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Do dogs really get stressed by traveling or being left alone?

Tackling some of the most common reasons people cite for not adopting a shelter dog.

As a dog shelter owner, my biggest goal is to have the dogs at my shelter be adopted. As a dog owner myself, I am acutely aware of the dog lover's dilemmas at evaluating if they will be a good owner or not.

I have witnessed hundreds of people wrestle with the debate of getting a dog or not. And the two most common reasons I hear for not adopting are either “I have a job, and it would not be fair to the dog to have to stay alone..” or “I will travel to another country soon, and may move yet again, this is not fair to the dog.”

I can be sympathetic to the human emotions that trigger those lines of logic, but I can categorically say that dogs' idea if what is "fair" is vastly different to humans’. I will now explain why I think these lines of thought are simply not right, from the canine perspective.

Dogs perceive the world very differently than humans do. To have a successful dog relationship it is of key importance that we understand this. They interpret daily events, and major events too, in different contexts than we do.

While some have said that dogs only perceive the present, recent studies suggest that by interpreting the smells around them, and of course, visual clues, dogs have a pretty good perception of past and future.

Having said that, it is important for the owner who wants to make sure their dog is happy, to understand that dogs evaluate the concept of "happiness" by whether or not their immediate expectations, needs, and wants are fulfilled, or have a reasonable chance of fulfillment in the foreseeable future.

Unlike humans, it doesn't take much to cause a dog to be in complete bliss and happiness. They have the gift of living the joy of the present or near future. When they are engaged in activities they consider worthwhile, all else is of little importance.

Casper in NetherlandsCasper in NetherlandsAsk any dog owner what a dog's greatest wish is, and they'll tell you: to be with their human.
However, this does not mean that a dog requires undivided attention. Far from the truth. A dog can be content sleeping all afternoon while you sit at the computer. Just being in the same house is enough for her. Dogs are content with being near you. Of course, they love being actively engaged in activities with you, but can find contentment in simply having your presence near. So, does this mean that you should be home twenty-four hours a day in order for your dog to be content? Not at all.

As I mentioned before, dogs perceive time by their surroundings. When you get a new puppy, the first time you walk out the door, she will go crazy with anxiety, because she fears you will never return. But after a few times of you leaving and then returning, she will realize that you will always return. Your lingering smell will tell her that you were there, and will, undoubtedly, return. That is the beauty of how dogs associate from past experience. They can form a set of expectations for the future based on the past. And for a dog, having the certainty that you will return is the next best thing to actually being with you.

Many people know about Hachiko, the dog that went everyday to a Tokyo subway station to meet his owner who always returned on the evening train. Hachiko interpreted diverse things such as the position of the sun in the sky, the bells of clocks, and even the smell of the earth, and he knew when the time was arriving. After Hachi's owner died while at work, he kept returning at the same time expecting the owner to arrive. Hachi kept doing this until his death many years later. While being a moving story, it also teaches us about the nature of dogs. They can adapt and understand the fact that you have to leave, but will return sooner or later. They will be unstressed knowing you will, in fact, return. Hachi lived his life in the sure certainty that his owner would come someday.

In my house there are seven dogs. I used to worry so much about them, particularly when I had to leave for work and leave them alone for seven or eight hours. I decided to get a home surveillance system, and installed cameras all around the house. I now could observe how they coped with my departure. The truth was anti-climatic to say the least.

While I expected to see seven balls of anxiety, nervously pacing form side to side, miserable in my absence, this is what I see every day. When I close the door, they look at it for about 2 minutes, in hopes that I’ve just gone to the car to get something. But as soon as they realize this is a long trip, they promptly each go to their favorite sleeping place, circle it twice, paw at it, and then fall deeply asleep... until I return, even if it is one hour, or five, or ten. They just sleep peacefully. From time to time they have a drink of water, or sniff one another, but always invariably go back to sleep.

Of course, each time a new dog was introduced to the pack, he or she would whine when the humans left, but with some simple reassuring training methods, they would soon enough realize that we'd be back eventually, and joined the peace of the pack proceeding to sleep like the rest. While I appreciate the assurance I get every time I check my smartphone to see the cameras, it is in fact boring to watch the video from my house. Nothing ever happens!

