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Separation anxiety in dogs: Causes, prevention, and how to ease it

The essentials

  • Recognize the signs — Some signs of separation anxiety include howling, chewing, or relieving themselves in inappropriate areas.
  • It’s important to rule out other factors — If the behavior occurs whether you’re there or not, this could point to another cause.
  • Treatment usually requires a holistic approach — Positive reinforcement and gradual desensitization can help your dog learn that spending some time alone is okay.

Separation-related behavior (SRB) can be triggered when dogs become upset because they are apart from anyone they have an emotional attachment to. Separation anxiety in dogs can take on many forms and symptoms, including common problem behaviors like inappropriate peeing or pooping, barking, howling, chewing, or digging in their owner’s absence. In some instances, they may experience panic attacks. 

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 make escape attempts, possibly injuring themselves, damaging their surroundings, or engaging in other destructive behaviors. 

The good news is that there are treatment options. Here’s what you need to know about addressing separation anxiety in dogs and how to help your canine friend feel confident and safe in your absence.

Signs of dog separation anxiety

Do you think your pet struggles with separation anxiety? Pet parents report several related behaviors and symptoms, including:

  • 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.
  • Coprophagia. This is when dogs poop, then consume all or some of their excrement. 
  • Pacing. Some anxious 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.
  • Barking and howling. A dog with separation anxiety might partake in excessive vocalization when left alone or separated from their owner. This kind of barking or howling is persistent, loud, and doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything except being left alone.
  • Peeing and pooping. Some dogs might excessively or inappropriately leave puddles and poop piles when left alone due to their separation anxiety.
  • Showing disinterest in eating/drinking. If your dog chooses not to eat or drink when you’re not home, it could be a sign that your dog is facing separation anxiety.
  • Staring at the door. Some owners with indoor cameras may notice their dogs sitting or lying in wait at the door, waiting for their owner to return.
  • Trembling. Excessive shaking and trembling can be a nervous response to being alone. 

👉 If a dog exhibits any of these anxious behaviors while in the presence of their owner, they likely aren’t caused by separation or generalized anxiety. It’s best to see the vet to get to the bottom of what’s causing your pup’s distress.

Causes of dog separation anxiety

There is no 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 working breeds like German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Australian shepherds, and Catahoulas tend to develop separation anxiety more than some others. 

Other possible causes can also trigger the disorder, such as:

  • Change in residence. Moving to a new home is an environmental change that can be jarring, especially for your dog. With new smells and an unfamiliar landscape, your dog might feel out of their element, which can trigger them to rely more heavily on your presence for comfort.
  • New owner or family. If your pet has a prior history of being abandoned or surrendered to a shelter, it can affect how they form bonds. As a result, living with a new person or family can trigger transient separation anxiety until they feel safe.
  • Changes in household membership. The sudden absence of a resident family member (i.e. a death in the family or a specific person moving away) can lead to the onset of separation anxiety, particularly if that person was a regular part of your dog’s routine and life. 
  • Schedule changes. Routine changes (i.e. when or how long a dog is left alone) are another common reason for dogs developing separation anxiety, which is why a slow transition to a new routine is best to ease the fear.

Diagnosing separation anxiety in dogs

Getting a diagnosis of separation anxiety in dogs is the first step to helping your furry friend feel better. Here are a few steps you can take to support them through the process: 

  1. Rule out medical problems Some medical conditions can mimic symptoms of separation anxiety. If you haven’t yet, consider contacting your veterinarian to find out whether or not medical issues could be contributing to these problems.
  2. Observe them when you’re home — 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 — like anxiety. 
  3. Determine their normal behavior — Some breeds such as the Beagle are more prone to vocalize even when nothing is wrong. As a result, howling while you’re away might not be a sign of distress for these guys. However, it could be an indication of distress if it was 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.

“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.”

Dr. Dwight Alleyne

Training and counterconditioning

Not all separation anxiety in dogs can be treated without a professional and it’s important to find the right solution for you and your dog. However, if you and your vet have determined that your pooch’s anxiety is mild and trainable at home, we have the steps to start.


