Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
How to Stop Separation Anxiety in Dogs
To stop separation anxiety in dogs, it's important to recognize whether the dog is truly suffering from this condition, considering that separation anxiety has been reported as being over-diagnosed. With the wrong diagnosis, treatment may not be effective, making you lose precious time.
An Over Diagnosed Problem
So why is separation anxiety in dogs over-diagnosed? Well, first of all, there has been a lot of raised awareness about this behavior issue, and therefore, more awareness leads to more diagnoses.
However, the big problem is that there are several medical and behavioral issues that can lead to signs mimicking separation anxiety, causing dogs to be lightly "diagnosed" with separation anxiety when they are suffering from something else.
There's Destructiveness and Destructiveness
For instance, take dogs who engage in destructive behaviors when left alone. These dogs are often assumed to be suffering from separation anxiety when destructiveness may be caused by other issues such as teething, play, boredom, noise phobias, confinement phobias, lack of sufficient exercise or mental stimulation, prey drive (dogs digging to reach critters hiding in walls or under patios), and even territorial behavior triggered by seeing dogs or people outside that leads to chewing and scratching around windows and doors.
In dogs with separation anxiety, destructiveness is particularly centered on doors, windows, and items that carry the owner's scent. On top of this, such destructiveness is expected to take place in the first 30 to 60 minutes after the owner's departure, points out Dr. Hunthausen, a veterinarian who owns Animal Behavior Consultations in the Kansas City Metro area.
And There is Barking and Barking
The same goes for barking. Barking can take place in dogs for various reasons. There are different types of dog barking, and you can have dogs barking from pain, alarm, frustration, compulsive disorder, territorial aggression, social facilitation (from hearing other dogs barking), canine cognitive dysfunction, and many other anxiety-related disorders.
Barking due to separation anxiety is most likely to occur as the dog owner leaves and is likely to persist until he returns. Along with barking, dogs suffering from separation anxiety may also whine, whimper, and howl.
In order to stop your dog's separation anxiety, you first need to know what you are dealing with, and then only once you have an accurate diagnosis, you can start implementing behavior modification.
Did you know? Sometimes, older dogs can develop separation anxiety. This can be due to a medical problem such as underlying pain, loss of vision or hearing loss. A thorough vet visit is important.
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
As mentioned, the signs of separation anxiety can often be confused with other medical or behavioral issues. One important rule of thumb is that signs of separation anxiety tend to occur contingent upon the owner preparing to leave and then leaving the dog alone.
Another thing to consider is abrupt routine changes. Separation anxiety often tends to occur when everyone was around and then suddenly the dog is left alone again as it may happen after the holidays, summer break, or COVID-19 lockdown.
Timing is another consideration. Signs of separation anxiety tend to occur prior to or within the first 30 minutes of departure.
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- Vocalization (whining, whimpering, barking, howling). Dog owners report the dog's whimpering is similar in sound to when young puppies cry for their mothers.
- House soiling (this can be pee or poop or both).
- Destructiveness (particularly doors, exits, or owner possessions, such as clothes and furniture.
- Drooling (sometimes confused for pee when owners return home and find wet spots on the floor).
- Anxious pacing when owners are showing signs they are about to leave the home (pre-departure cues).
- Close contact when owners are at home, rarely spending time outdoors exploring alone.
- Excessive greeting when owners return.
- Not eating when left alone, but promptly eating when owner returns.
- Occasionally aggression as the owners attempt to leave the home.
How Do You Stop Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
To potentially stop separation anxiety in dogs, you will need to take a multi-faceted approach, tackling your dog's issues from different angles. Here are several ways to reduce and potentially help you stop your dog's separation anxiety. However, a disclaimer is warranted: please consider that no guarantees can be ever made on the outcome of training and behavior modification.
1) Record Your Dog's Behavior
A very important step (that I recommend all dog owners do) is recording their dog's behavior during their absences. This provides an idea about how dogs are coping when they are left home alone.
