Dogs look sad when they see us leaving the house without them. They may even mope. That’s typical dog behavior. But when your dog is in full-on panic mode in your absence — barking, howling, chewing, and digging at entrances to escape — they’re suffering from separation anxiety. Literally, your absence sends your furry friend into a state of distress. In extreme cases, a dog might destroy a kennel or door to try and escape.
Experiencing separation anxiety is distressing for humans. No one wants to worry about their dog’s mental health and physical safety, not to mention the noise can be disturbing to neighbors. It takes time and patience to condition your dog to remain calm in your absence. Here are the canine drivers behind separation anxiety and what you can do about it.
Does my dog have separation anxiety? A quick quiz
Every dog is different. Some display several behaviors common to separation anxiety, while others have only one or two. As you work down this list, find the specific behaviors that show up in your dog just before, during, and after your absence.
Common signs of separation anxiety in dogs
- Barking, howling, or crying
- Chewing shoes or objects with your scent
- Escape (digging or chewing at entrances and windows)
- Excitement upon return
- Potty accidents
- Shadowing when you return
- Watchful, obsessive waiting
How severe is your dog’s separation anxiety?
Now that you’ve identified your dog’s behaviors when you’re away, you’ll want to rate them:
Intensity of behavior: mild, moderate, or excessive
- Does your dog’s behavior last the duration of your absence?
- Can your dog settle 15 minutes after your leave?
Level of your concern or worry: minor, significant, major
- Is your dog’s behavior disturbing neighbors?
- Is your dog’s physical well-being at risk?
Is it separation anxiety or is it something else?
It’s important to understand that some behaviors may be similar to separation anxiety, but the root cause can be different.
- Medical: Have your dog seen by a vet to rule out an underlying medical condition.
- Boredom: Dogs with a high-energy drive and a need for mental stimulation can get into messy mischief when no one’s looking.
- Age: Energetic juvenile dogs often get destructive when left home alone or make potty mistakes.
What causes separation anxiety in dogs?
Each dog is unique. Separation anxiety is often triggered by life changes. Certain breeds can be predisposed to separation anxiety because they’re highly sensitive to their environments, or they have a disposition to bond with one human. Individual temperament also plays a role.
Dogs are both pack animals and creatures of habit. Big changes can be confusing to dogs, causing their survival instincts to kick into high alert. When the humans leave, a drive kicks in to pursue the pack and being locked in can cause panic and fear. When unaddressed, separation anxiety can turn into a conditioned response in your pet, where being alone triggers panic.
When dogs get rehomed, especially after being surrendered to a shelter or rescue, they frequently need help with gaining confidence and trust that the new pack won’t leave them.
When the humans return to school or head back to the office after a long stint of working from home, these are big schedule changes for dogs that can trigger separation anxiety.
Moving: Changing homes, particularly if the new space disrupts familiar routines (such as going from a fenced yard to an unfenced yard), can make dogs feel worried and insecure.
Family changes: Marriage, a new roommate, or a new baby can throw off the pack order, making dogs feel anxious. Departures are also significant events, such as kids leaving for college, divorce, and death.
How to help your dog with separation anxiety
Providing the training and help to calm your dog’s separation anxiety takes a multi-pronged approach, where you’ll focus on confidence building with your dog, while also reconditioning their response to your departure, so they stay calm and happy while you’re away from home.
Some dogs are born uncertain about new situations, and that can overlap with separation anxiety. One way to alleviate both is through confidence-building activities with your dog, things that help him see the world as less scary and a place to be calm and happy. Playing games reinforces trust and bonding, and training provides a focus and a “job.” Scent work lets your dog use their natural abilities to find rewards. The key to confidence building in dogs is positive reinforcement.
Ease the transition with doggie daycare
Sometimes, a day of fun and playmates at a dog-friendly social space can provide a welcome distraction while pet parents solve the underlying separation anxiety issues. Be sure to inform the staff of your pet’s separation anxiety issues, so they can help if your dog is feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Recondition your dog’s response to your departure
Reconditioning a dog with separation anxiety is about deactivating the survival instinct that kicks in when they hear and see the cues that you’re leaving (such as picking up your keys), and then replacing these with calm contentment. A common exercise is slowly training your dog to stop the fear and panic response, and learn to calmly accept brief separations.
Baby steps are key to reconditioning. Mark progress with an enthusiastic “yes” and give them the treat jackpot. If they still have an anxious response, don’t push it. Go back a half step and slowly work your way up.
Also, understand your dog’s body language, so you know for sure if your dog is stressed or calm at each stage.
Recondition your departure cues: The sound of jangling keys can send an anxious dog into a spiral. At random times, pick up your keys and put them down. Later, you can also put on and then remove your shoes and jacket. Do these get-ready activities at random times until your dog learns to stop reacting.
Recondition your exits: Do your usual get-ready things and step out the door. Close it, and come back in right away, saying, “Yes!” or “Good!” Reward with treats and ear rubs. Slowly increase the pause between exiting and reentering the house.
Recondition the drive-off: Start with starting and turning off the car, and return immediately to the house. Work up to driving around the block, to the store and back, and so on. Eventually, departures will become a non-event.
Provide exercise and activities
Before you leave, work in a brisk walk or a game of fetch or tug. Exercise and play are proven anxiety busters for dogs while burning off excess energy can help them settle down more quickly.
Leave special treats
Leaving a food-driven dog with a food or treat puzzle redirects their attention, and gives them something new to focus on. Or leave pieces of kibble or training treats around the house to entice them to come away from watching the door for a fun treasure hunt.
Professional help for dogs with separation anxiety
If progress is slow, or if you’re struggling to find effective methods for your dog, working with a professional behavioral specialist can be a game-changer. With their knowledge, training, and experience with separation anxiety, they can customize a program based on your dog’s unique triggers and personality. You’ll be amazed how quickly they find what works for your dog! To find a reputable dog behavioral specialist, talk to your vet, local rescues, and community organizations that help pets.
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