If your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety, creating positive associations with their time alone through counterconditioning and the use of behavioral therapy 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.

Counterconditioning focuses on developing an association between being alone and positive things for separation anxiety specifically. Over time, the dog learns that whatever was causing their anxiety can actually lead to good things for them.

To start, make sure your dog’s environment feels cozy to them. Whether they’re in a crate or have free rein of the recliner, set the thermostat to a comfortable temperature and outfit them with fun toys or treats. 

We recommend giving your dog a KONG® stuffed with a tasty treat. Try stuffing yours with low-fat cream cheese, spray cheese, or low-fat peanut butter (be sure to avoid any containing xylitol or “birch sugar”), frozen banana and vanilla ice cream, or another special treat. 

If your pet is triggered by what they can see outside, consider placing them in a spot without windows, like a laundry room. You can also play classical music , which has been proven to help settle emotional distress caused by separation. 

👉 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. 

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 amount of time you’re gone — Once they are okay with you exiting the house, you can start to incorporate very short periods of absence into the training. Start with short-time absences that only last a few 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. 

Go at a pace your dog is comfortable with — At this point, you can judge whether your dog is ready to increase their alone time. 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, always incrementally increasing the lengths of these short departures.

Once they can handle that timespan without getting upset or anxious, you can try for 90 minutes, then for four hours (your typical half-work day), then eight full hours. 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 for a short time. 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. A study by Butler et al shares more on the success of desensitization in terms of separation anxiety. 

👉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.

Medication and natural supplements

Sometimes training and desensitization aren’t enough when it comes to separation anxiety in your dog. Some vets recommend the use of 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. If you cannot find a veterinary behaviorist, your regular veterinarian may be able to help. They may be able to prescribe medication or they can direct you to a fear-free and trained (CCPDT) specialist. No two cases are alike, so contact a professional 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

Crate training is an important tool and the solution for many puppy challenges. A dog’s crate can be their 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. Here are a few ways to get your pup active and stop the anxiety before it starts: 

  • 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 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.

Independence training

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.


Puppy training through socialization 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. 

If you work outside of the home for most of the day, you might consider a doggy daycare or a dog sitter. 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.

Behaviors resembling dog separation anxiety

Other issues may sometimes present like separation anxiety, so it’s important to stay vigilant and aware of how your dog is acting while you’re home and away to determine how to proceed with treatment.

Typical canine behavior

A dog’s natural behaviors, those that are biological in nature, might at first glance seem problematic or concerning, especially if you’re a first time pet parent. 

  • Missing you. It’s completely natural for your dog to miss you when you’re away. Their behavior in your absence is what to pay attention to.
  • Barking. While excessive barking can be a sign that your pup is facing separation anxiety, it could also mean they’re a more vocal breed.

Incomplete house training

If you have a new puppy or a newly homed dog, they may urinate or defecate in your home. But the important question is why, and what other causes could trigger this behavior.

  • Avoiding punishment. Some smart pups wait until you leave before going inside to avoid punishment. 
  • Confusion. If your pet isn’t fully house trained, they may not know any better than to eliminate inside the house.


An underlying medical issue can present with symptoms of separation anxiety. Consult your veterinarian if you suspect your dog may have health issues.

  • Cognitive dysfunction disorder (CCD). Older dogs with CCD may present with disorientation and behavioral alterations that look similar to separation anxiety.
  • Gastrointestinal or urinary tract infections. Peeing or pooping inside the home could be due to an underlying infection or bacteria in your dog.

Confinement issues

While perhaps not the first thing you’d think of, dogs and puppies can in fact be uncomfortable by certain spaces the same way humans can be claustrophobic. 

  • Feeling restrained. Depending on your dog’s prior life, they may have negative associations with certain barriers.
  • Panic. This can be caused by a crate, gate, or closed door and result in excessive chewing or damage to their teeth or nails.

Other potential causes

As mentioned above, oftentimes your dog may present with separation anxiety that is actually the result of another behavior or feeling.

