Are dogs capable of emotion? Most would say a definite yes! However, it’s difficult to determine exactly which emotions dogs can feel. Most of us who own dogs will be adamant that our pets can feel happy, sad, excited…. even guilty, embarrassed, smug or proud! But do they feel lonely? Do those in single-dog households feel sad because of their solitary state?

What do dogs actually ‘feel’?

We believe, from studies of dogs’ brains, that they are indeed capable of feeling a variety of basic emotions. Loneliness may be one of these. Dogs’ emotional range is often compared to that of small children. That is, they experience strong basic emotions such as love, fear, sadness and joy. But they may not be capable of more complex emotions such as jealousy or pride. 

It is widely accepted that dogs are definitely capable of feeling distress, and this can be caused by being left alone. Called ‘man’s best friend’ for a reason, dogs are social creatures who form strong social bonds. This is an excellent trait in a pet, but it also means they are very capable of missing companionship when it is not available, as well as enjoying it highly when it is.

Every dog owner’s ideal is for their dog to feel happy, loved and satisfied with life all of the time, of course. However, work, personal circumstances and busy lives can mean our dogs are left alone more than we would like. 

Do dogs need other dogs?

Dogs evolved as highly social creatures, seldom living alone. Historically, dogs lived in ‘packs’ based around family groups. Mating pairs stayed together, often accompanied by extended family members. This structure is still seen today in wolves and in feral dog packs. This would imply that dogs have an inbuilt need for contact with other dogs in the same social group as themselves. 

However, dogs have been intensely domesticated for many years now. They have learnt to form strong bonds with humans as well as other dogs. Various studies have shown that dog-human relationships have many parallels with human parent-child relationships. This means that many dogs may be content with human companionship instead.

How can I tell if my dog is lonely?

However close we are to our beloved pooches, they still cannot talk to us! So how do we tell if they are lonely and desperate for companionship?

Here are some common signs of loneliness and distress in dogs:

  • Separation anxiety. Dogs who get very distressed when their owner leaves them may be lonely. This can present as vocalising, toileting in the house or destructive behaviour. A few may become aggressive when the owner is preparing to leave. These dogs are giving a strong signal that they are not happy being left alone!
  • Following owners around. Dogs who are extremely clingy with their owners, who howl when their designated human goes into another room. Or those who lie outside the bathroom in wait for their owner to return may just be extremely attached, but this behaviour can also stem from an underlying loneliness. They are fearful of being left alone because it causes them distress.
  • Repetitive licking. Some dogs who are stressed, bored or lonely can lick at areas of their skin repetitively, even to the point of causing self-traumatic sore patches. Dogs who seem depressed, sleep a lot and don’t respond as usual to their owners may be suffering from loneliness or other form of stress.

How can I help my dog if I think they’re lonely?

Every owner wants the best for their dog, so luckily there are some ways we can help our canine companions to feel better if we think they might be having periods of loneliness.

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Getting a second dog

The best antidote to loneliness is obviously companionship. Now, getting another dog is certainly not the right step for every household, and due care must be taken that this is a sensible decision, but a carefully chosen companion pooch may be a wonderful way to help your dog if done with proper consideration!

We recommend choosing another dog carefully. Research the best age, breed, sex and size, but a doggy friend might well be the best buddy that your dog is craving. 

Human visitors

If getting another dog is not a good decision for your household, that’s okay! There are plenty of other ways to reduce loneliness. As discussed above, human companionship is very valuable to dogs as well. Could you take your dog out with you more?

Some careful planning can make many trips, chores and activities dog-friendly! If that is not an option, why not think about having someone come in and see your dog whilst you are out?

Neighbours, dog-walkers and pet-sitters can all provide this kind of help. You may even find someone who loves dogs but cannot have their own who is keen to come and give your pet some fuss, attention and even a walk!

Practical steps for reducing loneliness in your dog

There will be times, due to unforeseen circumstances, work commitments and busy lives that you might have to leave your dog alone. Don’t panic!

Leave them a blanket or article of clothing that smells like you and invest in some puzzle toys or robust feeder chews that might keep them occupied and busy for a while. You could also try leaving a radio on for some comforting human sounds. 

Dogs are capable of feeling lonely, and as they are a social species this is a very valid concern for owners. Although the ideal situation would be a fellow doggy to keep them happy, there are lots of other ways to keep them calm and content!

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Read More: John Bradshaw ‘In Defence of Dogs’, published Penguin, 2012.