How to Solve Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Dog looking out window of a door

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Separation anxiety is a disorder that causes dogs to panic at the idea of being left home alone. The panic may be so overwhelming that when you leave, your dog tends to become destructive, bark like crazy, and have housebreaking accidents. When you return home, your pup's greetings are often frantic. This condition is stressful for both dogs and owners, especially because regular obedience training can do little to ease it. If it comes on suddenly, speak with a vet as soon as possible because it could be stemming from an underlying medical condition.

What Is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

There are some questions that can help you determine if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety.

  • Does your dog freak out when you leave it home alone?
  • Have you ever gotten complaints from your neighbors about your dog barking, whining, or howling when you're gone?
  • Do you return home to find that your dog has caused major damage to your belongings?
  • Does your dog seem to forget all about housetraining when you're away?

This is a condition that prompts a pet dog to exhibit distress and behavior problems when separated from its owner. It usually manifests itself within 30 minutes of its owner's departure. People often mistake boredom for separation anxiety because both are accompanied by problem behaviors, such as destructive chewing and excessive barking. The difference is that you can overcome your dog's boredom by adding more exercise and mental stimulation to its routine. These things have little or no impact on separation anxiety.

Try adding an extra walk, games of fetch or tug-of-war, an obedience class, and a variety of safe dog toys. If boredom is the reason for the acting out, you should see a big change in your dog's behavior. If none of these things help, then you need to treat separation anxiety.

The good news is that if you determine your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, there are ways you can reduce your dog's anxiety. One of the most effective methods is called systematic desensitization. It involves gradually allowing your dog to get used to being left home alone.

Why Do Dogs Have Separation Anxiety?

It 's not totally understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others don't. There could be a medical condition that's manifesting itself in that way. Or it could be triggered by a psychological event, like the addition of a new baby, a move to a new home, or the death of an owner or another pet. Other causes could be from a change in schedule (the dog's owner is away more), more time in the crate, or time spent in a kennel or vet's office.

How to Stop Separation Anxiety

Stopping separation anxiety in your dog can take some thoughtful work on your part. You'll need to spend some time recognizing routines and then work to change them. A lot of the behavior modification is based on the owner changing behaviors and sensitizing the dog to the changes.

Change Your Morning Routine

Most people have a routine they follow before they leave the house: shower, dress, put on a coat, grab keys, walk out the door. Once your canine has recognized your routine, its anxiety may start building from the first step. This means anxiety doesn't just develop when you walk out the door. Instead, it starts when your alarm clock goes off or you turn on the shower. By the time you leave the house, the dog may already be in a full-blown panic.

To prevent this mounting anxiety, make some changes to your own behavior. Pay attention to the things you do before you leave the house and begin doing them randomly throughout the day. For example, you can grab your keys and sit down to watch television or put on your coat and feed your dog. Within a few weeks, your dog should no longer see these your activities as signs that you're about to leave, and some of the anxiety should be eased.

Keep Comings and Goings Uneventful

Many owners lavish their dogs with affection and attention right before you leave home and immediately when you walk in the door. Unfortunately, this can add to your dog's anxiety. To prevent this, the best thing you can do is to ignore your dog before you leave and for several minutes after your return. This is your way of demonstrating to your dog that your comings and goings are really no big deal.

For mild to moderate cases of separation anxiety, these small changes may be enough to reduce your dog's anxiety. In more severe cases, you will need to do some extra work.

Gradually Work Up to Longer Periods Away

This step can be time-consuming and requires a real commitment on your part. Once this process is started, it's important that your dog is never left alone for extended periods until its anxiety is completely gone. It can take up to several weeks to get to this point, so you may need to take some vacation time, hire a pet sitter, or enroll your dog in doggie daycare until you've finished this step. You'll want to avoid crating your dog during this period, as that can exacerbate anxiety.

Once you have a plan in place to make sure your dog is never alone, it's time to start getting your dog used to your being away. Try to spend at least 30 minutes on each training session.

  • To start, step outside the door for a short amount of time, and step right back inside. You need to avoid being out long enough for your dog's anxiety to begin building, so in cases of severe separation anxiety, you may only be able to step outside for a second. When you step back inside, keep things quiet and give your dog a few minutes to relax. Once it's relaxed, step outside again, and repeat this step until your dog is showing no signs of anxiety such as panting, pacing, drooling, shaking, or vocalizing.
  • Next, start slowly increasing the amount of time you're out of sight. Again, this might mean staying outside for only two seconds, then three, and so on for severe cases. Once you start adding time, you can mix up the intervals during which you step out in a given training session. For example, if you're able to remain outside for five minutes, step out for five minutes and then three minutes. Change it up, but don't go beyond the five minutes until your dog is showing no signs of anxiety.
  • Once you've worked up to leaving your dog alone for about 45 minutes, you should be able to begin adding time more quickly. In this way, you can work your way up to leaving your dog alone for an hour, then two, and then for an entire workday. If you're able to devote an hour or more each day to training, your dog's anxiety should be greatly improved within a few weeks. If you've followed all the steps, and your dog is still showing signs of anxiety, you may need to seek more help.

Next Steps

If you try changing your routine and your dog isn't making major improvements, seek professional help. It's probably best to get help from the beginning if your dog's separation anxiety is severe. Talk to your veterinarian about your dog's behavior. In some cases, they may recommend medication in conjunction with behavior modification. Any dog in a heightened state of anxiety can't learn new things. Medication can help "take the edge off" so you can get through to your dog more easily.

It's also a good idea to get help from a dog trainer or animal behaviorist. ​These professionals are experienced with dogs just like yours and may be able to offer valuable insight. Remember to be patient and consistent throughout the process. It may take a long time, but your dog will eventually show improvement.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.