- Recognize the signs — If your dog acts out when they’re alone, they might be dealing with separation anxiety. Some signs include howling, chewing, or relieving themselves in inappropriate areas.
- It’s important to rule out other factors — The key to recognizing true separation anxiety is that your dog only behaves in a certain way when you’re not there. If symptoms persist when you’re with them, they may be struggling with general anxiety or another medical issue.
- Treatment for separation anxiety requires a holistic approach — Positive reinforcement and gradual desensitization can help your dog learn that spending some time alone is okay. In extreme cases, your vet may prescribe medication to calm their nerves, especially if they’re engaging in self-destructive behaviors.
Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs become upset because they are apart from anyone they’re heavily attached to. Separation anxiety in dogs can look like many things — they might urinate, defecate, bark, howl, chew, or dig once their owner leaves.
Many dogs experiencing this challenging behavior also refuse to eat or drink when left alone, don’t tolerate crating, pant heavily, or drool more when distressed. Some dogs even go to great lengths to try to escape from confinement, possibly injuring themselves or damaging their surroundings.
Causes of dog separation anxiety
There is no truly conclusive evidence showing exactly why dogs develop separation anxiety. A lot of dogs who have been adopted from shelters exhibit this behavior problem — however, genetic influences have been seen in purebred dogs, as well. Any breed or mix can develop it, but German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Australian shepherds, and Catahoulas tend to develop separation anxiety more than some other breeds.
Other less dramatic shifts can also trigger the disorder, such as changes to:
- Owner or family. Being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter, or living with a new person or family can trigger separation anxiety.
- Schedule. An abrupt change in schedule (i.e. when or how long a dog is left alone) is another common reason for dogs developing separation anxiety.
- Residence. Moving to a new home can be a shock to a dog, resulting in separation anxiety.
- Household membership. The sudden absence of a resident family member (i.e. a death in the family or someone moving away) can lead to the onset of separation anxiety.
Signs of dog separation anxiety
The following is a list of symptoms that may indicate separation anxiety:
- Urinating and defecating. Some dogs urinate or defecate when left alone due to their separation anxiety.
- Coprophagia. Some dogs will also defecate and then consume all or some of their excrement. This is called coprophagia.
- Barking and howling. A dog with separation anxiety might bark or howl when left alone or separated from their owner. This kind of barking or howling is persistent and doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything except being left alone.
- Chewing, digging, and destruction. Some dogs with separation anxiety will chew on or dig at objects or destroy other household objects when left alone. This can result in self-injury, such as broken teeth, cut paws, and/or damaged nails.
- Escaping. A dog with separation anxiety might try to escape from where they are confined when left alone (i.e. breaking out of a crate or chewing/digging at a door frame).
- Pacing. Some dogs will walk or trot along a specific path in a fixed pattern when left alone. Some will pace around in circular patterns, while others walk back and forth in straight lines.
👉 If a dog exhibits any of these anxious behaviors while in the presence of their owner, they likely aren’t caused by separation anxiety. On the other hand, general anxiety is a possibility and can be treated with the help of your vet.
Diagnosing separation anxiety in dogs
1. Rule out medical problems
Some medical conditions can mimic symptoms of separation anxiety. For example, shivering is a common indication of anxiety, but can also be a symptom of a fever. In a similar way, howling can indicate emotional or physical pain.
There are also a number of medications that can cause frequent urination and house-soiling. For example, diuretics and steroids cause increased thirst. This leads to increased urination and can cause your pup to accidentally urinate in the house. If your dog takes any medications, please contact your veterinarian to find out whether or not they might be contributing to these problems.
2. Observe them when you’re home
Does your dog bark excessively or urinate in your house if you’re in the same room? How about if you’re across the house? Dogs who have behavioral problems while you’re with them could still be doing these things to grab your attention, especially if they’re bored. However, these bad behaviors could also be a good indication that something else is going on. It’s best to see a vet to rule out medical issues if you notice any abnormal behaviors.
3. Determine their normal behavior.
Some breeds such as the Beagle are more prone to vocalize even when nothing is wrong. Howling while you’re away might not be a sign of distress for these guys, but it could be a very good sign coming from your quiet Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
4. Consult a veterinarian.
Before you begin treating a dog with separation anxiety, always have your dog thoroughly evaluated by a veterinarian for underlying medical issues first, especially if there’s a sudden onset of symptoms.
Dr. Dwight Alleyne
Diagnosis of separation anxiety is based on history provided by the owner about the pet's behavior and observing the pet's interaction when with the owner and when they are away.
