Dogs do miss their human counterparts, thanks to the time you’ve spent creating positive associations with them. But dogs don’t define “miss” the same way humans do. Rather than “longing” for us, dogs notice our absence. So when we return, they display many signs of happiness.
“We are a source of a lot of positive reinforcement for dogs,” says Brie Blakeman, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA. “Our absence can easily be associated with absence of those reinforcers.”
To understand how a dog reacts to us leaving, we spoke to behaviorial experts and trainers who specialize in canine behavior and training:
- Brie Blakeman, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, a certified professional canine behavior consultant and founder of Noble Woof Dog Training
- Namita DigheShetty, IAABC, CPDT, FDM, FFCP, dog behavior consultant and trainer of Pawsitive Cultr+
- Jenny Efimova, KPA, CTP, certified fear-free founder and trainer behind Dogminded
Read on to learn how to interpret your dog’s behavior for a more enriched relationship with them.
Ways Dogs Say “You’re Back!” (or “Don’t Go”)
1. They act more hyper when you get home
Dog zoomies are a common expression of joy and pent-up energy to your return. DigheShetty puts it best: “[Dogs are] responding to the current moment of seeing a love oned. It’s like a friend who may not call or text often, but every time you reconnect, it’s like you never been apart! An instant connection!”
Tip: Ask your dog walker or pet sitter how your dog reacts when they arrive. Is it different from how they greet you?
2. They bring you toys or lick your face
“Bringing us toys, licking our face, jumping on us are all signs of the dog feeling excited (often overwhelmed with it) to see us return,” says DigheShetty. Dogs who carry toys in their mouths are often transferring their energy because they’ve been taught not to jump or lick your face.
3. They stay close to your scent when you’re gone
In 2015, researchers used an MRI machine to see what part of the dog’s brain would react. When dogs smelled the scent of a familiar human, the region associated with rewards and positive associations lit up.
When you’re not home, your dog may seek out something extra-scented of ours to experience those positive associations.
4. They watch the door or window for your return
Waiting by the door conjures a sad image for humans, but in the dog world, this could be their job. Some incredibly patient dogs may consider your return a reward, while others may have gotten into the routine of waiting a treat.
Even though they don’t have the same concept of time as humans do, dogs can gain a sense of when we are coming home, if we have a regular schedule.
5. They pace and scratch when you leave
Dog yawning, scratching, lip licking, and shaking can be low-level signs of stress. “If your dog is exhibiting a combination of these signals when you are getting ready to leave, they might be communicating that they find your absence stressful,” says Blakeman.
To help your dog, you may want to practice fake departures every now and then, where you pretend to leave but don’t. You may also want to get a pet camera to make sure your dog’s stress signals aren’t escalating.
6. They seek as much body contact as possible
Dogs lean against their people to get attention or seek comfort. A dog that tries to get on top of you could mean that cuddling is their love language.
Dedicate cuddle time before you leave for work or when you come home to show your dog you love them. One study found that some dogs were calmer when their pet parent petted them before leaving the house.
7. They follow you around the house
“Given what we know about dogs being social creatures, it’s fair to assume that when left alone or isolated, they like being reunited with their people,” says Efimova.
Now you’re back home, your dog probably wants to know what you’ll do with them. Is it meal time? Walk time? Play time? Following you around the house is your dog’s response to your bond, training, or desire for attention.
8. They didn’t touch their food bowl
Dogs, especially breeds who tend to prefer one human, may take time getting used to a new routine with another human. However, experts don’t all agree on labeling this behavior as “missing” someone.
“There isn’t much evidence for us to believe that dogs can experience ‘a longing’ for brief absences,” says DigheShetty. “Of course a dog may notice a shift in family structure (death, divorce, moved out).” This shift can lead to a change in behavior, such as not eating, that we associate with our dog missing an old roommate, friend, or relative.
9. They try to escape or run away
Chances are your dog is escaping to find comfort—or you—but this is hard to know for certain. If your dog shows discomfort in new places, getting a dog sitter who does house sitting can help them feel at home while you are gone.
10. They whine a little before you leave
Whining and crying may be a test to get you—the source of their fun, food, and comfort—to come back. If you do come back in response to their cries, this reinforces the behavior.
11. They do nothing but sleep
Sleep is a very relaxing behavior for dogs. Some may believe that sleeping is correlated with boredom or sadness, but it’s more likely your dog is happily waiting for you to come back. Use a pet camera to see what sleep positions your dog chooses when you’re not around.
How to Help Your Dog Feel Less Alone
“When we are leaving our dogs alone, we want to make sure their needs are met,” says DigheShetty. Before you leave your dog alone, you should:
- Take them outside
- Give them 1:1 time
- Feed or leave food out for them
- Play or give mental stimulation
- Get them physical exercise
This sets them up for success, decreasing chances of boredom, destructive behaviors, and feelings of anxiety. The key to doing this is planning ahead for times you’re gone. While most dogs do well being alone during the work day, some need less alone time or more morning time with you before you go.
“If you plan ahead, there are ways to improve your dog’s experience while you are gone such as providing them with enrichment toys, hiring a dog walker to break up the time they are alone, or sending them on dog adventures or to a well thought out day training program with a certified dog trainer,” suggests Blakeman.
Practice leaving them alone
Dogs learn how to be alone through structure and consistency. “Rapidly changing your schedule without actively onboarding skills they will need to cope with that change, would not be productive or fair,” says Blakeman.
Even if you are working from home, you should teach your dog how to be without you. This can look like small departures first before building up time apart. “If dogs are left to figure out [how to be alone] for themselves, they may become incredibly anxious and destructive to your home or to themselves,” says Blakeman.
Don’t dismiss anxiety as FOMO
“When we say a dog “misses” someone, this is a label,” Efimova reminds us. “If a dog who’s panicking and experiencing significant stress when left alone is seen as simply “missing” their guardians, we might be less likely to treat this seriously, or worse, we might blame or punish the dog if they engage in destructive behaviors.”
In the same vein, don’t let your worries of leaving your dog alone spill over into a self-fulfiling routine. Dogs can sense anxiety, especially if it changes the way you act.
Behaviors Worth Asking an Expert About
“The best we can do to understand how our dogs are feeling is to become acquainted with what our dogs are communicating through their body language and behavior,” says Blakeman. If you suspect any of these behaviors, consider watching your dog through a pet camera:
- Destructive behaviors
- Attempts to escape
- Whining or barking
- Urination or defecation (after being potty-trained)
Getting more context into these behaviors can help you determine whether you need to contact a professional dog behaviorist or certified separation trainer to help manage this anxiety.
But My Dog Ignores Me When I Leave
If your dog stays pretty chill when you take off for work, it doesn’t mean they don’t miss you! In fact, it shows how confident they are in your bond.
“If [your dog is] feeling safe and does not have clinical separation anxiety or isolation distress, they will live our their day as usual and be happy to welcome you when you’re back,” says DigheShetty. “But they’re not longing for you, which to be honest, is much healthier for them. We should all hope for our dogs to have that feeling of safety when in their home.”
Most dogs can be left alone for at least part of the day. But if you’re concerned about your dog missing you while you’re gone, hire a dog walker to keep them company. And remember, it’s okay to miss each other once in a while; it shows how strong your bond is.