Separation Anxiety in Dogs

A black dog lays in a dog bed on a wooden floor.

Naturally, a dog’s favorite spot is close by his human’s side. But most dogs are comfortable spending some time alone while their best friend works, runs errands, or takes a trip. For some dogs, however, the minor discomfort of being apart from their guardian develops into separation anxiety. The destructive and disruptive behaviors linked to separation anxiety can be deeply distressing for dogs and their owners. Read on to learn the symptoms of separation anxiety in your dog and how to help your best friend and yourself find some peace when you are apart.

What Causes Separation Anxiety In Dogs?

In most instances, separation anxiety is triggered by abrupt changes in a dog’s life, such as:

  • the sudden change or loss of a primary caretaker
  • the sudden loss of a family member
  • sudden changes in routine
  • a change of residence, through a household move or being left at a shelter

Any dog can develop separation anxiety, but it is more common in dogs who have been abandoned and adopted from animal shelters. It is also more likely among dogs who were weaned prematurely, which is a frequent practice in puppy mills

What Are The Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety In Dogs?

The behavioral signs that your dog may be experiencing distress when left alone are:

  • Incessant barking
  • Urinating or defecating
  • Eating excrement (Coprophagia)
  • Chewing, digging, and destructive behaviors
  • Escaping or attempting to escape a contained area
  • Pacing in a fixed pattern

Quick Tip: The symptoms of separation anxiety can also indicate other physical, behavioral and environmental issues. Discuss your dog’s habits and symptoms with your vet to rule out boredom, youthful destructive chewing or digging, submissive urination, or a response to medications. Generally, if the behaviors are the result of separation anxiety, they will occur exclusively when your dog is alone.

Helping Your Dog Overcome Mild Separation Anxiety

Counterconditioning can often resolve mild cases of separation anxiety. This approach involves creating positive, relaxing associations with being left alone, often using a combination of treats and toys to distract your dog from his habitual stress response to your departure. Puzzle toys are an effective counterconditioning tool because they require focused attention and deliver a tasty reward over an extended period of time. Follow these simple steps:

  1. Keep your entrances and exits calm and peaceful.
  2. Place your dog’s favorite treat inside his puzzle toy.
  3. Give your dog the treat just prior to your exit.
  4. Start with short departures to gauge your dog’s response.
  5. Extend the length of separations over time.
  6. Always remove the puzzle toy as soon as you return home.

Helping Your Dog Overcome Severe Separation Anxiety

More difficult cases of separation anxiety call for a combination of counterconditioning and desensitization over time. Patience is key as your dog slowly learns to remain calm before and after your departure. Pull from the methods and tips listed below, skipping anything your dog has mastered, moving on when your dog seems fully comfortable and repeating steps as needed. Keep training sessions brief. Think of this process in terms of weeks, rather than days, so you don’t become impatient with your dog’s progress or move too fast.

  1. Make sure your dog is trained to follow the “sit/stay ” and “down/stay” commands.
  2. Give your dog the “stay” command while you go to another room for a brief period of time, gradually extending the time you are out of your dog’s sight from seconds to minutes.
  3. Desensitize your dog to your departure cues. Gather up your keys and put on your coat several times a day and then don’t leave the house.
  4. When your dog is comfortable with you leaving him in a room alone, it’s time to start leaving the house. Provide food puzzle toys to distract him from his anxiety. At first, leave and return within a few seconds. Then slowly extend the period of time you are gone. If you are leaving and returning multiple times, make sure he is fully calmed down before you leave again so he is not already in a heightened state when you reach for the door again.
  5. Always maintain a low-key demeanor when saying goodbye and hello to your dog.
  6. After calmly greeting your dog upon your return, ignore him until he fully settles down. Once your dog is quiet, give him your attention.
  7. Provide your dog with a pile of your dirty laundry – your scent is soothing to your best pal.
  8. Consider crate training your dog. For many dogs, crates become safe dens where they feel most comfortable when they are alone.
  9. Create a safety cue in the form of a word, treat, or calm action that you utilize every time you leave the house. In time, your dog will associate this cue with your departure and inevitable return.
  10. During the training process, it is important to ensure your dog doesn’t experience any acute fear or agitation. Watch your dog closely for signs of distress and increase periods of separation in very small increments to avoid any regression.
  11. Provide companionship for your dog when you are at work by having a friend spend time with him, hiring a dog-sitter, or taking him to doggie day care. He should be fully alone only during the timed training sessions. When he is fully desensitized, you can leave him alone outside of the training periods.
  12. Make sure your dog gets plenty of playtime, exercise, and quality time with you. A tired dog is always far less likely to be destructive.

Many people find they need additional help with this time-consuming process. If you need support, you should consider hiring a professional dog trainer with expertise in canine separation anxiety.

Punishment Worsens Anxiety In Dogs

It is understandable to feel frustrated when your dog has expressed his separation anxiety with destructive behaviors in the house. But angry scolding will not help. Your dog is distressed already and punishment can actually worsen symptoms rather than alleviate them. Kindness, patience, and counterconditioning will relieve your dog’s symptoms the fastest.

Using Medication To Treat Separation Anxiety In Dogs

If your dog’s separation anxiety is causing extreme hardship on himself and the household, your veterinarian may prescribe an anti-anxiety drug. The medication can help your dog calm down enough to get through the counterconditioning and desensitization process. Once your dog is comfortable being alone, however, he should be slowly weaned off the medication.

Important note: Anti-anxiety medications should only be given to your dog with a prescription from a veterinarian who is familiar with your dog’s behavior issue.

Having a dog with separation anxiety is often overwhelming for dog owners and the behavior problem can feel insurmountable at times. It is not. With time, patience and professional help, if needed, even dogs with extreme symptoms of separation anxiety can show marked improvements. Take heart that soon your dog will be at ease on his own and you’ll enjoy a newfound peace of mind that helps you enjoy your best friend all the more.

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