Dog with separation anxiety looks out window

Key takeaway

Separation anxiety can impact quality of life for you and your dog. Common causes include change in ownership, environment, or traumatic events. With the proper treatment for separation anxiety, such as desensitization, counterconditioning, and in some cases, medication, you can help alleviate symptoms of separation anxiety in your pooch.

How to Help A Dog With Separation Anxiety

A dog is a man’s best friend. So what do you do when your best friend suffers from debilitating anxiety every time you leave them? Dog separation anxiety is a real thing, and it can be quite traumatic for both you and your furry friend.

In this blog post, we’ll be discussing the symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs, along with its potential causes and treatment options. Learn how to ease your dog’s separation anxiety so that they can live their best life possible—and you can leave the house without worry.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety in dogs occurs when a canine becomes overly attached to its owner, expressing signs and symptoms of being visibly upset every time they’re separated. Separation anxiety affects one in every four to six dogs1. While certain dog breeds are more likely to suffer from anxiety-related traits, it can happen to any dog. 

Anxiety in dogs can affect their overall health, making them more susceptible to disease and shortening their lifespan. It’s imperative to know how to treat your dog’s separation anxiety to ensure he or she lives a long, happy life.

Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

To help your dog with separation anxiety, you must first be able to identify the signs and symptoms. Dog separation anxiety can manifest in different ways, so it’s important that you know what to look for.

Some dogs show signs of separation anxiety when their owners prepare to leave them. A dog can easily pick up on signs that its owner is about to depart, whether that be them picking up their car keys or putting on their shoes. These kinds of actions may easily trigger a dog to start acting out, in efforts to prevent their owner from leaving. Then, once the owner comes home, the dog acts overly excited, like it’s been years since they’ve seen them.

If you’ve experienced the above scenario with your dog, they may suffer from some form of separation anxiety. 

Image shows symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs

These are some other key telltale signs that indicate your dog might be experiencing anxiety:

  • Drooling and panting more than usual: The stress of being left alone can cause a dog with separation anxiety to drool and pant in excess.
  • Frequent pacing: Some dogs with separation anxiety will pace around the house in the same pattern, either in circles or back and forth in straight lines.
  • Trying to escape: A dog with separation anxiety will try to escape the area where they’re left alone. They may try to dig or chew through windows or doors, which can lead to self-injury.
  • Howling or barking in excess: A dog with separation anxiety will howl, bark, and whine in an attempt to escape.
  • Having accidents in the house after being potty trained: A dog with separation anxiety will urinate/defecate in the house when they’re left alone, even though they’ve been potty trained.
  • Destructive behaviors, including chewing, digging, and scratching: Some dogs with separation anxiety will chew or scratch on door frames, window sills, doorways, and other household objects.

It’s important to note that a dog with separation anxiety will only exhibit these symptoms when they’re left alone. If your dog does any of the above when they’re in your presence, it may be an indication of something else. Certain medical problems and medications can cause some of these symptoms, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian if you see your dog exhibit any of these symptoms in excess when you’re in their presence.

For instance, some dogs urinate when they’re excited or receiving physical contact. This is not a sign of separation anxiety, and rather just the dog’s reaction to what’s happening around them. Urination can also occur if your dog wasn’t properly potty trained and they don’t know what to do when you’re not around. 

Destructive behaviors may also just be a symptom of your dog being young and still having juvenile tendencies. These behaviors also occur if your dog is bored, which is why it’s important that your dog is properly mentally stimulated. Excessive barking or howling can also just be a result of your dog being scared, and not a sign of anxiety. 

In summary: Because many of these anxiety symptoms are similar to symptoms of other behavior problems, it is wise to monitor whether or not the behaviors persist when you are home. If they exhibit these signs in excess, or only when you’re not around, they’re likely suffering from separation anxiety and additional measures need to be taken to treat it.

Potential Causes of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

While there is no conclusive evidence showing exactly why dogs develop separation anxiety, there are a few potential causes. For example, dogs who were adopted from an animal shelter are more likely to have more behavioral issues than a dog that was raised with the same family from when they were a puppy. 

