Do Dogs Miss People?
When we go out into the world - to work, to dinner, out for a drink with a friend - we usually have to leave our beloved pets behind at home. After the initial guilt of their sweet faces looking up at us, pleading for us not to leave, we get into our cars and normally don’t think much about them until we arrive back home. But does that work the same for our furry friends? Do they miss us when we’re gone like the family of a soldier that has gone off to war? Let’s find out!
Let’s Begin With the Concept of Time
Before we can really dig into if our dogs miss us when we’re gone, we have to start by looking at if they understand the concept of time.
When we, as humans, think about time, we’re really putting to use what scientists call our episodic memory. Episodic memory just refers to the way that we think about events and connect them specifically to time, place, and emotion. Ultimately, time is a unique human construct. No other species breaks time down into seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years the way that humans do.
And, as humans tend to do, we like to assume that everyone and everything thinks exactly the way we do. This definitely extends to our pets. It explains why they always know when we’re getting home from work, when it’s time for a walk, when we usually feed them dinner, etc., right?
Not exactly. While dogs do seem to seem to be rooted fairly securely in “the moment,” the fact that they can be trained based on events that have occurred in the past and with the anticipation of events happening in the future would suggest they do have their own, specifically canine form of episodic memory. But it works differently than ours does.
So, Do Dogs Miss People?
Ok, so we understand a little bit more now about how dogs actually experience time. But how does that relate to how they feel about us when we’re gone?
While we can’t exactly ask our dogs if they miss us, we can make a fairly educated guess based on how they act both when we’re gone and when we come back. Trying to answer that question was actually part of a study that was performed in 2011 by Gregory Burns. He started by training his own dogs to stay still in an MRI machine, so that their brain activity could be studied under various different circumstances. Talk about Dr. Dog, right?
When combined with a study done by Therese Rehn and Linda Keeling that looked at canine behavior during separation, it’s fairly safe to conclude that our dogs definitely miss us. What exactly that means to them, or if they feel that the same way as we do, is really anyone’s guess. What we do know is that dogs reacted the most intensely (read: happily) to seeing their owners after longer separations. While dogs were excited to see their owners after 30 minutes, they were even more excited to see them after 2 hours. They may not be able to tell time, but they do have some concept of longer versus shorter time spans.
If you’re still wondering if your dog is missing you, ask yourself a few questions. Do you find your dog cuddling with your clothes or on your bed when you get home? Do they seem to whine when you leave or specifically not look at you? Are they waiting for you at the door when you get off work? These are all signs that your dog really cares about you, and misses you when you’re not around. To your dog, you’re the entire world.
What About Separation Anxiety?
Obviously, separation anxiety really is a whole other beast.
While we can draw a fairly reasonable conclusion that our dogs do miss us when we’re gone, there is a difference between them starting longingly out the window, waiting to see our car pull up the driveway and destroying all of the furniture in the house.
Dogs who experience separation anxiety are going through actual stress, both physical and mental. Their cortisol (a stress hormone) levels rise and they show a variety of specific behaviors - excessive barking/howling (ask your neighbors), destructive acts (chewing up furniture, clothing, scratching at doors/windows frantically), urinating/defecating in the house, excessive drooling/panting, and intense, rapid panting. If your dog is crated while you’re gone and suffers from separation anxiety, they may also accidentally harm themselves trying to escape.
While it may not be as obvious if your dog isn’t the destructive type, more and more pet owners are being clued in to their dogs separation anxiety by using indoor cameras. You may not realize the full scope of how your dog behaves when you’re not home, and that can be sad and scary to watch.
The good news is, in most cases, separation anxiety can be significantly reduced by combining both behavioral training/modification and medication. Making sure your dog has plenty of exercise (especially prior to you leaving), conditioning them to be less anxious with positive reinforcement (using special treats only when you leave - kongs stuffed with peanut butter are a great options), and even considering medication (amitriptyline and alprazolam are commonly prescribed, and chamomile, valerian, and CBD can be purchased over the counter) can really help cope with the symptoms of separation anxiety. It can also be helpful to get advice from a veterinarian and/or dog behaviorist.
And remember, separation anxiety is just like depression in humans. It’s not your fault, and it’s nothing you’ve done wrong.
Is Alone Time Good For My Dog?
We’re willing to bet that you’re starting to feel a little guilty reading all of this, right? Anyone who has a dog has some amount of guilt when it comes to leaving them alone. That’s why so many of us choose to bring a second dog into the household, Brothers In Arms so to speak.
However, alone time is actually good for your dog, and for your bond, when done in smaller amounts. It’s important to remember that no dog should ever be left alone longer than they can hold their bladder. While this varies depending on age, size, and breed, four hours at a time is usually the standard. More than this can lead to accidents, which can further increase your dog’s anxiety.
Plus, who doesn’t love getting greeted at the door like royalty when they get home?
If you’re still feeling guilty, consider taking your dog with you more places. Many banks and coffee shops offer pup-specific treats, and your dog may enjoy just being out in the car with you. Just make sure you’re not leaving them in the car for long periods of time. Even with the windows cracked, the inside of the car on a day that is only 70℉ can reach over 100℉ in as little as 20 minutes. Not only can this be deadly, but it is also against the law in many states.
So, even though we can’t ask our dog if they miss us and get a solid answer in English, there has been enough research to show that they very likely do. Dogs also have some concept of how long you’ve been gone, which is why they get so excited when you come back. Don’t let that make you feel bad, though. Alone time is actually great for your dog, and for you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder! Just keep an eye out for separation anxiety related behaviors, and deal with them quickly if they occur. This will keep the whole family calm, even when you have to be gone for a while.