Separation Anxiety in Dogs | Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Published on 5 September 2022 at 11:24

Dogs & Separation Anxiety: The Ultimate Guide

Have you noticed that your dog gets agitated or nervous when you're getting ready to leave the house or even after you've left? And almost all dog parents know that frustrating moment when you come home after a few hours out and find your house in a mess and your cushions in tatters. 


While your dog sitting in the middle of the living room surrounded by torn toilet paper can be hilarious, these could all be signs that your dog suffers from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety in dogs typically happens when a dog is overly attached to its owner and gets extremely upset when it’s left alone. 


When the owner leaves, the dog gets frustrated and anxiety starts to build up inside the dog. Whining when you leave or being a little mischievous when you’re out is normal behavior for a dog, but anything more like showing self-destructive behavior is a sign of a serious condition. 


Constant barking, howling, and crying could also frustrate your neighbors and you certainly don’t want grumpy neighbors.


What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

Separation anxiety in dogs can sometimes frustrate the owners which is one of the main reasons they give them up. Not all dogs suffer from this type of anxiety, some separation-related behavior is simply a sign of boredom due to a lack of physical activities available and mental stimulation. The dog may simply not know what to do so he starts to act out in boredom and frustration. 


When dogs with separation anxiety are left alone, they may pee, bark excessively, poop, dig or even try to escape. Sometimes these problems just show that the dog needs to be taught some polite house manners and only needs to be trained, but they can also point to a bigger issue like distress. 


Some distress behaviors are drooling, showing signs of anxiety when the owner prepares to leave the house and chewing on things they aren't supposed to. 


Often dogs start to show signs of depression and anxiety when the pet owner is about to leave or they will try and find ways to prevent the owner from leaving. Some dogs will continue to bark non-stop or try to escape.  


Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are extremely dangerous. They often result in self-injury and household destruction, which is why they should be managed before it gets to that point. 


When you start to look for a solution for the separation anxiety in your dog, the main goal should be to solve the underlying problem, which is the fear of being left alone. It is a slow process that could take weeks and months, so you’ll need plenty of patience!


What Are Common Symptoms of Separation Anxiety?

Peeing and pooping around the house

If the dog urines or defects when the owner is around then it isn’t caused by separation anxiety, it is merely a training problem and your dog needs to be more reliably potty-trained. 


However, if your dog only does it when you’ve left the house, it might be a sign of separation anxiety, especially when your dog is usually reliable with potty training. 


Common symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs may include:

  1. Excessive barking or whining: Dogs with separation anxiety may bark or whine excessively when they are left alone, or when their owner is preparing to leave.

  2. Destructive behavior: Dogs with separation anxiety may chew on furniture, clothes, or other household items when left alone.

  3. Elimination in the house: Dogs with separation anxiety may have accidents in the house, even if they are normally house trained.

  4. Loss of appetite: Dogs with separation anxiety may lose their appetite or stop eating when left alone.

  5. Panting or pacing: Dogs with separation anxiety may pant or pace excessively when left alone or when their owner is preparing to leave.

  6. Excessive salivation: Dogs with separation anxiety may drool excessively when left alone or when their owner is preparing to leave.


Less Common Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Some less common symptoms are:

  • Trembling when the pet parent isn't around
  • Continuously drooling
  • Signs of excessive paw licking or nail biting
  • Vomiting or not eating meals


Physical symptoms of separation anxiety are:

  • Excessive panting
  • Tail between legs
  • Lip licking
  • Ears pinned back
  • Paw raises
  • Yawning
  • Pacing


You can try and keep an eye on your dog even when you’re not home by installing a pet camera so you can notice any of these behaviors even if you’re not present. Dogs are frequently given up to rescues and shelters because of separation anxiety, and it is a difficult condition to correct.


Why Do Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?

Dogs are social animals, so it's no wonder why they can develop feelings of anxiety when separated from their owners. Unfortunately, times away from family and friends can be trying for our dogs, making them feel scared, anxious, lonely, and helpless. 


The good news is that there are ways to help manage separation anxiety in dogs. Understanding the source of your pet’s fears and creating a safe, stress-free environment will go a long way in reducing their anxiety levels while they're apart from you. 


