How To Treat a Dog With Separation Anxiety

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As much as we love them, dogs with separation anxiety can be challenging to live with. Many of them can be destructive, and dealing with a dog who gets stressed out every time you leave the house can also be stressful for you! However, as overwhelming as it can feel, separation anxiety is a common issue many dogs (and even cats) experience. 

Learning how to treat a dog with separation anxiety can help return your household to a calm state and keep your relationship with your pet strong, healthy, and, most of all, positive for both of you.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Treating a dog with separation anxiety starts with a basic understanding of the condition and its symptoms. 

Separation anxiety occurs when a dog becomes anxious about being separated from the human guardians with whom they’ve formed a bond. Dogs with separation anxiety show their distress with physical and behavioral manifestations; we’ll discuss both later in this article. 

Researchers estimate that up to 14 percent of dogs deal with separation anxiety, although the severity of their symptoms can vary greatly.

Why Do Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?

There’s no black-and-white answer for why a dog might develop separation anxiety. However, anecdotal evidence has shown that dogs from a shelter environment are more likely to deal with at least some separation anxiety than those a single family has raised since puppyhood. 

However, research has shown that some common situations trigger separation anxiety in the majority of dogs:

  • A change of family – Being left at a shelter or adopted by a new family (no matter their age) can be stressful enough to trigger separation anxiety, even if the change of family is positive.
  • A change in schedule – Any change or lack of predictability in a dog’s schedule can make them more anxious. Examples include their pet parent returning to work after an extended leave or no longer being able to work from home (this is a trigger many of us are familiar with since the end of COVID restrictions).
  • A change in location – Even if it means moving into a new home with more space or a fenced-in backyard to run around in, changing location can be stressful enough to trigger separation anxiety in many dogs. 
  • A change in household members – Any change in the household members, like a death, divorce, or new baby, can cause a dog to become more attached to their “stable” family member and lead to separation anxiety.
  • A previous traumatic event – Dogs who have experienced a traumatic event, especially when they were alone, are more likely to develop anxiety over being separated from their “safe” human.

Studies have also shown that male dogs have more issues with separation anxiety than female dogs. Lack of socialization (especially between the ages of five to 10 months) and being removed from their mother too soon can also increase the risk of developing attachment issues.

Recent research has narrowed it down even further and found four primary triggers for distress in a dog separated from their human — the desire to get away from something inside the house, wanting to get something outside the home, boredom, or a reaction to an unexpected noise or event. 

Understanding what is driving your dog’s fear can be massively helpful in treating it. 

Physical Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

One way to recognize that your dog is dealing with separation anxiety is by looking at their physical symptoms. 

Anxious dogs tend to become acutely aware of your routines, which means they notice small changes in your behavior before you leave that you may not even be aware of. When they recognize your departure cues (or even think that you might be getting ready to leave), you’ll notice separation anxiety’s physical symptoms.

For example, dogs with separation anxiety will often start to follow you around while they pant or even drool. They may even use vocalization to communicate their feelings —  whining, barking, or even howling (although many will wait until you’ve actually left the house to turn the volume up). 

When you get back to the house, you’re also likely to find physical signs that your dog has continued to be in distress while you’re gone. Some anxious dogs urinate or defecate in the house. Others leave puddles of saliva or the chewed-up remnants of shoes, clothes, or even furniture in their wake (be careful, as these can be choking or obstruction hazards). 

Every dog with separation anxiety is unique and expresses their stress level differently, so ensure you’re attuned to what your dog is trying to tell you.

Behavioral Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

The behavioral signs of separation anxiety are also distinct, even in dogs without noticeable physical symptoms. 

Many of these symptoms consist of repetitive behaviors, similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although they can be destructive, these behaviors are often used as a way for your dog to self-soothe. 

Pacing, especially in specific patterns, is one of the big ones. Some dogs will walk back and forth in a straight line, while others will repeatedly walk in circles. You may not see these behavioral symptoms without using a video camera, though, as many dogs will wait until you’ve left to start.

Dogs with separation anxiety are also more likely to overreact when you get home, even if you haven’t been gone long. If your dog tends to be waiting for you and then proceeds to cry, jump all over you, or even urinate when you walk in the door, this could be another behavior symptom (especially if they turn into a “velcro dog” and won’t leave your side for the rest of the night).

Rule Out Medical Problems 

Many symptoms of separation anxiety can mimic those you’d see when a medical issue is present. That’s why your veterinarian should see your dog if they exhibit new symptoms; it’s essential to rule out a health condition before treating your dog’s behavior. 

