For anyone who has had to deal with it, you probably wouldn’t be surprised that dog separation anxiety is one of the most common reasons pet owners seek out pet behaviorists. According to some sources, it accounts for 20-40% of all dog behavior cases seen by experts in the U.S. It’s huge, but thankfully today there are a range of safe and effective ways to treat this and grow closer to your best fur-friend.
There are many reasons why it’s so tough. Separation anxiety can be one of the most tremendously difficult behavior problems to deal with, primarily because it relies on human guidance/discipline too and it can be a potentially very long training process. It is hugely important though, both for the dog and the owner, to address, as separation anxiety is often cited as one of the main reasons why dogs are sent to shelters every year. Sadly, some owners even opt for euthanasia if their dog’s separation pangs cannot be quelled.
You’re here and as such a card-carrying member of the “my dog has anxiety” club, so you most likely are already concerned about either your dog’s behavior or maybe you’re even looking for information to help out a friend or family member. We advocate for treatment that is safe and humane - and in today’s ever connected world there is no shortage of resources and information.
This is our guide to dealing with separation anxiety in dogs, but is in no way exhaustive and in no way a “fix all, cure all”. Every dog is different and the issue is not universally displayed or treated. That’s part of what makes it so complicated. We hope that this will at least help you to begin to deal with your dog’s anxiety and point you in the right direction.
Dog anxiety symptoms
There are a many potential warning signs of dogs with separation anxiety. Some are really true dog anxiety symptoms, while others could be false positives - indications of another problem, potentially medical in nature or different altogether. It’s important to understand what really constitutes dog separation anxiety symptoms and what doesn’t. Let’s take a closer look.
What is separation anxiety?
It's one thing if your dog follows you around the house (Who are we kidding though? We love these little signs that they love us and are devoted to us.), however it's quite another when you learn that your dog is constantly howling when you're at work or pooping in the living room to show how upset they are at you. Not OK!!!!!
Separation anxiety happens when a dog becomes stressed each and every time he or she is left alone. This might take several forms - you dog might pace, whine, chew or scratch at the door or window sills, make housebreaking mistakes, bark and act out in other ways. It might not even matter if you're gone for a few minutes or a few hours, a switch flips for your dog every moment you leave.
Before jumping to the anxiety conclusion, many of the symptoms and signs might actually be pointing to something complete different. Your dog’s behaviors might be indications of boredom, a lack of exercise, or poor or incomplete house-training.
Medical conditions could also be the cause many of these things too. If your dog exhibits any of the symptoms below in your absence, it’s best to talk to a veterinary behaviorist to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Separation anxiety is unfortunately quite common, but it has a tendency to get over-diagnosed too, just like the other main canine behavioral issue: dominance.
20 Signs your dog might have separation anxiety:
- Constant barking, howling, whining
- Intense pacing and restlessness
- Excessive salivation and panting
- Restlessness, scratching doors or windows, digging at doors
- Escaping a room or crate
- Destruction of property (pillows, sofas, and other furniture, eating plants)
- Urinating or defecating indoors
- Chewing stuff (especially things you touched recently)
- Dilated pupils
- Jumping through open and/or closed windows
- Eating through walls
- When you come home, the dog follows you around the house
- Hiding or crying when you take your keys or make other signs that you plan to leave the house
- Ignoring food
- Excitement when you come home
- Destroying doors and other points of entry
Causes of dog anxiety
Dogs are social animals, and love to hang out and spend time with other dogs and people, especially if they grew up around them. Usually this isn't a problem - Humans typically like the attention. We both have a mutual need to form social attachments. It’s one of the main reasons why we get along so well :) But this bond can grow really strong in some dog’s minds that it has a negative effect on them when the physical bond of being together is broken.
Anxiety could be triggered by a life event for you, such as a new job or the start of school, but there are other things that might have laid the groundwork for your dog to be acting out now. It’s also generally accepted now that genetics and an early history of abandonment could also be key contributors.
15 Causes of separation anxiety in dogs:
- Changing the primary guardian or family
- New surroundings - moving to a new home, new pets or new kids appearing
- Family member death, illness or moving away
- You don’t spend enough time with your dog, including such activities as playing, walking, or cuddling it, especially for breeds that crave action and attention
- Confusion (you just returned from a long vacation, so your dog might think you’ll leave again soon for a long time)
- Schedule changes
- Lack of training (if your dog has never been left alone at home regularly or separated from a particular person for extended periods)
- Puppies might develop this condition if they were taken from their mothers too young or if their mothers were never around or neglected them
- Fright or worry - either inside the house or outside. This might be directed at something that happens on a daily basis (i.e. the mail truck driving by) or something that happened only once (i.e. a severe thunderstorm). Dogs tend to feel more vulnerable when they are on their own, so it is easy for them to develop specific fears, especially those who have a sensitive or nervous nature.
- Shelter dogs have a tendency to suffer more from this, especially if they were recently picked up
- A favored animal companion who they shared a close bond with dies. It could be a dog who they had a strong attachments with, or other species too, like cats.
