How to Help a Dog With Separation Anxiety
Do you think dog has separation anxiety when you leave the house? Here's how to help.
You grab your keys, run to the kitchen for your travel mug, slip on your shoes, and dash toward the door. But then you catch a glimpse of your poor doggo, looking seriously sad as he starts low-key crying.
As long as you give him tons of kisses and tell him you’ll be back soon, he’ll be fine, right?
It depends. Your dog could just be a little upset, or he may have a real case of separation anxiety. We’ll let you know why this is serious, what could cause it, how to tell if your dog actually has it, and how to help your stressed-out pup if they do.
What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is pretty much what it sounds like–it’s a type of anxiety that your dog experiences when they are separated from you, whether you’re going on a short errand or leaving for a full work day.
Even though the word “anxiety” might not sound so scary, separation anxiety in dogs is a much more intense and very specific type of anxiety. It happens when a dog becomes extremely stressed out at the thought of being left alone because they are overly attached to their “person” or “people.”
When their person gives signals that they are about to leave, like picking up keys or getting dressed, a dog with separation anxiety will show signs of distress, from howling to shaking. They may even destroy your belongings while you’re gone.
How Can I Tell If My Dog Has Separation Anxiety?
Everyone has a little anxiety now and then, but at least we can just tell people that we’re anxious. But how do you know if your dog has separation anxiety?
The signs of separation anxiety will start as soon as your dog realizes you are about to leave, or immediately after you leave. This is an important factor in determining whether it is really separation anxiety. You may need to invest in a dog camera or nanny cam so you can find out when the behaviors are happening and what’s going on around the house at the time.
Here are some signs to watch for:
- Vocalizing: persistent howling, whining, and/or barking
- Peeing or pooping in the house when your dog is fully potty-trained
- Scratching or chewing at the door or trying to escape from a crate
- Chewing on or tearing up your stuff
- Becoming restless and/or pacing
- Shaking or shivering and withdrawing
If your dog exhibits these behaviors while you are at home and are not about to leave the house, or well after you’ve left, it’s probably not separation anxiety. Here are some other possible causes that you should look into:
- Medical issues: Tons of different medical issues can cause your dog to shake, become restless, pee or poop in the house, or vocalize.
- Submissive urination: If the only symptom is peeing when you come home, this is a case of submissive urination, or a pee of excitement.
- Marking: Pee on the walls and/or furniture and other vertical surfaces could be territorial marking.
- Incontinence: It could be that your dog is sick if they seem to pee without knowing it, or if you are finding diarrhea and not fully formed poop.
- Boredom: If your dog is not showing signs of stress when you get ready to leave, but your house is a wreck when you come home, it could be that your dog is seriously bored.
- Reacting to outside noises: Your pup may be barking or stressing out because of specific noises, like construction, hearing strangers or other animals outside, or thunderstorms. This could be a noise phobia.
- Puppy behavior: Dogs up to age 1 and even a little older are still puppies. You could be dealing with some normal puppy behaviors that a little training can help with.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
If you’ve ruled out the other possibilities and it does seem to be separation anxiety, you’re probably wondering what’s causing it. Is it something you did? Are you and your dog codependent?
We don’t completely understand the factors behind separation anxiety in dogs, but it could be that your dog has formed an overly dependent attachment to you. Does your dog follow you around the house and need to be near you or on top of you at all times?
Separation anxiety in dogs also seems to go hand in hand with dramatic changes in the household. Here are a few common scenarios:
- Missing a family member, whether they’ve passed away or moved out (divorce, going to college, losing a roommate that your dog was attached to)
- Being given up to a shelter (your dog may have been close to their former owner who surrendered them to a shelter)
- Change schedule (kids going back to school after summer; going to the office instead of working from home)
- Moving (very stressful for humans, and even more stressful for dogs!)
- First time being left alone (not knowing if you will ever come back, or when)
How to Help Dogs With Separation Anxiety
You might be able to help your pup with a mild case of separation anxiety, but for more extreme cases, you’ll need to talk to a certified dog behavior consultant or a veterinary behaviorist–the equivalent of a doggy psychiatrist.
Here are some ways to help your dog with separation anxiety:
Get some special chew toys and puzzles.
Your dog has learned that being alone is frightening. You can try to reframe your dog’s experience of alone time by getting him special “busy” toys. One great option to try is a puzzle toy that has hidden treats that your dog has to figure out how to get.
Busy Buddy has a ton of these types of toys that can keep your dog working away at them for at least an hour. KONG is another super popular toy because you can stuff it with dog-friendly foods like peanut butter and plain yogurt and then freeze it. Only bring these toys out when you are leaving and make it seem like a very exciting time to look forward to.
Hire a dog walker.
Whether it’s someone from your neighborhood, a friend, or a professional, hire someone to come hang out with your dog while you’re away. Make sure it’s someone your dog actually likes, though! You can schedule a meet and greet and see how it goes, and even go on a walk with your dog and the prospective dog walker.
If your dog seems to approve of the new person, have them bring special treats that your dog only gets when they come to visit. They can also take your pup to some new spots with all sorts of new smells.
Add an exercise and play session before you leave.
About an hour before you’re going to leave the house, plan to play with your dog for 30 minutes. Make this a regular part of the schedule so your dog looks forward to this one on one time with you. Give your pup your undivided attention (no cell phones) and do his favorite activities, whether it’s tug of war, fetch, going on a walk, etc.
Try “leaving” without actually leaving.
You can help your dog have a more mellow reaction to you leaving by making it seem like not a big deal. To do this, you’ll need to practice all your rituals that you usually do before you leave, but without actually leaving at the end. First, make a list of the things you do, like grabbing keys, putting on shoes, picking up a certain bag, and so on.
Then try doing these things or just a few of them but then sitting down on the couch at the end instead of leaving. Keep repeating this over several days until your dog stops having big reactions when you start your ritual. This is called counterconditioning. You can even give your dog a few treats at the end of the “leaving” ritual.
The next step will be to actually leave, but only for a couple of minutes at first. Be sure to give your dog the chew toy or puzzle toy when you leave, so it becomes something they look forward to. You can gradually increase the length of time you’re gone. This is where a nanny cam or dog cam will come in handy, so you can watch your dog’s reaction after you’ve left and monitor the progress.
Ask a pro for help.
If none of these things are working, or if your dog has serious separation anxiety, to the point where they injure themselves trying to escape or are extremely upset, you’ll need the help of a professional.
This goes beyond a dog trainer; for severe cases of dog separation anxiety, ask your vet to put you in touch with a reputable veterinary behaviorist or a certified dog behavior consultant.
You can also search for one through these sites:
Veterinary Behaviorists: American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
These are veterinarians who have completed special training and are board-certified to treat behavior concerns in pets. There are only about 80 of these vets in the whole world!
Dog Behavioral Consultants:
- Look for someone who is listed as a Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA®).
Animal Behaviorists: Animal Behavior Society
- Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists have a Master’s Degree in a biological or behavioral science and at least two years of professional experience in the field.
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists have a doctorate in biological or behavioral science with five years of professional experience in the field.