Training and Counterconditioning
👉 There is nothing wrong with asking for help if you aren’t sure where to begin. The AVSAB has a great resource for helping you find professional help for your pup in your area.
If your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety, creating positive associations with their time alone through counterconditioning may reduce or resolve the problem. Counterconditioning is a behavior modification process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious, or aggressive response to a pleasant, relaxed one instead.
For separation anxiety specifically, counterconditioning focuses on developing an association between being alone and positive things, like delicious treats or exciting chew toys. Over time, the dog learns that whatever was causing their anxiety can actually lead to good things for them.
To do this, make sure your dog’s environment feels cozy to them. Whether they’re in a crate or have free reign of the recliner, set the thermostat to a comfortable temperature and outfit them with their favorite toys or treats. We recommend giving your dog a KONG® stuffed with something really tasty. Try stuffing yours with low-fat cream cheese, spray cheese, or low-fat peanut butter (be sure to avoid any containing xylitol), frozen banana and cottage cheese, or canned dog food and kibble. You can even freeze them overnight for longer-lasting entertainment for your dog.
👉 Be sure to remove these special toys as soon as you return home so that your dog only has access to them and the high-value treats inside when alone. Also, keep in mind that this approach will only work for mild cases of separation anxiety — highly anxious dogs typically won’t eat even the tastiest of treats when their owners aren’t home.
Desensitization through pre-departure cues
A great place to start with a severely anxious dog is working on desensitizing “pre-departure cues.” These are the simple tasks you do when preparing to leave the house (i.e. grabbing your coat, picking up your car keys, or putting on your shoes).
One treatment approach to this “pre-departure anxiety” is to teach your dog that when you are exhibiting these cues, it doesn’t always mean that you’re leaving. You can do this by exposing your dog to these cues several times a day without leaving. After your dog doesn’t become anxious when they see you getting ready to leave, you can continue with further desensitization until they’re ready for you to leave for a full work day. Here’s how to start:
Slowly increase the time you’re gone. Now that they are okay with you exiting the house, you can start to incorporate very short periods of absence into the training. Start with absences that only last one to two seconds, and slowly increase the time you’re out of your dog’s sight. When you’ve trained up to five to ten seconds long separations, build in counterconditioning by giving your dog a toy or chew treat just before you step out the door. Remember to always remain very calm and quiet when going out and coming in.
Go at a pace your dog is comfortable with. At this point, you can judge whether your dog is ready to increase the time spent alone. There are no standard timelines for how quickly a dog will overcome separation anxiety. Many pet parents rush this stage because they want the treatment to progress quickly, leading them to expose their dogs to durations that are too long too soon and worsening the problem. Slow and steady is key.
Continually increase the time you’re out of sight. Start with 5-minute increments, then later 15-minute increments, and work up to leaving your dog alone for 40 minutes. Once they can handle that timespan without getting upset or anxious, you can try for 90 minutes. Work your way up to leaving them for four hours (your typical half-work day) and then work up to eight full hours over a few days. If they start showing signs of anxiety again, knock some time off and try again at a slower pace.
Leave the room, but stay in the house. Train your dog to perform out-of-sight stays within the house. For example, you can teach your dog to sit or lie down and stay while you go to another room where they can’t see you.
Exit the house and come right back. Once your dog seems comfortable with in-house out-of-sight stay exercises, progress to doing them while exiting the house. If you always leave through the front door, try leaving from the back door. Remember not to shut the door on them during this stage, instead, allow them to watch you go outside and come back.
Severe cases of separation anxiety require a more complex desensitization program. In these cases, it’s crucial not to move too fast. Gradually acclimate your dog to being alone by starting with many short sessions and slowly increase the duration over many weeks of daily sessions. Desensitization works best when coupled with positive reinforcement, so be sure to toss in a favorite chew toy for them to enjoy while you’re away.
Develop a routine
Even though canines don’t know how to read a clock, they thrive on routine and quickly pick up on behavioral patterns. Structure provides stability, which can make them less anxious in general. For example, if your dog knows you always arrive home around dusk and you’ll go for a walk afterward, they’ll likely save their energy for the good times ahead.
Medication and natural supplements
Sometimes training and desensitizing isn’t enough when it comes to separation anxiety in your dog. Some vets recommend prescription medications prescribed to treat depression or anxiety disorders.
There are also veterinary behaviorists or animal behaviorists who can prescribe medication and provide hands-on or detailed training instructions. No two cases are alike, so contact one if you need help.
