Separation anxiety in dogs is a common condition faced by many pups and their owners. If, every time you leave the house, your dog seems to have a bit of a freak out, you’re not alone.
The good news is, this isn’t something you (and your dog) have to endure. There are many different ways to help calm and support your dog when they’re alone. They may never “like” you leaving, but there are ways to help them feel more secure and comfortable when you head out.
First, you need to recognize that the issue exists, then you need to be sure it’s actually separation anxiety. Those are the first steps.
So how can you tell? And what causes this condition in the first place?
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
We wish we could give you a definitive answer here, but unfortunately, we don’t know for sure. There’s just no conclusive evidence as to why some dogs develop it and others don’t.
Some of the possible causes could be related to:
- A change in schedule or environment – if your pup has always been home with you, but now you’re heading back to full days at work, or, if you’ve moved recently and noticed the anxiety, these could both be a cause
- Negative experience in the past – this is especially true in rescue dogs – a negative experience can trigger the anxiety
- Getting older – some dogs lose confidence as they get older, and that can impact how secure they feel when they’re alone
- Genetics – perhaps your dog was born with the condition
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
Some dogs with separation anxiety become agitated when you’re getting ready to leave the house. Maybe it’s the act of putting on your shoes and coat, or maybe it’s simply grabbing your car keys – but they know, and they react. Some dogs may even try to prevent you from leaving or try their very best to come with you.
Then, when you leave the house, you hear it: the barking or crying, and you know someone isn’t happy.
There are both subtle and obvious indicators of separation anxiety. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between bad manners when left alone and separation anxiety.
These are often symptoms of separation, triggered by you leaving the house:
- Destructive behavior
- Peeing or pooping in the house, especially if they’re house trained
- Chewing on themselves or pulling out their fur
- Escape attempts
- Drooling or panting more than usual
Set up a camera. If you notice these things happening when you leave, and typically only when you leave, you’re probably looking at separation anxiety.
Could it be Something Else?
Some dog owners mistake disruptive or destructive behavior for separation anxiety when it could be something else.
- Barking/Howling. Dogs bark. That’s just dogs being dogs. Sure, some may vocalize more than others (wayyyy more than others), but that’s not necessarily a sign of separation anxiety. It could just be triggered by something in their environment: a person or dog walking by, a squirrel playing the in yard, even kids riding their bikes. If this happens when you’re home, as well as when you’re away, it’s probably not a symptom of separation anxiety.
- Juvenile Destruction. Lots of young puppies and adolescent dogs (especially adolescent dogs in fact), will chew and tear things apart. Often this is just typical “teenage behavior” that needs to be redirected or that you can curb it with training and exercise. How can you tell the difference? If the chewing happens when you’re home, even to a lesser degree (or not as often because you stop it when you see it), this is just normal young dog behavior. Training can help. So can mental stimulation. If it’s just when you’re gone, it could be separation anxiety.
- Boredom. Speaking of mental stimulation, dogs need it. And some dogs need a lot of it. If your dog seems to get destructive when you’re away, try going for a long walk or doing some brain games before you leave to tire them out. See if that curbs the behavior.
- Urination. Again, this one may be a sign of separation anxiety if it only happens when you’re gone, but if you notice it when you’re home as well, it may be a sign of something else. If your pup isn’t quite house trained, that could be the answer. If your pup is still young, and you’re leaving for long periods of time, this may also be the culprit. Proper training can curb the behavior. However, if your dog is older, and you notice it both when you’re home and when you’re away, it could be a sign of a medical condition, such as a UTI or urinary incontinence. Speak with your vet if you’re concerned.
Soothing Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety is stressful, for both you and your dog. Dogs are pack animals, so it’s in their nature to be with their pack members – that means you. Most dogs don’t really want to spend much time alone, even the fiercely independent ones.
So, now that we know what the issue is, let’s work on helping your pup. Remember, this should be done gradually. Think low and slow – like a crockpot. Give your dog plenty of time to adjust as you work on dampening the anxious feelings and behaviours. This is not an overnight fix.
Start by trying to limit your time away from the house, as well as the length of time you’re gone. For some, this may not be possible, but if you can achieve it, it’s a great place to start.
Set the Stage & Change the Scene
Next, you want to work on changing your dog’s fearful or anxious reaction to one that’s more comfortable and calm instead. You can do this be helping your canine associate you leaving (the trigger) with a positive experience. Over time, your dog will discover that, not only is being alone not such a bad thing, but usually something ok comes from it. For most dogs, this usually means a special treat. We’ve heard so many people who swear by a toy stuffed with a treat (this lengthens the time it is entertaining), something like a kong filled with peanut butter. If you’re not big on peanut butter, try pure pumpkin, frozen, to make it last longer. Make sure you take the treat or toy away when you get home, so they start to recognize it’s something they get only when you’re gone.
Don’t make a big deal of leaving, even if you think it “helps” your dog cope. Let’s face it, your dog may not understand this heightened emotion and it could make things worse. Don’t make a fuss, or overdo it when you leave. Keep it low key. It may also help to maintain this low key status when you get home, so your return isn’t the “best part of the experience” – that can be counterproductive.
If there are triggers that set your dog off as you’re getting ready to leave, such as putting on your coat or grabbing your keys, try conditioning your dog away from the anxious reaction. If you know these are triggers, try doing them throughout the day to help teach your dog they don’t necessarily mean you’re leaving. Again, gradual here – you don’t want to overwhelm your dog!
There are also various calming, natural supplements that may help when you’re getting ready to leave, like CBD oil or flower essences (Bach Rescue Remedy).
Some dogs may not respond well (or at all) to these changes. If that’s the case, and you fear the separation anxiety may be hindering your dog’s quality of life, it might be time to talk to your holistic veterinarian.
From the Expert
Want to learn more about separation anxiety and how to help your dog work through it? Check out our good friend Julie Anne Lee as she sits down with canine separation anxiety expert Malena DeMartini. They talk about those common causes, various coping mechanisms, and ways to prevent it in the first place.
Remember, separation anxiety usually has nothing to do with something you have or haven’t done. It’s just that your dog loves you so darn much they never want you to leave. Give them an extra snuggle to show them you feel the same (just make sure it isn’t right before you leave the house)!
The Veterinarious team is made up of pet owners, pet lovers, and pet experts from around the globe! We’ve banded together to create a community of like-minded pet people to give you the latest research and health advice for your beloved beast!