How to Prevent Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Wondering how to prevent separation anxiety in dogs? Dogs with separation anxiety may show frustrating symptoms like barking non-stop while you’re away and disturbing the neighbors, urinating or defecating in the home, or even causing property damage.
However, this behavior isn’t done out of spite. It’s actually a response to fear or stress — it’s a way to self-soothe. And managing separation anxiety can reduce stress for both a dog and their human companion alike.
Read on to learn more about separation anxiety in dogs, including how to tell if your dog has separation anxiety and what can be done about it.
What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a common condition in dogs in which they experience stress, fear, or anxiety when their owner is away, due to a strong attachment to their owner.
Some pups may show symptoms of separation anxiety even when there are other people around but the specific person they are attached to isn’t there. But more commonly, separation anxiety occurs when a dog is home alone.
Symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe. More severe cases can lead to property damage in the home or even injuries to a dog, due to panic behaviors.
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What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Dogs of any age, breed, or gender may be affected by separation anxiety, although it more commonly develops at under 2-3 years of age. However, there are some factors that may increase the risk of the condition developing, including…
- Being abandoned, rescued, or rehomed
- Lack of socialization
- Being left alone for the first time
- Any change of circumstance, including but not limited to: A death in the family, divorce of the pet parents, or a new routine in the home such as a new school year or work schedule
As you can probably imagine, returning to the office after working from home during COVID presents a prime opportunity for separation anxiety to develop. Many pups got used to their owners being home all day, and now have to adjust to a new schedule as their owners return to the office.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Some of the most common dog separation anxiety symptoms — which typically occur when a pet parent is away from the home — include…
- Excessive barking, whining, or howling
- Urinating or defecating in the home
- Pacing, cowering, panting, or trembling
- Not eating while the owner is away
- Destructive behaviors such as chewing things up, digging, or otherwise causing damage in the home
- Trying to escape the house or yard
- Injuries that can occur while engaged in destructive behaviors or escape attempts, such as injured paws and toenails, or even broken teeth or cut gums from chewing on things (i.e. kennel bars or objects in the home)
- And a few behaviors that may be observed while the pet parent is home include: Clingy behavior, exaggerated excitement when a pet parent returns home, or signs of distress (barking, whining, drooling, trying to prevent their pet parent from leaving) as the pet parent gets ready to depart.
Remember, most symptoms of separation anxiety occur while a pet parent is away from the home. So, many of these behaviors won’t be witnessed directly.
Instead, a pet parent may notice “evidence” of separation anxiety (urine on the floor, claw marks on the door, or complaints of barking from the neighbors) upon returning home.
Another option is to use a pet camera to see exactly what happens when a dog is home by themselves.
How Do I Know If My Dog has Separation Anxiety?
While the symptoms and behaviors listed above are good “clues” that a dog may have separation anxiety, they cannot be used to definitively diagnose separation anxiety. Instead, medical conditions should be ruled out as a possible cause, so a pup can receive appropriate treatment.
For example, a dog who urinates inappropriately while their owner is away may have incontinence, a urinary tract infection, a hormonal imbalance, or one of many other possible medical (rather than behavioral) conditions. Thus, the behavior would be entirely out of the dog’s control, and they would need appropriate medical care to remedy the issue and feel better.
Also, other behavioral causes (such as boredom or insufficient training) can also cause some of these signs. It’s important to determine the route cause, because the course of treatment could be different for other behavioral conditions.
So, with any new symptoms or behavior changes, it’s best to consult your veterinary team. They can guide you on the next best step, which may include a vet visit and diagnostic testing to rule out a medical cause.
Managing Separation Anxiety in Dogs
The behaviors of a dog with separation anxiety are not malicious. Instead, they are done out of fear or stress.
So, it’s important to have empathy and kindness for your furry friend, even if the destruction or potty accidents become frustrating to deal with. Remember, it’s stressful for our four-legged friends, too. They’d love to feel better, if only they knew how!
Fortunately, you can help your dog with this goal. But there’s no “quick fix.” Separation anxiety requires patience, along with a combination of environmental and behavioral modifications.
