What is dog separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs become upset because of separation from their owners, or 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 experience heavy salivation 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 over other breeds. Other less dramatic changes can also trigger the disorder.
Possible separation anxiety triggers
- Change of owner or family. Being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter, or living with a new person or family can trigger separation anxiety.
- Change in 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.
- Change in residence. Moving to a new home can be a shock to a dog, resulting in separation anxiety.
- Change in 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 who has separation anxiety might bark or howl when left alone or when 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 (i.e. door frames or window sills), 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. General anxiety, on the other hand, is a possibility and can be treated with the help of your vet.
How to treat your dog’s separation anxiety
1. Rule out medical problems
Before you begin treating a dog with separation anxiety, always have your dog thoroughly evaluated for medical issues first, especially if there’s a sudden onset of symptoms.
- Medications. There are 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. Rule out these behavioral problems
- Urine marking. Some dogs urinate in the house because they’re scent marking. Most male dogs and some female dogs who scent mark raise a leg, urinating small amounts on vertical surfaces.
- Juvenile destruction. Many young dogs engage in destructive chewing or digging while their owners are home as well as when they’re away.
- Boredom. Some dogs can be disruptive when left alone simply because they’re bored and looking for something to do. These dogs usually don’t appear anxious while exhibiting the behavior, it’s more from a lack of mental stimulation.
- Excessive barking or howling. Some dogs bark or howl in response to various triggers in their environments (i.e. unfamiliar sights and sounds), not from feeling anxious. They usually vocalize when their owners are home as well as when they’re away.
3. Treatment for mild/moderate separation anxiety
If your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety, 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.
We recommend giving your dog a KONG® stuffed with something really tasty. A KONG toy is a nontoxic rubber toy with a hollow center that can be filled with treats your pup loves. It provides dogs with a healthy outlet for their natural desire to chew and lick. 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.
4. Treatment for severe separation anxiety
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 separations and slowly increase the duration over many weeks of daily sessions.
👉 There is nothing wrong with asking for help if you aren’t sure where to begin. The ASPCA has a great resource for helping you find professional help for your pup in your area.
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 actually leaving. After your dog doesn’t become anxious when they see you getting ready to leave, you can continue with further desensitization.
Now that you can get through your pre-departure tasks without causing your pup loads of anxiety, the next step is to slowly get him used to extended periods of being alone.
- Leave the room, but stay in the house. To get started, 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, start the exercises at the back door first and move to exiting from the front door. Remember not to shut the door on them during this stage, instead, allow them to watch you go outside and come back.
- 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 separations of five to ten seconds long, 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 on how quickly a dog will overcome their separation anxiety. Many pet parents will 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.
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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:
A crate can be your dog’s friend and your ally. Crate training is an important tool and the solution for many puppy challenges 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 other dogs 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 a vital part of treating many dog’s behavior problems, especially those involving anxiety. In other words, a physically and mentally tired dog won’t have the excess energy to expend on “naughty” separation anxiety behaviors when left alone. Some stimulation examples include:
- At least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily (i.e. walks, runs, or swimming).
- Play fun and interactive games with your dog, such as fetch or tug-of-war.
- Frequently provide food puzzle toys. Also, give your dog a variety of attractive edible and inedible chew things and always provide them whenever you leave your dog alone.
- Make your dog “hunt” for meals by hiding small piles of their kibble around your house or yard when you leave.
- Get involved in dog sports, such as agility or flyball.
- Give your pup proper socialization with other dogs.
- Do training sessions with your dog. 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 clingy behavior. It is also helpful to keep a calm demeanor when you leave or return home. 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.
Medication and Natural Supplements
Sometimes training and desensitizing are not 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 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.
FAQs about doggie separation anxiety
Q: Is there a cure for separation anxiety in dogs?
A: Yes, oftentimes there is a cure. It involves a solid behavioral training plan, counterconditioning, and a very patient owner. It’s not always possible to completely eliminate, but it is possible to reduce it to workable levels. In extreme cases, we recommend you work closely with a professional dog trainer who is familiar with separation anxiety to develop a plan specifically for your dog.
Q: What can I give my dog while he is anxious to help him calm down quickly?
A: There are a variety of other anti-anxiety medications and supplements that are safe for your dog. One popular herbal option for helping reduce your dog’s anxiety and fear is valerian root. In some cases, however, your vet may recommend a stronger prescription medication.