- Group mentality – at a base level, dogs love to be part of a pack
- Genetics - Inherited from their parents
- Bacterial infections (not proved yet)
- Boredom. This typically this affects young, energetic dogs who struggle with something to do when left alone. If you’re gone for a long time (especially if they are not exercised enough), these dogs may find their own entertainment, such as chewing table legs or raiding trash bins.
Medical problems to rule out first
You also want to make sure to eliminate any potential medical reasons as an underlying cause of your dog acting out when you leave.
One of these is medical incontinence. Some dogs’ relieving themselves inside is caused by incontinence, a medical condition in which a dog “leaks” or voids his bladder. Dogs with incontinence problems often are completely unaware that they’ve even done anything wrong. They simply can’t control it.
There are different medical issues that might be what’s at fault, if so, including a urinary tract infection, a weak sphincter caused by old age, hormone-related problems after spay surgery, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, neurological problems and abnormalities of the genitalia. Before attempting behavior modification for anxiety, you should consult with a veterinarian to rule out medical issues.
Another potential medical-related source might be medications. There are actually a number of medicines and treatments that could be the reason for frequent urination and defecation inside. If your dog takes any medications, check in with your veterinarian one more time to find out whether or not they might be a contributing factor.
Other behavior problems to rule out
It’s really hard to tell whether your dog actually has separation anxiety or not. There are also a host of common behavior problems that might be leading to similar symptoms.
- Submissive or Excitement Urination. Some dogs may pee during greetings, play-time, during physical contact or when being reprimanded or punished. These dogs tend to display submissive postures, such as holding their tail low, flattening their ears back against their head, or rolling over and exposing their bellies.
- Urine Marking. Some dogs famously urinate inside because they’re scent marking. Dog mark their scent by peeing a little on walls or other vertical surfaces.
- Youthful Destruction. Young dogs are known to be particularly destructive with their chewing or digging, even if you’re at home.
- Boredom. Dogs need mental stimulation, and some dogs act out when alone because they’re bored and looking for something to do. These dogs usually don’t appear anxious.
- Incomplete House Training. Dogs that urinate inside might not be 100% house trained. It’s also possible house training was inconsistent or involved punishment that made them afraid to relieve themselves while their owner was watching or nearby.
How to calm an anxious dog
The most basic issue is really how to help a dog with separation anxiety? We’ll get to preventative tips and training hints later in the article, but when you need to act now and are completely exasperated - what do you do? Again, a Google search will give you all kinds of tips and hints, some of which may be effective for you.
Here are two things to remember when trying to treat and soothe your dog:
- Don’t get into a shouting match! Yelling back just stimulates your dog to bark more because they think you’re joining in. Be calm and firm, but don’t raise your voice.
- Stay consistent with your training. Most dogs won’t understand if you suddenly command them to “shut up.” Use the same keyword so that your dog will understand a word like “Quiet!” and respond.
How to stop a dog barking when left alone:
- Before you go, say “Quiet” in a calm, firm voice. Wait until they stop barking, even if it’s just to take a breath, then praise them and give them a treat. Never reward them while they’re barking, even if you think it will get them to stop.
- Try to take the opposite approach. Teach your dog to “speak.” Once they’re doing that reliably, then signal for them to stop barking with a different command, such as “quiet” or by holding your finger up to your lips. Be sure to practice these commands when they’re calm.
- Alternatively, use a pet camera with 2-way audio like Petcube to communicate with your dog when you’re away through your phone and tell them “quiet.”
Dog anxiety treatment
Let’s turn now to dog separation anxiety solutions. First of all, we don’t advocate punishment as a solution. There are other more humane routes to go, thankfully. You might also be tempted to go to the other polar extreme though - sympathism. Think twice! Even a well-intentioned sympathetic streak can make things worse! The true answer is there are no simple fixes for how to treat separation anxiety in dogs.
40 Ways to prevent anxiety in dogs
There are many ways to try and prevent dog anxiety. We’ve compiled a fairly exhaustive list of some that we’ve tried and head of. You may want to even try out several of these - either in combination or succession until you find the solution that’s right for you and your dog. Remember too that for severe separation anxiety in dogs, you might also have to go through some trial and error over, starting over at times or even go back to things that previously didn’t work at all to try again.
