogs or is he more a “people” dog. Some dogs have no desire to mix with dogs.
- Is your dog reasonably well trained, including housetraining? Second dogs learn bad habits as well as good from the resident dog. Make certain you have a good relationship and control over your first dog before you think about getting another.
- Even if you have two dogs it is a good idea to spend a bit of one on one time with each to make certain they both bond to you more than to one another.
- When you leave you’ll have four big brown eyes staring at you instead of two.
- Are you prepared for the extra work of training and exercising, grooming and feeding two dogs rather than one? Decent dog food is expensive.
- If you are still convinced getting a second dog is the answer it is a good idea to get one of the opposite sex, and unless there is a specific reason why you would like to breed, desex both.
- Don’t necessarily think in matched sets – sometimes a smaller dog will make a great companion for a larger dog and may be less work and expense.
- Buying a second dog is not an easy fix solution to the “latch key dog” syndrome. In many cases a second dog will enrich the lives of both the canine and human members of the family.
For many, having two dogs is double the fun and double the pleasure, but if the reason you’re thinking of getting another dog is to fix a problem, then think long and hard.
With our thoughts on having a second child for the sake of our first child, a good friend made the point of “sibling rivalry”. Lots of kids grew up having little in common, and this can be true when you bring a new dog into the home. What your dog really wants is more time with you, or more attention.
That said, we may have had another child if we weren’t both workaholics, with a crazy Border Collie and cantankerous cat, and we weren’t youngens when we had our first child.
Dogs can adapt to a wide range of living conditions provided they know that when you are together, they are valued and loved.
Devote a portion of your day to train and play with your dog and your time will be amply rewarded. I call it “wise time” – a time when my dogs and I learn from one another.
The dog learns how to read me like a book, to sense how I feel, and what I might do at any given moment. I learn once again to appreciate the simple joys of life – the smell of the grass, the sun on my back, and the quiet pleasure of my best friend’s company.
Take the journey – it is well worth the effort, and I hope you solve your latchkey dog issues!.