How To Help With Separation Anxiety In Dogs


You might wonder what separation anxiety in dogs looks like. Well, have you ever heard your dog crying as you closed the door behind you? Or found destruction when you returned home after leaving your dog alone for a while? If so, you’ve encountered a dog experiencing separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety can be challenging to overcome but it’s not impossible. Read on to discover how to help with separation anxiety in dogs; you’ll also find some useful information about this common condition.

Is separation anxiety common?

Unfortunately, separation anxiety is quite common in dogs. This is a natural behavior that occurs in all kinds of wild animals, as well as domestic dogs. The purpose is to keep a puppy from being separated from its family. In wild canines, the behavior would gradually disappear, but in domestic dogs, it often continues into adulthood.  

Separation anxiety may be one of the reasons dogs are likely to be rehomed or brought to the shelter. Unfortunately, shelters and adopting owners remain ill-equipped to deal with the separation anxiety. Abandonment may make the anxiety even worse since the dog learns that their fears were well-founded. 

What causes separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety may have genetic causes; some breeds of dogs seem more prone to it than others. However, separation anxiety is most likely caused by the following scenarios or upbringing.

  • Suddenly experiencing solitude after being with the family all the time. Puppies raised continuously with a family and then suddenly forced to experience periods of solitude will likely develop separation anxiety. The longer a dog spent with their families before they experience solitude, the more likely that they will suffer from separation anxiety.
  • Being left alone for the first time. Your puppy will probably complain and may experience a lot of distress when you leave them alone for the first time. Stick through it and keep the separations short. This way, you will help teach your puppy that solitude is okay.
  • A significant change in the family. A death in the family (whether in their human or animal “family”), a change in schedule, or a move can all prompt separation anxiety in your dog. Deal with these times carefully and thoughtfully so that separation anxiety does not continue.
  • A traumatic event. Getting lost, spending time in a boarding kennel, or experiencing something that your dog views as traumatic may cause them to develop separation anxiety. 

How do dogs experiencing separation anxiety behave?

Dogs experiencing separation anxiety may act out in destructive ways – to themselves or to your home. Some dogs only experience some distress or crying when their owners leave; other dogs experience extreme distress manifested in drooling, repetitive behaviors, or destructive actions in the home. Destruction is often concentrated around doorways and windows where dogs attempt to escape. Many dogs have potty accidents indoors as well. 

How to Help with Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Dealing with separation anxiety in dogs isn’t easy. In the most severe cases, rehoming to a family who can stay with the dog at all times may be the only solution. In most cases, however, there are things that you can do to help. 

Coming and going is no big deal

In order to prevent separation anxiety from developing in your puppy or new dog and in order to begin to undo separation once it has developed, it is important to change your dog’s perception so that your coming and going is nothing to be concerned about. 

Come and go frequently throughout the day, leaving for only brief periods and then returning. Vary the amount of time that you’re gone, when you go, and potential triggers about your leaving. Take the car keys with you sometimes, and at other times, leave the keys behind. Sometimes put on shoes, then step outside in slippers at other times. 

Everything that you can do to disturb your dog from “predicting” when you might leave can help. NEVER make a big deal about leaving like saying goodbye to your dog; don’t make a big show of returning either. Wait a few minutes before you even greet your dog when you return. This way, they should begin to recognize your coming and going as a common occurrence.

Leaving means good things

Whenever you step out, make it worthwhile for your dog. Throw a few high-value treats on the floor, fill a few toys (like a Kong) with peanut butter or another high-value treat, or give your dog an especially delicious bone. 

If your dog is very toy motivated, keep some extra favorite and special toys for these purposes. Only allow your dog to play with them when you leave the house. The combination of leaving for random and brief periods and giving your dog something fun to do while you’re gone can help them overcome anxiety.

Consider medications or pheromones

Your veterinarian can prescribe medication for severe separation anxiety,  especially for times during training when you need to leave your dog. A wide range of medications that can have either sedating or calming effects can be effective for your dog. Over-the-counter pheromones and other calming products may also prove effective. Try different medications to see what works for your dog.

Leave your dog with things that smell like you

One of the reasons that dogs may become destructive of your things when you leave them alone is because they want to engulf themselves in the smell of you. This is why a dog may destroy their owner’s things in a household when they are left alone. 

By leaving your dog with objects that smell like you, you can satisfy their desire to be surrounded by the smell of you and perhaps save your other belongings from destruction.

