It’s Okay to “Tell” Your Pet You Need to Be Alone

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One of the great ironies of intimacy is that there’s as much of an art to being apart as there is in being together.

What sealed the deal between my wife and me happened on a trip we took together 21 years ago. On a blustery day in Cape Cod, Susan and I walked silently together along the beach. Without a word, Susan peeled off to the right in search of sea shells while I peeled off to the left to watch tufts of sea grass massage a weathered picket fence. Separately, we’d each become enamored by different forms of nature. When we drifted back “together,” we realized that we’d never really been “apart.”

True life-companions understand their own and their partner’s need for periodic separateness. While companion animals may not need alone time to take stock of their lives and foster gratitude, they can learn that being separated from their humans is not the end of the world.

More often than not, cats appear comfortable seeking a quiet nook and giving their humans space. This is a stretch for our canine companions for whom being with us every waking moment is sheer nirvana. Should we constantly indulge this desire, we may be unwittingly making our dogs hyper-dependent upon us and sow the seeds of separation anxiety.

However, we can teach our fur-children that life goes on - and can even be amusing - whether we’re home or not:

  • Establish and train an unmistakeable “no” cue to your pet. Because dogs are visual learners, simple, clear gestures work well. There’s no need to yell or make a sour face. You don’t want “no” to become a negative experience.
  • Get involved in a personal project you’ve been putting off. If your dog rushes over to you wanting to play and you’re not available, use the “no” cue. As always, reward the desired response.
  • Matter-of-factly gather keys, put on shoes and sling that sweater over your shoulder as if you were about to leave, then plop down on the couch to read a book or check e-mails. Repeat this process several times in a day. Eventually, your dog will be less stressed when you actually leave.
  • When possible, take a long walk with your dog or engage him in a hearty play session before you leave. A tired dog is a happy dog.
  • Give her a mind-occupying task such as a food-toy puzzle or leave behind a piece of clothing imprinted with your comforting scent.
  • Leave for a short period of time and return. Gradually extend the length of time you are gone. Treat exits and entrances as no big deal.

Togetherness and solitude are just part of the healthy continuum of life; we need “down” time to be “up,” circulation followed by seclusion. There is wisdom in the curve of the earth and its incessant spin into endless days and nights, those unmistakable cues to alternately “take life on” then “take a break.”

I love our Lilly, the Boston terrier, as much for being able to leave me alone as I do for the times she bounds over to me and wiggles her butt into my thigh. She knows what it means when I look at her, cross my flattened arms across my chest and sweep my hands away from my body.

She doesn’t sulk like she used to or bark the doggie equivalent of You never talk to me any more when I gesture “no.” Instead, she flips the brown rice wrapper of her “burrito” treat in the air a few times, wrestles three rounds with her (now unstuffed) monkey then sunbathes in her favorite spot in the living room.

Lilly has learned how to be alone without being lonely.

And she reminds me how when I forget.