Graphic shows 5 situations that may cause separation anxiety

There are certain situations that are commonly associated with separation anxiety in dogs, including: 

    • Change of owner: Some dogs may be predisposed to showing separation anxiety, particularly those rescued or adopted from previous owners. This may indicate that the loss of an owner predicates separation anxiety.
    • Change in schedule: A sudden change in schedule can trigger separation anxiety in a dog. For example, if your dog is used to spending all day with you and then suddenly you start to leave them alone for extended periods of time, that can lead to anxiety.
    • Change in physical location or environment: If the dog has recently moved with their owner or family, separation anxiety may occur
    • Traumatic event: If a traumatic event, like a robbery, occurred in the owner’s absence, that can lead to separation anxiety in dogs.
    • Sudden absence of owner: The sudden absence of an owner, such as from a divorce or death in the family, can cause a dog to experience anxiety when left alone.
    • Genetics: Genetics may also predispose your pup to anxiety. In fact, certain breeds such as the Lagotto Romagnolo, Wheaten Terrier, and mixed breed dogs are known to be especially anxious when exposed to triggers, such as excessive or loud noise.2
    • Prenatal factors: Maternal stress can also have an effect on a puppy’s development, potentially contributing to the development of anxiety later on in life.3
    • Socialization stressors: Just as humans experience social anxiety, pets can, too. Proper socialization is key when it comes to preventing canine anxiety.

There is no single cause of separation anxiety in dogs and is often rather a combination of various outside forces. In addition the above-mentioned causes, boredom, loneliness, and old age can also contribute to separation anxiety. Regardless of what the exact cause of your dog’s separation may be, it’s more important to figure out how to treat them so they can live a happier and healthier life. 

How to Treat Separation Anxiety in Dogs

It’s crucial to know how to treat separation anxiety in dogs for peace of mind for both the dog and the owner. Knowing that your dog is home alone, suffering from stress and anxiety, can impact your daily life and hinder your work and social life.

Small dog looks out the window

Prolonged separation anxiety can lead to health issues and illness in your dog, which is why it’s so imperative to know how to treat it. In this section, we’ll be discussing the various methods of how you can go about treating separation anxiety in dogs. 

Treatment is not a one size fits all scenario. There are many different treatment options and methods available and the right solution for your dog is dependent on his or her needs. It might take some trial and error before you figure out a method that works, so it’s important to stay committed to finding a solution.

Graphic shows three ways to treat separation anxiety in dogs

These are the most common treatment options for dogs suffering from separation anxiety:

  • Desensitization: The goal of desensitization is to gradually make your dog less sensitive to being alone. Start by leaving them alone for short periods of time that won’t trigger anxiety, then move up to longer periods of time. 
You’ll want to do this slowly, ideally over the span of a few weeks. If you decide to try out this treatment option, it’s crucial to proceed with caution as there is a chance that this could cause the separation anxiety to worsen. Track your dog’s reactions carefully so you have an idea if it’s actually working, or if it’s making things worse.
  • Counterconditioning: Counterconditioning is essentially when you try to change your dog’s reaction to being alone from anxious to excited. One way you can do this is by training them to associate being alone with getting treats or eating good food.

    For example, every time you leave the house, give your dog their favorite treat. This will train them into getting excited for you to leave, rather than scared, because they know they’re going to receive something pleasant in return. Just make sure to remove the food as soon as you come back home. It’s also important to note that counterconditioning is ideal for dogs with mild separation anxiety only, as some dogs with severe anxiety won’t eat when their owners aren’t present. 
  • Medication: In many cases, medication is the only way to ease your pup’s separation anxiety. Because anxiety is a behavioral disorder, it doesn’t typically go away easily, even with the support of these training techniques. Oftentimes, your dog with anxiety will need prescribed medication to help soothe their anxious mind before they can begin absorbing additional information and commands.

Anti-anxiety medication for dogs has proven to be very helpful in these scenarios. If you’re contemplating if medication is the right solution for your dog’s separation anxiety, let us help. Our team of Dutch-affiliated veterinarians can help you determine whether your dog’s symptoms of separation anxiety can be resolved through medication.

Some dogs experience “pre-departure anxiety”, which is when they start to get anxious because they believe you’re going to be leaving them soon. Doing things like getting your car keys and putting on your shoes can trigger this anxiety. In order to stop your dog from associating these behaviors with anxiety, train them to think that picking up your keys or putting on your shoes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re leaving. 

At various points throughout the day, do these actions, but don’t actually leave. This is a good way to trick your dog into thinking that doing these actions doesn’t always mean that you’re leaving. This can help to reduce their anxiety when you actually do leave. 

It’s also important to not make a big deal out of you leaving your dog. Keep things calm and controlled and stick to a simple pat on the head on your way out the door. Although you might be tempted to make a big ordeal out of it and hug and kiss your dog goodbye, this is likely just going to contribute to their anxiety. Giving them too much attention may make them think that if they act out, you’ll just end up staying home with them. 

The same goes for when you come home—avoid interacting with them too much. Instead, stick to a simple hello and wait until they’ve calmed down before giving them any more attention. 