The main goal of treating separation anxiety is to help a dog become comfortable being alone. A management plan will address their core stress or fear, help them feel better, and promote healthier responses.
The exact management plan will vary depending on individual needs and the severity of a dog’s symptoms. This may range from small changes in the home environment, to anti-anxiety medications for pups who are more severely affected.
Either way, behavior modification is needed to truly allow a dog to be more confident and resilient, so they don’t feel so stressed about being left alone.
Can Dog Separation Anxiety Be Managed at Home?
Always talk to your veterinarian first, to rule out a medical condition and see if there’s anything else that could benefit your pooch.
But once you are sure your dog has separation anxiety, here are some strategies that can help your pup start to feel more independent.
1. Train your dog to be less stressed about your departure.
This technique can require the biggest time commitment, but it’s also one of the most effective ways to truly create a lasting, positive change in your pup’s stress levels and behavior.
It involves a combination of desensitization (helping a dog become less scared of certain stimuli) and counterconditioning (making a previously scary situation feel happy or fun).
To start, try to notice at what point your dog begins to show signs of stress. Pups with separation anxiety may be triggered by certain “departure cues,” such as you picking up your keys, putting on your shoes or coat, or taking out a suitcase.
Then, try doing these things but not leaving. Take out your keys, then put them away and give your dog attention. Put on your shoes, but then stay inside and play with your pet instead of leaving the home.
This process will help to decrease the stress your dog would otherwise feel when they see these departure cues. In other words, it desensitizes their fear response by helping them get used to the scary thing (their pet parent leaving the home) gradually. And the praise or play is part of counterconditioning, which helps a dog associate the departure cues with something fun rather than something scary.
Then, you can gradually add additional time or steps. For example, put your shoes on and step outside the door, then come right back inside. Then leave for a few minutes, and start to work up to longer periods of time away from home.
Just make sure your dog’s response is calm and relaxed. If they start to display anxious symptoms, you may be moving too fast for them — which can reinforce the fear rather than help it
2. Keep arrivals and departures calm. Don’t make a big fuss about saying goodbye to your dog when you leave the home. When you return home, remain calm and — although this may be difficult — ignore your dog until they are also calm. Then give them attention.
Since dogs can pick up on emotions, they may follow your lead. But more importantly, this new pattern of behavior from a pet parent helps reinforce the idea that a pet parent coming and going is not a big deal—and not something to get anxious about.
3. Use positive reinforcement for the behaviors you’d like to see. Praise your dog when they are relaxed or spending time on their own, rather than when they are acting clingy.
4. Keep your dog active. A dog who is tired after some fun physical activity is more likely to sleep while you’re away, rather than becoming anxious.
Living an active lifestyle overall can help with physical and emotional health. But some dog owners note that exercising or walking their dog in the morning, before leaving for work, can be especially helpful.
5. Provide enrichment and entertainment. Just like physical activity, mental activity can contribute to a dog’s emotional health.
Look into puzzle feeders or slow feeders, which are devices or toys that dispense kibbles or treats gradually as a dog manipulates the toy. Some also allow wet food, peanut butter, or other sticky treats to be placed inside and licked up gradually.
Offer the puzzle feeder as a special treat, right before you leave the home. Give it to your dog ONLY when you will be away, so that this high value treat helps a dog feel excited when you are leaving, rather than scared.
And if you’d like to go high-tech, there are even pet cameras that allow you to talk to your dog and toss treats to them!
6. Stick to the same schedule as much as possible. While some dogs are more adaptable than others, a daily routine helps foster a feeling of security.
If you must make a change to the schedule, try to do so gradually, to give your dog time to get used to it. For example, when returning to the office after working from home during COVID, start by going out for shorter trips at a least a couple of weeks beforehand. That way, it won’t be so jarring when you suddenly leave for the workday.
7. Hire a pet sitter or friend to stay with your dog while you’re at work or away. Or, consider using a doggy day care. This step can be especially important for dogs with severe symptoms.
While behavioral modification can help, it’s tough for a dog with separation anxiety to adapt to their pet parent being gone all day long. They must usually start with smaller increments (as described in the first step above) so that their fear response doesn’t get triggered. Having another person with them can help.