How to manage your dog during training

If you’re like most people, you cannot take time off of work for weeks or months at a time to help your dog overcome separation anxiety. Therefore, you’ll want to find some things that will manage your dog as you help them overcome their anxiety.

Medication

Even if you don’t want your dog to be on medication for the rest of their lives, you may find it beneficial to sedate your dog when you have to leave them alone as you train them. If your dog experiences extreme stress and anxiety when you have to leave him for some time, it can undo your training. Sedating your dog while you are gone might be a better option.

Confinement

The more loosely you can confine your dog, the better. If your dog shows destructive behavior, or if they try to get away and scratch at doors or windows, you may need to use a crate. If your dog is less destructive or can be distracted by things that you provide for them to play with, you may be able to get away with leaving your dog in a room.

Rooms without windows are best, and it is ideal to provide a barrier to doors so that your dog will not try to get out.

Offer things your dog can “destroy”

If your dog is destructive, it is ideal for you to provide things that it is okay for them to chew up and tear apart. Chew toys, bones, and food-distributing toys are all great options. Another good idea is to stuff soft toys or rags into something for your dog to rip out. Whatever your dog likes to do that is destructive, try to find a way to replicate that in a way that works for you.

Try doggy daycare or a pet sitter

One of the best ways to continue your dog’s training and avoid setbacks is to take your dog to doggie daycare. Similarly, you can get a pet sitter. This allows your dog to avoid staying alone until you have worked up to it in your training. 

The daycare or pet sitter can also help you with your training by leaving your dog alone for brief periods as per your instructions. Some dogs really benefit just from the extra social interaction of dog daycare or a pet sitter; they may grow less dependent on you and less prone to separation anxiety as a result.

Misconceptions and what NOT to do

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about what you should do for dogs with separation anxiety. You may jump to misconceptions based on your understanding of human psychology, which does not necessarily apply to your dog. Here are a few common misconceptions about dog behavior and things you should not do to address separation anxiety.

My dog is punishing me for leaving them alone

It may be reasonable for you to assume that your dog is trying to get back at you for leaving them by destroying your things. This theory may even be more convincing if your dog only destroys your things and not your family member’s or friend’s stuff. 

However, dogs do not operate with revenge in this way, especially not revenge on your stuff. The reason dogs become destructive when you leave them alone is because it alleviates their anxiety to destroy things. The reason dogs destroy your things when you leave them alone is because they want to engulf themselves in the smell of you.

Too often, people punish dogs when they get home and see the destruction their dog has left behind or an accident they’ve made in the house. Punishing a dog who has been experiencing separation anxiety, especially in the moment of your return, has the opposite effects of what you may be hoping for. Dogs will become even more anxious in the confusion of this incident and may act even worse the next time you leave.

They’ll get over it

Some people think that if they just keep locking their dog in the crate when they leave, their dog will eventually stop freaking out. It is true that some dogs, especially puppies, will eventually overcome their aversion to solitude. 

More frequently, dogs just get worse. Some dogs become so horrified of confinement that they are afraid to even be in a room with a crate. Do not just assume that your dog will overcome their separation anxiety if you can continue to confine them. You should address this problem at the first indications.

They’re not housebroken

Many dogs who suffer from separation anxiety have accidents inside. Some people misinterpret this as puppy behavior that dogs haven’t gotten over despite training. When rehoming or surrendering a dog to the shelter, people often say that the dog simply can’t be housebroken or that the dog is destructive in the home.

In fact, most dogs suffering from separation anxiety can be perfectly housetrained and never destructive in the home with a family that takes time to work on their separation anxiety. It is dangerous for a dog to be labeled as difficult to housetrain or destructive when in fact they just need to have a family in which someone is present and tuned into their needs. 

Summary

Separation anxiety is a serious problem in companion dogs; for most dogs, however, it doesn’t have to last forever. By reducing drama around your coming and going, providing great things for dogs to play with while you’re gone, and using medications or confinement as necessary to prevent the destruction of your home and to ensure your dog’s safety, you can help your dog overcome separation anxiety.

Coral Dawn Drake

My fiance, Justin, and I live with our two little dogs, Sofie and Lisa, and three chickens in Gainesville, Florida. Justin and I are homebodies who occasionally enjoy a good adventure. I love living in Gainesville, and I love Florida. I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful or strange than this hot, marshy place where people are guaranteed to be nothing other than themselves. Justin is always reminding me to relax. Relaxing doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m always busy. Making art or editing photos, digging in the yard or trying to grow some new moss or plant. There never seems to be enough time to do everything that I want to do. Life is so, so full and I want to plunge into every second of it.

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