For example, if you’re regularly coming home to find areas of inappropriate urination, it could be related to an incontinence issue instead of separation anxiety (or it could be a combination of both). Certain medications can also cause your dog to drool excessively or have urinary leakage, so check with your veterinarian if your dog takes anything regularly to see if that may be the issue.

How To Treat a Dog With Separation Anxiety

Treating a dog with separation anxiety takes patience. Don’t expect your dog to change overnight; it takes time and a lot of positive reinforcement to switch up their internal script. 

How you approach behavior modification will depend on how severe your dog’s separation anxiety is; dogs with more significant issues will often benefit from hiring a professional dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist.

Managing a Dog With Mild Separation Anxiety

If your dog only deals with mild symptoms of separation anxiety, you may be able to use a technique called counterconditioning

Counterconditioning involves taking a stimulus your dog has a strong negative reaction to (like you leaving the house) and turning it into a more positive experience. It works by associating that specific situation with something they love, like a toy they only get when you leave or a high-reward treat. 

While counterconditioning takes time, your dog will eventually start to think of you leaving the house as a much happier event that gets them something they really enjoy.

To use counterconditioning, start by identifying what your dog responds the most positively to — this can be a treat or a toy, as long as it’s something safe that your dog can enjoy without your supervision. Then, introduce this reward to your dog in small doses. For example, give your dog their reward and run to the corner store for a few minutes. 

Some pet parents feel most comfortable leaving the house but staying close enough that they can still hear what their dog is doing, especially in the early stages. If you’d prefer to do that, just make sure to stay out of eyesight. From there, you can gradually increase the time you’re away from the house, making sure to give your dog lots of praise when you get back home. 

Remember that this technique only works with dogs with mild separation anxiety, as those with moderate or severe manifestations will likely not eat or play when left alone. 

Managing a Dog With Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety

If your dog’s separation anxiety crosses more into a moderate or severe territory, it requires more intense treatment to manage. Often, this includes the addition of a secondary behavioral technique known as desensitization. 

Counterconditioning and desensitization can be challenging in a dog who is really struggling with anxiety, and it can be easy to accidentally create more anxiety if you’re inexperienced with using it.

We strongly urge pet parents who have dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety to use all of the tools at their disposal to help them instead of trying to do it themselves. Many of these dogs need behavioral modifications, veterinary care (and potential anxiety medication), and a strict home routine to make an actual difference. 

The Crate Debate

People often have strong feelings about dog crates. The truth is, dog crates aren’t “good” or “bad” on their own; how you use them matters. 

Most dogs thrive in a safe, secure environment where they can relax, which is what a crate can give them. The earlier you start crate training your dog, the more likely they will see it as a reward, not a punishment. 

However, it may take days or weeks to help ease your dog into using (and loving) their crate, so don’t use one as an immediate fix. Be careful not to leave anything in the crate with your dog if they tend to be destructive when alone, either — you don’t want accidentally to create a choking hazard.

The Importance of Exercise

All dogs need exercise. While the amount and intensity of that exercise will naturally change as they age, physical activity is crucial for keeping your dog’s overall anxiety level manageable. Most veterinary professionals recommend getting your dog at least half an hour of exercise daily, providing them with both physical and mental stimulation. 

Exercising your dog before a lengthy separation can also help minimize their separation anxiety and subsequent destructive behavior. An appropriately worn-out dog won’t have as much energy to pace or be anxious, which is a win for both of you!

If you cannot provide your dog with the necessary daily exercise they need, it may be worth enrolling them in doggy daycare. 

The Power of the Kong

In the fight against separation anxiety, a Kong (or any other puzzle toy that involves food) is a dog’s best friend. Kongs come in multiple varieties and sizes, which allows dogs of all ages and situations (from young puppies to older dogs with dental problems) to enjoy them safely. 

You can stuff them with any treat or snack food your dog enjoys, like peanut butter or cheese, and even put them in the freezer so your dog has to work a little harder to get it out. 

The basic premise is that if your dog is working hard at getting to that high reward treat, they’ll be too distracted to be anxious. Obviously, this won’t work for longer periods of alone time, but it’s a great temporary measure.

In Summary

Treating a dog with separation anxiety takes more patience than skill. It can be challenging to deal with a dog who struggles with you leaving, but with a bit of knowledge, you can help return them (and your home) to a state of calm. Just go slow and consult a veterinarian or behaviorist if you’re unsure where to start!

Sources:

Behavioral Problems of Dogs – Behavior | Merck Veterinary Manual 

Canine separation anxiety: strategies for treatment and management | PMC 

New research identifies root causes of separation anxiety in dogs | American Veterinary Medical Association 

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