Pricey Products for Dogs Left at Home

Are they necessary?
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2017

An aunt of mine once told me that someone could make a fortune selling ear deodorant with a clever marketing campaign to convince everyone that their ears smell. That’s probably true, because all that’s required to sell anything is to convince people that they have a great need for it. This may be what’s going on with a number of products in the dog world that seek to address the need to keep dogs occupied constantly when they are left at home alone.

With marketing phrases like “robot companion”, “you will never have to truly leave your dog again”, “keep your dog entertained for hours” and “you can leave the house with peace of mind” there is a whole class of high-tech costly toys being sold as the solution to the problem of leaving our dogs home alone. However, I’m not buying either this idea that dogs home alone is necessarily a problem, or the products that claim to be essential for such dogs.

We humans tend to have jobs or other aspects of our lives that take us away from the house to places where we cannot bring our dogs. The majority of dogs can handle this as long as they are housetrained and can easily hold it for the duration of our absence, have a comfortable place to rest and perhaps some basic toys or chew toys with which to amuse themselves. Most adult dogs are able to be home by themselves for several hours without a problem. Yes, many of them would presumably rather that we stayed home with them all day, but that doesn’t mean that being home alone is unmanageable.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to leave our dogs home alone all day and all evening while we just pop in to change clothes or eat. Our dogs need our attention and good quality time with us along with plenty of exercise. So while I do not object to us leaving dogs at home alone, we need to provide them with activities and lots of high quality time and loving from us when we are with them.

A lot of dogs sleep for much of the time that they are alone while we are out working and otherwise attending to the business of our lives, though it’s wise to give them something to eat or chew on when we leave to make sure they don’t go looking for something else to do as they process that we are leaving or gone.

For most dogs, the quality time we spend with them when we are home are enough to compensate for the time left on their own. That means that while it is generally fine to leave dogs home alone, we must be truly present and engaged with them in the hours that we are able to be with them. Dogs need physical and mental exercise, companionship, and opportunities to play and have fun. Their quality of life can easily suffer if they don’t have various types of social time and activities each day, but that does not mean that they need these things all day long.

Now, I’ve said that most adult dogs can handle being alone, but certainly that does not apply to all dogs. There are those who really can't cope because of separation anxiety or because they chew destructively, but these dogs aren't likely to have their problems solved with the products that claim to be the answer to leaving dogs home alone. A crate and stuffed Kong make more sense to me for keeping dogs and houses safe when a dog is young and energetic and prone to chewing destructively, especially if they get into things that they shouldn’t, though I know some dogs can't handle crates. Dogs who truly have separation anxiety have a condition that is far too complex and serious to be touched by such products. Some dogs desperately crave company when left home alone, and they aren't likely to be satisfied by a robot or toy—they need a real social being for company and interaction. The dogs who sleep or relax a large amount of the time that they are left alone do not need toys and other expensive gadgets to keep them occupied. So, in general, I find a lot of these toys to be a solution in search of a problem they can solve, and I'm not a fan.

The marketing of products designed to entertain our dogs and to act as a substitute for our presence are designed to make people feel so guilty about leaving their dogs alone that they spend hundreds of dollars on a single item that may not even help. There is no substitute for us in our dogs’ lives, which is why we must spend time with them each day to give these intelligent, active, social animals what they need. If your dog enjoys these high-tech toys, that’s wonderful, but we must not be fooled into thinking that they are necessary just because you leave your dog at home alone.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.