Other options are herbal calming supplements or homeopathic treatments to help smooth out the training process. Just be sure to consult with your vet before giving your dog any over-the-counter products. You could also get your dog a compression jacket, such as a Thundershirt, to give them some comfort when home alone.
Preventing separation anxiety in your dog
Separation anxiety in puppies and dogs isn’t always preventable, despite your best efforts. However, there are a few things you can try:
Crate training is an important tool and the solution for many puppy challenges. A crate can be your dog’s friend and your ally by providing your pup with a safe, quiet place to relax. The trick is to teach them to associate the crate with exciting things, such as treat-stuffed toys, so they’re happy to spend time in it.
Some dogs feel safer and more comfortable in their kennel when left alone, while others might panic. Starting off at an early age is great, but not always possible if you adopt an older dog. Be sure to watch your dog’s behavior the first time in the crate and see if they settle down after a little time or if the anxiety symptoms get worse.
👉 Crating your dog all day, every day, is not a solution to separation anxiety. It is simply a short-term tool to keep your pup and your house safe while you teach them to enjoy being alone.
Exercise (both mental and physical)
Providing lots of physical and mental exercise is vital to treating behavior problems in dogs, especially those involving anxiety. In other words, when left alone, a physically and mentally tired dog won’t have the excess energy to expend on “naughty” separation anxiety behaviors. Some stimulation examples include:
- Walks, runs, and swimming. At least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily can help your dog burn off excess energy.
- Playtime. Games like fetch or tug-of-war burn energy and are fun, interactive games with your dog.
- Food puzzle toys. Provide puzzle toys and a variety of attractive edible and inedible chew things whenever you leave your dog alone.
- Hide and seek. Make your dog “hunt” for meals by hiding small piles of their kibble around your house or yard when you leave.
- Dog competitions. Get involved in dog sports, such as agility or flyball.
- Training sessions. Even short sessions keep your pup’s mind working and mentally tire them out.
Developing independence by teaching your pup to be on their own in another room (even when you’re home) is important to prevent overly dependent behavior. Keeping a calm demeanor when you leave or return home is also helpful. You can greet your dog with love, but don’t be over the top. Getting emotionally worked up only causes your dog to see your comings and goings as a major event to worry about.
Getting your pup out and around other people and pups can reduce their risk of developing anxiety in general. Once they’ve received their puppy vaccines, hit the dog park or take them on a walk in your neighborhood. Making outdoor excursions a habit gives them something to look forward to and a positive way to use their energy. When you do have to leave them home alone, ideally they’ll spend their time sleeping instead of feeling antsy inside their crate.
If you work outside of the home for most of the day, you might consider doggy daycare. This way, they can socialize and exercise with other dogs in a safe environment, alleviating boredom and reducing their risk of developing separation anxiety overall.
Consider working with a professional trainer or behaviorist
Whether your dog is struggling with separation anxiety or they’re newly adopted, it’s always a good idea to consult with a professional to identify possible behavioral issues before they become a habit. You might ask your veterinarian for local recommendations, especially if your dog is struggling with a particular issue.
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Frequently asked questions
How do you stop separation anxiety in dogs?
Curing separation anxiety is often a holistic approach combining gradual desensitization with positive reinforcement. If you’re considering a supplement, valerian root is a popular herbal option for mild cases. In moderate to severe cases, your vet may prescribe medication. Sometimes separation anxiety isn’t entirely preventable, but it should be manageable with time and different techniques.
What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?
Although the symptoms are often similar, separation anxiety differs from generalized anxiety because the signs specifically manifest when your dog is alone. Dogs with separation anxiety may vocalize excessively or urinate and defecate in the house while their owner is away — even if it’s only for a short time. The dog is usually content as long as their pet parent is nearby. Independence training helps them learn to cope with being alone sometimes and even enjoy their short time in solitude.
Do dogs ever get over separation anxiety?
All dogs can find some relief, but some may see a full improvement. Your chance of success is much greater if you use a combination of multiple methods, such as counterconditioning and gradual desensitization.
What do vets do for separation anxiety?
First, they’ll likely try to rule out medical disorders first, especially if they present other symptoms. If your vet determines separation anxiety is likely the issue, they may recommend training tips or herbal supplements. If your dog has extreme anxiety, your vet may prescribe medication to help. They may also have recommendations for a behavioral trainer.
Would adopting another pet cure my dog’s separation anxiety?
Maybe. Some dogs find comfort with another canine or even a cat in their company. Others who are super attached to their human will likely still suffer from separation anxiety when their special person is away. If you want another pet, you can always try to adopt another animal. However, you’ll still likely have to deal with the root of the problem through training and positive reinforcement.