Some dogs are simply more connected to their humans and are more prone to developing separation anxiety. In addition, dogs who have been adopted from shelters have this behavior problem more than those who have been with a single family since birth or puppyhood. 


What Triggers Separation Anxiety By Dogs?

Change in guardian or family

Feeling abandoned or being forced to go into a shelter or even being passed on to a new guardian is a scary feeling for dogs who don’t understand what’s going on. This can also be a major trigger for their anxiety.


Change in schedule

A sudden change of the schedule that your dog was used to can also develop separation anxiety in your dog. An example is when the owner is home all the time and suddenly finds a job that requires him to be away from home for a long period of time. 


The dog doesn't understand why its owner isn't home and this makes him anxious and may trigger separation anxiety. When anticipating a change of schedule, you should slowly ease your dog into it by leaving only for a short period in the beginning and gradually increasing it.


Moving to a new place

This major change is very difficult for dogs to accept because they don’t understand why they need to leave the place they called home.


Change in owner

Every time a beloved pet changes owners, it can be incredibly stressful for the pup. Not only is their environment completely unfamiliar just as they're getting used to their normal routine, but they must adjust to different smells, sounds, and even behaviors from their new owners. 


Dogs are naturally very loyal and clingy animals so leaving the comfort of home can be especially hard. In addition, depending on age and breed, it may take some time for them to trust someone new, particularly if that new owner does not understand canin.


Medical Issues By Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Sometimes it's not separation anxiety but a medical problem that causes dogs to display some symptoms of anxiety. A medical condition called incontinence is when a dog repeatedly leaks or empties its bladder around the house. They are unaware that they've soiled and may urinate while they're sleeping. 


This could also be a result of medical problems such as urinary tract, an infection, a weak sphincter caused by old age, hormone relates problems, bladder stones, kidney disease, diabetes, neurological problems, or even abnormalities of the genitalia. 


These diseases can cause urinary incontinence in dogs, cause them stress, and trigger anxiety. So before you start behavior modification or medicine for your dogs' separation anxiety, make sure you go see a veterinarian to rule out all medical conditions.


Behavioral Problems

If it is not a medical problem and it's not separation anxiety, then it could also be several other problems. Some dogs get so excited that they urinate when meeting people or playing with their owner or their favorite toy. 


While some dogs pee when they're excited, others do it out of fear or submissiveness. These dogs show signs of submissive during an interaction, such as holding their tail low, flattening their ears back against their head, crouching, and sometimes rolling over and exposing their belly.


Some dogs aren’t house trained properly so they don’t know they should hold their urine in and not urinate everywhere. The house training might have been inconsistent or it might have involved punishment which makes the dog afraid to poop or pee when the owner is around or watching.


Dogs might also pee inside because they are scent-marking. Dogs mark their territory by urinating small amounts on surfaces. Mostly dogs do this when there are other dogs also in the house so they feel the need to leave a scent mark.


Many young dogs show these symptoms like chewing on furniture and digging when the parents are home as well as when their out. Dogs need constant mental stimulation and can become bored if they’re not entertained. They should be able to expel all the extra energy, so you might want to up their exercise regimen. 


Excessive barking and howling aren't always a sign of separation anxiety. Some dogs howl or bark if they hear something or see something that's unfamiliar to them. They vocalize when the owners are home as well as when their not.


Treatment For Mild Separation Anxiety

A form of treatment for dogs with a mild case of separation anxiety is counter-conditioning. Counter-conditioning is a treatment process that helps change a dog's fearful, anxious, or even aggressive reaction to a more calm, relaxed, and pleasant one instead. 


This is done by associating the thing that triggers the dog with good feelings instead of fearful ones. The dog could fear a person, another animal, a place, an object, or even a situation. For dogs with separation anxiety, the thought of being left alone triggers fear and anxiety, but if you associate being left alone with good and yummy treats, then the dog might not fear being left alone but look forward to it. 


In order to develop this association, before leaving the dog alone, you should offer it some of its favorite snacks or toys. You could even offer him a toy stuffed with his favorite snacks that will take him at least half an hour to finish. 