- Change up the “going away” signals (Use a different door, put on your coat and leave your bag in different places. Make changes to create a different picture of what is about to happen)
- Remain calm when coming home, don’t be overexcited
- Train and exercise your dog and teach it to behave
- Calming music or white noise machine
- Leave your TV or radio on. Consider a solution like DogTV
- Desensitize your dog to departure triggers
- Increase the time you spend out of the home gradually
- Create personal space for your dog (a dog bed, where it sleeps. Pet, calm and give treats to the dog there)
- Sleep without your dog in your bed
- Secure the room where your dog stays against damage, then leave your dog there for longer and longer periods, when coming back in give them rewards to build up their tolerance
- Structure your errands so that you are only away for short periods of time
- Hide small piles of treats all around the house so that your dog can “hunt” them
- Keep comforting items (clothes, toys, etc.) with them at all times
- Consider getting another pet as a companion
- Don’t punish, it won’t help, really
- Independence Training (train your dog not to follow your every step), teach them command like “stay” and “wait”
- Don’t pay too much attention to any damage they do when you are away - your dog might equate this with the increased attention they have and they’ll have reached their goal
- Look into activities and interactive toys that keep them entertained, distracted, and their energy focused while you are away, like Petcube
- Take your dog on daily walks and outings along different routes and try to have them interact with other dogs
- Create positive associations for your dog when you leave the house (i.e. rather than leaving right after putting on your coat, give them a treat and play with them for a few minutes)
- Try out the Calming Yo-Yo exercise. This is designed to teach your dog that being calm is the quickest, most reliable way to bring you back
- Give the 300 Peck Method a go to build up your dog’s ability to behave
- Teach your dog as many commands as possible
- Remove other stress factors – chokers, collars, chains, or crates if your dog doesn’t like them
- Consider placing them on a hypoallergenic diet
- Ask your vet or friends with pets who have dealt with similar issues what has worked for them
- Get a pet sitter or dog walker or ask a family member or friend to watch your dog whenever you have to go
- If possible, take your dog to work with you!
- If leaving you have to leave your dog for a long time, take them to a doggy daycare service or dog hotel
- Consider crating, but mind best practices – the crate should be large enough and you should introduce it to the dog when you are at home first and leave it there only if it likes being there
- Make sure your dog gets at least 30 minutes to an hour of exercise or aerobic activity (swimming, running, etc.) every day
- Hire a dog trainer or behaviorist to help you understand and train your dog
- Use a commercial product like Comfort Zone (DAP) plug-ins and sprays
- If you have more than one dog and are not sure which one of them is anxious – try a Petcube to spy on them and monitor their anxiety while you’re gone
- Vary your schedule – stagger the time you leave for work by up to 15 minutes one way or the other each day and come back at various times too. Pop in during your lunch break occasionally - anything to break up any bad habits and feelings
- Leave them something to chew on – i.e. a toy instead of your new shoes
- Leave the radio or TV turned on
- Ignore your dog for some time before you leave (so they get used to your lack of attention) and for a while when you return (so they don’t get overexcited every time you get back)
- Be patient. New behaviors need time to settle in
If all else fails, there are medications to treat anxiety. However, as with any medicine or stimulant, we of course recommend to consult with your doctor before administering.
Keep in mind too that many dogs may need the help of a qualified behaviorist to truly help work through these issues. In many cases, it’s a good idea to seek the help of an educated behavior specialist. In terms of the cost, remember that if your dog has a bad case of separation anxiety, you may already be out thousands of dollars in household damage, but have a chance to prevent more, making the cost of a good veterinary behaviorist, applied animal behaviorist, or other qualified specialist well worth their fee.
New pet owners have a lot to do, namely solving various problems (How they reach that? How do I get them to stop that?) that they don’t always think of preventing problems. Preventing separation anxiety in your puppy might be one of the best things you can do, though.
Here are some things to consider when you have a puppy:
- Teach your puppy to be alone
- Teach your puppy to feel comfortable in a crate
- Keep greetings and departures low-key
- Make sure your puppy has plenty of exercise
- Help your puppy associate your departure cues with good things
Teaching them positive behaviors and how to properly deal with puppy separation anxiety early can save you a lot of hassle, effort and potentially money in the long run. As with many behavioral problems, it is much easier to prevent than to cure.
How to cope while your dog learns to be calm
Your dog won’t kick their destructive or negative behaviors overnight, as much as you might want or pray. You’re both going to have to cope in the short term, so consider some of the following interim solutions:
- Ask your veterinarian about medications that might help to reduce their overall anxiety
- Take them to a dog daycare facility or kennel when you have to be away for long periods of time
- Leave them with a friend, family member or neighbor
- Take your dog to work with you, if possible
What won't help
There are certain things that definitely won’t work, just ask the millions of pet experts and other pet parents online if you don’t believe us. And there are other things you want to really make sure you think through before trying. Not only might it not work, it might make things worse - both for you and your pet.
- Punishment. Most dog trainers agree: it isn't effective for treating separation anxiety and can even make the situation worse!
- Another dog. Getting your dog a companion isn’t a cure-all and might double your problems. Consult with a behaviorist or trainer before taking on responsibility for another dog.
- Crating. Aside from ensuring your dog has a humane environment, their negative behaviors and anxiety might get even worse inside a crate. Dogs have been known to urinate, defecate, howl or even injure themselves in an attempt to escape.
- Radio/TV noise. This might not have any effect - particularly if your dog has never shown an interest in the radio or TV before. Alternatively, it might make it a focus of their negative energy and a target.
- Obedience training. While formal training is typically always a good idea, your dog’s separation anxiety might not be the result of disobedience or a lack of training.
What if my dog fails?
If your dog does not remain calm at any of the steps outlined above, all you can do is wait for calm, then click and return. Reset your criteria to one step away and try again.
Anxious behavior is just behavior. It looks and sounds terrible, but it can't go on forever. If your dog (or anyone nearby) is not coming to any physical harm, then wait it out. If you really can't wait it out, at least wait for a reduction in the anxious behavior before you return to your dog. If the anxious behavior is extreme, seek professional help sooner rather than later!