Graphics shows the correct and incorrect ways to greet a dog with separation anxiety

Keeping your dog mentally stimulated is key in treating separation anxiety. If you don’t interact enough with your dog and don’t keep their mind and body active, they’re more likely to act out. There are a couple of ways you can go about keeping your dog mentally stimulated. Make sure to give your dog sufficient daily exercise and play interactive games with them to keep them engaged. Give them plenty of toys to play with when you’re not home or have them interact with other dogs. Providing enough mental stimulation in combination with one of the above mentioned treatment options might just be the perfect solution for your dog’s separation anxiety. 

Regardless of what method you choose, it’s very important to take things slowly. Doing this process quickly can end up making the anxiety worse for your dog and cause more stress for the both of you. You’ll likely have to test these methods for a long period of time before you can actually tell if they’re effective. 

Although you might get impatient if your dog doesn’t get the hang of it right away, never scold them. They’re trying their best- they don't deserve to be reprimanded. Your dog is going through a lot of stress when they’re not with you, and scolding them is just going to make things worse. Be patient and remember that although easing your dog’s separation anxiety may take time, you’ll get there eventually.

Dog Separation Anxiety: Frequently Asked Questions

Treating a dog with separation anxiety is a tricky process. You don’t want to make things worse for them, but at the same time you’re desperate to find a solution. You can’t bear the thought of knowing your dog is suffering from anxiety for one more day, and it’s beginning to impact your daily life as well. 

If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, your mind is probably flooded with tons of questions. But treating a dog with separation anxiety isn’t something you can do overnight. Every dog is different, so it’ll likely take some time before you find a treatment method that works for you. 

These are some frequently asked questions that you may be wondering about your dog’s separation anxiety:

Should I ignore my dog if he is having separation anxiety? 

If you know your dog suffers from separation anxiety, it can be beneficial to ignore them right before leaving your house rather than showing them affection and saying goodbye. If your dog is showing signs of anxiety, resist reassuring them right away. Ignoring your dog can train them to stop their attention-seeking behaviors. 

Which dog breeds have the worst separation anxiety? 

Certain dog breeds suffer from worse separation anxiety than others. The dog breeds with the worst separation anxiety include: Labrador retriever, Border Collie, Jack Russell Terrier, German Shepherd, Australian Shepherd, and Toy Poodle. While these are the most common dog breeds that suffer from separation anxiety, any dog breed can experience it. 

How do you know if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety?

There are many indications that your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety, the most common being vocalization (i.e. whining, excessive barking). Some other telltale signs include panting when not hot, pacing, trembling, yawning when they’re not sleeping, refusal to eat or drink, malaise, destructive behavior, hiding, elimination, and excessive drooling.

Do dogs grow out of separation anxiety?

While you might be tempted to think that your dog will just grow out of their separation anxiety, that is actually unlikely. Most dogs will not outgrow separation anxiety, except in very mild cases. Separation anxiety is likely not to improve without treatment.

Final Notes: Helping Your Dog with Separation Anxiety

Knowing that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety is incredibly worrisome. You never know what you're going to come home to, whether it be pee on the floor or a chewed door. These destructive behaviors can result in self-inflicted injuries, like broken teeth and cut paws. 

Dealing with a dog with separation anxiety can cause you to constantly worry about them and their wellbeing and can disrupt your daily activities. Finding the right treatment methods means securing a better quality of life for you both.

There are various ways you can ease dog separation anxiety, from desensitization to anxiety medication. If you’re wondering if medication is the right choice for your dog, check out Dutch.com. 

With Dutch, you can connect with licensed veterinarians from the comfort of home. Our animal telemedicine service allows you to access subscription medicines to help treat your furry friend’s separation anxiety, without ever having to leave home or take them to the vet’s office. Start with an online visit, and we’ll help you determine the appropriate course of action or treatment.

The vets who are affiliated with Dutch can prescribe the necessary medication your dog needs to help with their anxiety. The best part? You’ll get that medication within 7 days, delivered directly to your door.

Dr. Evans is the Clinical Director of Dutch and the owner of Coastal Animal Hospital.

References

  1. Sherman, Barbara L, and Daniel S Mills. “Canine anxieties and phobias: an update on separation anxiety and noise aversions.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice vol. 38,5 (2008): 1081-106, vii. doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.012
  2. Salonen, M., Sulkama, S., Mikkola, S. et al. Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs. Sci Rep 10, 2962 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-59837-z

  3. “Maternal Stress and Puppy Development.” USDA Animal Care Aids. June 2019. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/downloads/dangerous-animals/ACAids_Canine-MaternalStress_AC-19-005_6.19.pdf