You should do this every time before leaving so your dog understands that when you need to go, they will get a treat and won’t get anxious. Keep in mind that this form of counter-conditioning only works with mild cases of separation anxiety as dogs with severe cases likely won’t eat when the owner isn’t home.


Treatment For Moderate And Severe Separation Anxiety

For dogs with moderate or severe separation anxiety, it's a little more complex to desensitize and counter-condition them. 


It is important to slowly introduce the idea of being left alone to them by leaving only for a short amount of time so that they don’t get anxious and gradually increase the duration. This process should be dealt with very slowly and carefully over months so as not to trigger your dog and taking a step back.


Desensitizing and counter-conditioning are tricky to carry out on dogs with severe separation anxiety. This is because it can easily backfire causing the dog to be even more frightened than before. You must make your dog feel relaxed and comfortable, they should not be fearful at all. 


This treatment will be tailored according to each dog’s reaction and this makes it hard because you don't always understand the reactions and can’t predict them. 


If left untreated, moderate separation anxiety can soon turn severe and dogs with severe anxiety are extremely difficult to correct. If you feel that you cannot help your dog, you should turn to a canine behavioral consultant or a professional trainer that specializes in such cases.


6 Best Tips For Helping With Separation Anxiety

While some dogs are more prone to separation anxiety than others, you can do a few things to help your dog cope with being alone. 


#1 Pre-departure cues 

Some dogs sense when you're about to leave. They notice when you put on your coat, grab your keys, or if you're applying makeup. This makes the dog with separation anxiety nervous because they know you are about to leave them, and they may start to pace around or start whining. 


This is called pre-departure anxiety. Your dog is so nervous about you leaving that they forget you will be coming back soon.  A way to approach this anxiety is by teaching your dog that whenever you pick up your keys or put on makeup, it doesn't necessarily mean you will be leaving. 


Expose your dog to these cues in various orders throughout the day. Put up your keys then sit down to watch TV. Or put on makeup and then go to sit on the kitchen table for a while. This helps reduce your dog's anxiety and lets him know that these actions don't always mean you will be leaving the house.


#2 Departures and absences 

The main rule for this step is to plan your absence for only short periods. Make sure you are back before your dog gets upset and anxious. In the beginning, train your dog by performing out-of-sight stays. This is when you go to the washroom and close the door behind you. 


Teach your dog to sit and wait for you to come out. Slowly increase your time in the washroom, out of your dog's sight. Eventually, you should use pre-departure cues here as well. For example, you should go put on your coat, pick up your keys and go to the washroom while your dog sits and waits for you.


After you've done the out-of-sight exercise in the washroom for a couple of weeks, move on to the bedroom door and then eventually the exit door. By the time you reach the exit door, your dog's anxiety should be finished or lessened because he now has a history of the "stay game". 


Now you can start incorporating short absences into your training. Keep in mind you must do all this very slowly and over a course of many weeks. It could be months before your dog is comfortable with you leaving. 


Start by leaving your dog alone for 2 to 3 seconds. Be back before they get too anxious. Slowly increase the time you are away by seconds. When you've trained your dog by being away for about 10 to 15 seconds, this is when you will add the counter-conditioning technique. 


Give your dog a stuffed food toy just when you are about to go outside. This also lets your dog know that this is a safe separation and that you will be back.


Between your absences, make sure you wait a few minutes in between, and it's extremely important that after each short separation, you must make sure your dog is fully relaxed and calm before leaving again. 


If your dog is excited to see you when you come back into his sight and then you suddenly leave again in the middle of his excitement, then this is cause the anxiety to worsen rather than get better. Also when you're leaving and returning, make sure you stay calm and do so in a quiet manner so your dog understands that you're not nervous as well.


Since no one knows your dog better than you, you should be able to judge accordingly how much separation your dog can tolerate. Every dog is different so there's no specific timeline you must follow. All owners want this to be done quickly, which as a result makes everything worse and drags it out longer. 


Forcing your dog into a situation he can't understand will only worsen his anxiety and frustrations. To prevent this from happening, watch out for signs of distress in your dog. Some signs could be panting, dilated pupils, trembling, pacing, and yawning. If you see stress in your dog, then shorten the time of your departures so your dog is able to relax again and start the process over more slowly.


