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 becomes destructive, salivates, paces, barks incessantly, and/or demonstrates housebreaking issues. When you return home, your pup's greetings are often frantic. This condition is stressful for both dogs and owners, especially because routine obedience training does not break the cycle. It is important to rule out a medical cause of signs of separation anxiety. For example, house soiling could be due to a urinary tract infection, a medical issue that causes increased thirst and urination, gastrointestinal disease, or even pain that affects the pet's mobility. Seek veterinary attention at the onset of signs to rule out any underlying medical concerns.
What Is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Separation anxiety (or separation-related distress) refers to the distress some dogs feel in the absence of a person (or sometimes another animal) to which they are exaggeratedly attached. There are some questions that can help you determine if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety.
- Does your dog panic when you leave it home alone?
- Have you ever gotten complaints from your neighbors about your dog constantly vocalizing (barking, whining, or howling) when you're gone?
- Do you return home to find that your dog has damaged your belongings?
- Does your dog seem to forget all about house training 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 immediately (or within 30 minutes) of an 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 boredom can be overcome by adding more exercise and mental stimulation to your dog's routine. These actions have little or no impact on separation anxiety.
If your dog displays signs of separation anxiety, try adding an extra walk, playing games of fetch or tug-of-war, enrolling in obedience classes, or a providing your pet with 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 consider separation anxiety as a diagnosis.
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 is not understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety. There could be an underlying medical condition. Or it could be triggered by an environmental change, 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), or because the dog is spending more time in the crate, kennel, or vet's office.
How to Stop Separation Anxiety
Stopping separation anxiety in your dog takes patience and thoughtful work on your part. You'll need to spend time recognizing your routines and work to change them. A lot of the modification is based on the owner changing behaviors and working to de-sensitize the dog to triggers.
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 can start building from the first step. This means anxiety doesn't just begin when you walk out the door. Instead, it starts when your alarm clock goes off or you turn on the shower. The anxiety escalates as you engage in your typical routine. 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 connected signs 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 contribute 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.
Teach your dog that calm and patient behavior is rewarded. This means attention comes when they are settled and relaxed. If a dog engages in quiet behavior on its own (e.g. retreats to its bed or crate without instruction) it should be rewarded with attention or a treat.
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 requires a large amount of time and energy on an owner's part and a real commitment to your pet. Once this process is started, it's important your dog is never left alone for extended periods until its anxiety is completely gone. It can take 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 completed this step. Unless your dog sees its crate as a place of relaxation and comfort, 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 each day on each training session.
How to Train Your Dog to Get Used to Being Alone
Step Outside for a Short Amount of Time, Then Step Back in
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.
Slowly Increase 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, first step out for five minutes and then for three minutes. Change it up, but don't go beyond five minutes until your dog is showing no signs of anxiety. Keep going until your dog seems generally comfortable with your absence.
If you try changing your routine and your dog isn't making major improvements, the next step is professional help. Seek veterinary assistance right away if your dog's separation anxiety is severe. Talk to your veterinarian about your dog's behavior. In many 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. The goal of medical therapy is to facilitate the behavioral changes. Medical therapy will hopefully be a temporary aid in the training plan. There may be a board certified veterinary behaviorist near you who can help. They may even do phone consultations if not located nearby.
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.
Sargisson, Rebecca. Canine separation anxiety: Strategies for treatment and management. Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports. 5. 143-151. 2014. doi:10.2147/VMRR.S60424
AMA StyleMills DS, Demontigny-Bédard I, Gruen M, Klinck MP et al. Pain and Problem Behavior in Cats and Dogs. Animals; 10(2):318. 2020. doi:10.3390/ani10020318