8. Bring your dog to the office with you, if your work allows.
9. Consider a supplement or natural remedy. But talk to your vet before giving any new medication or supplement, to ensure it’s safe for your pet.
10. Work with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist, as they can help provide one-on-one guidance and additional ideas.
Will Anxiety Medications Help?
Anxiety-relieving medications may be of great help to some dogs with separation anxiety.
Often, these medications are used in the short-term, while behavior modifications are in progress. The medications can help a dog remain much calmer while they are learning new, healthier responses to their owner leaving the home.
Severely affected pups may need long-term medication. If needed, there’s nothing wrong with this, as it can greatly improve quality of life for a dog who otherwise would experience a great deal of fear and anxiety, and help to keep a dog in their loving home (behavioral issues are a common reason for relinquishing a pet to a shelter).
These medications should only be given under the direction of a veterinarian. In addition to being prescription-only, it’s important to ensure the type and dose of medication is safe and effective for your dog.
Will Getting Another Dog Help with Separation Anxiety?
This depends on the individual dog, but unfortunately, it often does not help. And it may make things worse.
If you would like to get another pet, talk to your vet about the best way to introduce them. But only adopt another pet if you truly want to, rather than as a solution to try to help with separation anxiety.
Does Crate Training Help with Dog Separation Anxiety?
If crate training is done gradually and with positive reinforcement, many dogs will come to view their crate or kennel as a safe space. A cozy, denlike spot that’s all their own can be soothing.
However, trying to place a dog in a crate for long periods of time when they are not used to it can do more harm than good. So, if using a crate, make sure to get your dog used to it gradually, rather than expecting it to help in a pinch.
If not using a crate, it’s still a good idea to confine a dog with separation anxiety to a small area — such as a small, pet-proofed room — when you’re not at home. This is better for their safety.
Make them comfortable with the room by offering treats, attention, or playtime there when you are home. Keep all their supplies accessible, including a cozy place to sleep. Consider leaving an item of clothing that smells like you for comfort, too.
How to Avoid Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Puppy Training and Socialization
One of the best ways to help prevent separation anxiety in your dog is to prepare them from a young age.
An important step is socialization, or getting a puppy used to all sorts of different sights, sounds, situations, and other stimuli.
Exposing a puppy to a variety of people, other dogs, objects, scents, and situations can help develop their confidence and lead to a less anxious adult dog. These introductions should always be fun for the puppy. If the pup shows a fear response, stop the process and try again later and more slowly.
Puppyhood is also a great time to reinforce the behaviors you would like to see. Many of the tips above — including behavior modifications, calm departures and arrivals, positive reinforcement, and overall puppy training — can help set a young pup up with good habits for life.
If your dog is already an adult, don’t worry — a lot of these same techniques can help them. It may just take more patience when working with an adult dog rather than a puppy.
How to Avoid Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Special Considerations for Senior Dogs
With senior dogs, it’s especially important to get a health check with any behavioral changes. Just like humans, it’s more common for diseases to occur with advanced age, and it’s best to catch medical issues early.
Additionally, there is a possibility of cognitive dysfunction, which is similar to dementia in humans.
Symptoms of cognitive dysfunction in older dogs can mimic separation anxiety. For example, these dogs may be more likely to bark. They may get confused and have potty accidents, too.
Cognitive dysfunction, compared to separation anxiety, is more likely to occur when a pet parent is home. Your vet can help you determine what might be going on, so your pup can receive the best possible management plan.
Also, older dogs may develop separation anxiety even if they’ve always been okay being home alone. This may be due to feeling less secure due to age-related conditions such as arthritis.
Finding Help for a Dog with Separation Anxiety
While patience is required to help a furry friend through this condition, it’s best to address separation anxiety as soon as possible, before the symptoms and behaviors become a learned habit or the anxiety gets worse.
If your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety or displaying any type of behavior change, it’s best to schedule a vet visit — so your pup can begin to feel better, and life at home can be easier and more enjoyable for both of you.