Most dogs' anxious responses will typically occur within the first 40 minutes that he's left alone. Over many weeks, you should slowly increase the time you’re gone by only a few seconds. Once your dog is comfortable and relaxed when you're gone for a total of 40 minutes, then you can increase the time away a little quicker. 


Like, add 5 minutes then eventually 15 minutes. Once you fit the 90-minute mark where your dog can be left alone without getting upset then he can probably handle longer periods of time without you. 


#3 Crate training

Crate training is helpful for some dogs and they find the crate a safe and secure area when they’re left alone. However, it can also be triggering for other dogs as it adds more stress and anxiety for them. The crate should be your dog's friend and ally. 


The trick to crate training is to fill the crate with toys that your dog is attached to and food-releasing puzzle toys so that he's happy to spend time inside it. To determine whether you should use a crate or not, try monitoring your dog's behavior during crate training or when he's left alone with the crate while you are home. 


Do not leave your dog in his crate all day or for long periods of time. If your dog shows signs of distress when he’s in the crate, then you’ll need to go back to crate training basics.  


#4 Find jobs for your dog 

When dogs who suffer from separation anxiety are provided with loads of physical and mental stimulation, it treats many behavior problems including anxiety. Exercising your dog's mind and body will greatly and positively affect his life as it helps decrease stress, makes them happy, and provides a way for them to release pent-up energy. 


Go out with your dog for physical activities together such as running, swimming, and or simply playing fetch every day. Of course, the duration depends on your dog’s health and energy levels, but you ideally want him tired and happy to take a nap when you leave the house. 


You can also provide interactive puzzles like treat-dispensing balls or a Kong stuffed with peanut butter to keep your dog busy when you’re gone. A brain workout can be just as exhausting as a physical workout and lots of fun too! Dogs love to eat their meals in these toys and they also encourage chewing and licking which in return has a calming effect on dogs. 


Hunting for meals is also a fun activity that dogs love. Hide some kibble or snacks around the house or in the yard when you’re about to leave. This should keep your dog entertained for a while!


#5 Medication

Dogs who suffer from extreme separation anxiety often have to rely on medication. For some dogs, the thought of being separated from their pet parent is so severe that no amount of treatment can be implemented without the help of medications.


Natural supplements often promote a calming effect and are less harsh than pharmaceutical medications. Melatonin, thiamine, L-theanine, CBD, and L-Tryptophan are often found in these products. 


However, if your dog still doesn’t respond, you might have to talk to your vet. Anti-anxiety medicines like clomipramine and fluoxetine can help the dog somewhat able to tolerate isolation without feeling anxious.


#6 Never punish 

No matter the level of anxiety your dog has, you should never scold or punish your dog just because he doesn’t want to be separated from you. You are someone very important to your dog and he can't stand the thought of you leaving him. 


Anxious behaviors aren't a result of disobedience or spite, it's the result of the love your dog has for you. If you punish him, he may become more upset and the problem could get worse. 


Making Alternative Arrangements

During desensitization to any type of fear, it is essential to ensure that your dog never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes his anxiety or fear. He must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn't frighten him. 


If he’s put in a situation where he doesn’t feel safe, then he won’t feel calm or comfortable in situations that upset him. Dogs with separation anxiety cannot be left alone so here are some alternative arrangements you can follow:

  • Get your dog used to a sitters house or a doggy daycare
  • Arrange for someone who your dog recognizes and is comfortable with to pop in and check on your dog during the day or when you are out
  • If it is possible, take your dog to work with you


You should remain calm when greeting your dog with hellos as well as goodbyes. Show your dog that you are relaxed and not worried. When saying goodbye, give your dog a pat on the head and calmly leave and when arriving back, then say hello and don't pay attention to your dog until he's calm so he knows that you will pay him attention only once he's relaxed. 

Sometimes giving your dog commands that he's already learned, like sitting, rolling over, or lying down, will also help him relax. 


Final Thoughts 

Separation anxiety is a common condition that most dogs have to some degree or another. It can be mild but if left unchecked, can escalate into a more serious condition that will require professional help. 


Always remember to be patient. Your dog isn’t trying to make a mess or misbehave, but he or she will need some help!


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