  • Environmental fears. Certain stimuli like fireworks, thunderstorms, or loud cars can overwhelm your dog and cause them to exhibit anxiety-like behavior. 
  • Play chewing. Sometimes dogs can chew on personal items or things like door frames and household furniture for the love of chewing and not because of anxious behavior. 
  • Vocalization. Loud noises, kids outside, or squirrels outside can cause your dog to bark, which isn’t inherently tied to separation anxiety.

Addressing and managing your furry friend’s separation anxiety requires patience and a commitment to building a strong, lasting bond with them. By learning about positive training techniques and how to present them to your dog, you’re taking the first step in alleviating their anxiety and promoting a happier lifestyle. Each dog is different — so it’s important to remain adaptable in your approach. 

With time and consistency, you can make a big change in your dog’s well-being. We’re cheering you on!

Frequently asked questions

How do you stop separation anxiety in dogs?

For pet owners dealing with dog anxiety, following instructions and implementing top tips can make a significant short-term impact. Managing separation anxiety lies in creating a calm and predictable environment, providing positive reinforcement, and gradually exposing the pet to anxiety triggers in a controlled manner.

 If you’re considering a supplement, valerian root is a popular herbal option for mild cases. In moderate to severe anxiety cases, your vet may prescribe medication for your pet. These proactive measures, when followed diligently by pet owners, can contribute to the overall well-being of their furry companions.

Do dogs ever get over separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety in pups can be progressive, meaning without intervention it can get worse over time. While most dogs can find some relief, some may see a full improvement with the proper plan in place. However, it’s important to understand that any new changes to their environment or routine could cause their anxious behaviors to resurface.

Would adopting another pet cure my dog’s separation anxiety?

Maybe! Some dogs find comfort with a new dog around 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 to add a new pet to your family, you can always try to adopt another animal from the animal shelter. However, you’ll still likely have to deal with the root of the problem through training and positive reinforcement.

Does ignoring your dog help with separation anxiety?

Ignoring your dog when they’re presenting symptoms of separation anxiety may actually cause an increased probability of separation-related problems. Instead, it’s advised that you use techniques like positive reinforcement, counter-conditioning, and gradual departures to alleviate their stress.

What dog breeds have the most separation anxiety?

While individual temperaments and previous situations in dogs do play a role in whether they will present with separation anxiety, some breeds may be more susceptible. A study by Cannas et al shared that there is a statistical association of anxiety with factors such as size, sex, age,  dogs’ resting place, etc.

It’s important to do your research before bringing a new furry friend into your home to create an environment best suited for their needs.

What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?

Common signs of separation anxiety are pacing, chewing and digging, peeing and pooping inside the house, as well as barking and howling. 

At what point do I consult a professional?

Lucky for us, a professional dog trainer or a certified applied animal behaviorist aren’t hard to come by if you feel your dog has serious separation-related problems. These individuals can help dog owners determine if their pup has true separation anxiety or separation-related behavior problems and help treat the distress behaviors with solutions like anti-anxiety medication or systematic desensitization. 

Instances of severe separation anxiety should always be addressed with a professional. 

Does my dog actually need medicine for their separation anxiety?

In some cases, your pet may need drug therapy to overcome their separation-related distress. The extreme stress caused by the intensity of separation-related behaviors in your dog can be a serious issue you want to address. Some medications for a dog’s anxiety are clomipramine, as studied in Gaultier et al , and clonidine. The effect of concurrent administration of clonidine alongside conventional therapies can help solve such problems as presented in behavioral disorders. 

The best thing that human owners can do for their pet is to consult with their veterinarian at the first sign of initially anxious behavior of puppies or adult dogs in their home.

What do I need to know about separation anxiety in dogs?

Adverse side effects, such as destructive behaviors, may occur in your pet dog during separation periods. Spending time understanding the signs of distress is crucial, like excessive barking or destructive behavior. 

To understand if your dog has it, conduct a test of separation anxiety by gradually increasing alone time. From there, understand that the best way to address this serious condition is by making small changes to routines and using positive reinforcement and creating a secure environment to make them feel safe. 

Note that cats can also experience separation anxiety and may be treated with medication.