Being at home they are surrounded by familiar smells that they've come to associate with the routines and systems of our life, and are perfectly at ease with staying alone, even if sometimes we are late past their dinner time. The same holds true for when they go with me in the car. If the weather allows, I take some of them with me as I do my work rounds. And I have discovered that it does not matter to them where the car itself is, they know I will come back, and stay calmly sleeping, just as they do at home.

All of this, plus other observations I have made of dogs at both the shelter and home, leads me to be confident in stating the following: If properly conditioned to their "nest", dogs will not stress form being left alone while you go to work, and they will also not stress when they have to travel to move to a new house, city, or country.

This brings me to my next point. Just as dogs know how to adapt to the fact that their human will be gone for several hours during the day, they also are remarkably unstressed by travel. In fact, dogs are nomads by nature. There is nothing more exciting to a dog than going to a new place to take in new smells. They are attached to their human, not their location.

Angel, resident of France.Angel, resident of France.I've heard people say they are reluctant to adopt a dog while in Korea, because soon they will move move to another country, and they assume it will bring great stress upon the dog. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is you, the human, who faces the stress of travel. You have to buy the tickets, pack the boxes, arrange for the connection of new utilities, stop the mail, and so forth. But to the dog there is no anxious anticipation of travel, nor the stress of adapting to a new culture and environment. All he has to do is sit several hours in a familiar crate till you return, just as my dogs do at home, or in the car. The crate may be in an airplane, van, or anywhere, they will just sleep.

If you train your dog to be in his airline travel crate for a few weeks before departure, and make sure he has your stinky shirt to keep him scent company, he will be happy in the crate, no matter how long it takes. Of course, you have to spend some days getting her used to being locked in, and reassuring her that in fact you will be back. Once she is used to spending a whole day or night in the crate, secure in the knowledge that you will be back, she just simply doesn't care where the actual crate is, just like my dogs don't care where the car is parked. It won’t matter if the crate is in your living room, garage, car, or an airplane cargo hold. They only care about their immediate surroundings, and if they have established a comfort zone in the crate, and can smell your presence, there will be no stress. A day in the crate on the airplane will be no different than a day in the crate while you are out, or sleeping in the second floor. It is all about the expectations that their immediate surroundings trigger in their minds.

Philip in the carPhilip in the carOur first two dogs, Philip and Wendy, are perfectly conditioned to being left alone at home or in the car. However, a few years ago my wife and I decided to go to an amusement park, and being the middle of summer, instead of staying in the car like usual, we left them in the park’s pet hotel. We assured the attendant that they would be quiet and calm, because they were used to being alone.

After 5 or 6 hours we came back to check on the kids. I must note that 6 hours is nothing compared to what they are used to. But the exhausted attendant told us that from the moment we left they did not stop crying, pacing, whining, and being miserable. We of course took them immediately, and went home. What happened to my normally calm and confident dogs?

The answer is simple. They were left in an unfamiliar place, with nothing to reassure them we would come back to get them. But had we left them in the car, they’d have just slept the day away. Or even if we had taught them to be in a crate, and left them in the crate, they’d be fine.

Sopa test out his new crate to go to Canada... Just a few days remaining!Sopa test out his new crate to go to Canada... Just a few days remaining!Dogs don't care about the difference of being in Chesapeake, Chestertown, or China. They are where they are, and if their human is there, or will come eventually, they are content. A tree is a tree, dirt is dirt. Human political boundaries mean nothing to dogs. Ultimately, it is only you who gets stressed by the idea of taking a dog abroad. The idea of international travel, particularly to establish a residence in a new and unfamiliar place, is daunting and fearsome to us humans. But our canine companions are blessed to be unencumbered by the incidental and superficial matters of location. As long as they have someone who loves them in their life, they will always just go to sleep in your absence, and be glad when they see you again. It's their nature.

Over 40 dogs from our shelter are now living abroad. And we have never had a report of a dog being jet-lagged, homesick, stressed about the new surroundings, or showed in the slightest any ill effects related to airplane travel or the relocation.

In the end, I believe that some simple things that a ‘good’ dog owner does can be much more stressful than traveling in an intercontinental flight. Things like taking your dog to a new groomer and leaving him there for the afternoon. Or things like leaving her to spend the week at the nice dog hotel down the street while you travel abroad. The first time dogs experience these events can be incredibly stressful and traumatic if they’ve never been at that place before and associated your eventual return with it.

Do not let your own human perceptions get in the way of a relationship with a dog. Events that seem monumental to you, often don’t even register in the dog’s radar.

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