Even with my dogs, I have been doing this throughout the years and it has always been very insightful. As they started aging, they got a little worse in their barking/whining, but fortunately never to the levels of them being distressed.
Therefore, positioning a camera or smartphone in an area that is out of your dogs' reach and that shows a good portion of the home, particularly in direction of the exit door from which you leave, can be very insightful.
Record for a good minimum of half-hour. Afterward, watch the video carefully. What does your dog do exactly during this time frame?
How long does the barking last? Does your dog eventually settle? Is he/she urinating or defecating in the home? Is he/she engaging in any destructive behaviors? If so, what is he/she destroying? Have you noticed any drooling, shaking, or pacing?
2) Show It to a Professional
The details of your recording are very helpful, although for a sure diagnosis you would have to show the recording to a professional (preferably a veterinary behaviorist, applied animal behaviorist) and/or your veterinarian to determine what exactly may be going on and to provide an individualized plan.
The professional you are showing the recording will assess the behavior, determine what other tests may be needed to rule out any other conditions, and determine what kind of treatment will work best based on the findings.
Separation anxiety is treated nowadays through the use of behavior modification, possibly carried out along with medications.
3) Don't Downplay Medications
Dogs showing intense signs of separation anxiety may require prescription medications to calm them down enough so that behavior modification becomes effective.
Many dog owners are reluctant to give their dogs meds, but often this is one of the reasons why some behavior modification plans fail. If your vet is recommending medications, listen to your vet. Treatment has been reported to be more effective when certain meds are prescribed (see prognosis section).
Separation anxiety causes dogs to get into a panic, they are suffering a whole lot, and left untreated, it tends to get worse rather than better.
4) Don't Skip Behavior Modification
I am often surprised to hear dog owners report that they gave their dogs only the prescribed meds and they didn't work! Sure, the meds can make dogs dopey and perhaps less inclined to show anxiety to the highest level, but in many cases, they are not meant to work alone. Rather, they should be given along with the implementation of a behavior modification plan.
5) Take Some Time Off
In order to work on your dog's separation anxiety, you need to take some time off. This is because you really need to avoid leaving during the delicate initial stages of behavior modification.
So schedule your behavior modification when you know you can get some time off from work as your dog must never be alone except during the training exercises.
6) Alternate Options
Many separation anxiety programs require that you stick to a program that may last four months or more. During this time, you may be wondering what you can do as you know you can't keep your dog alone due to time constraints and a demanding job. So what can you do when your dog must be left alone?
Well, here's some good news. There are two forms of anxiety affecting dogs: actual separation anxiety and isolation distress.
According to Malena DeMartini, dog trainer and author of "Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs," a dog suffering from separation anxiety experiences extreme distress when separated from one specific person, or, occasionally, two people.
On the contrary, dogs suffering from isolation distress suffer from the mere fact of being isolated, therefore as long as they have a caregiver to keep them company, any person "will do."
So if your dog has isolation distress, consider yourself lucky since you may have your dog frequent daycare or have a dog walker or neighbor swing by to help you out during these times, just anything as long as your dog isn't left alone to rehearse his anxiety.
7) Uncouple Departure Cues
Dogs are prone to learning through associations. You grab the leash, the dog thinks walks, you grab the food bowl, your dog thinks food, you put your shoes on, your dog thinks "Yikes, my owner is about to leave!"
Most dogs with separation anxiety have therefore learned to associate one event with another when their owners are about to leave the home. In other words, they have learned to pay close attention to their owner's "pre-departure cues."
So most likely your dog gets incrementally nervous when he watches you put your shoes on, then wear a jacket and grab your car keys, with his anxiety then going through the roof once you exit the door and drive away.
Your job is therefore to uncouple all these departure cues, astutely depriving them of their meaning. How do you accomplish this? Easy.
This process essentially entails habituation, a behavior modification process where you provide consistent exposure to a situation until it no longer evokes the response. So perform all your pre-departure cues when you have no intention of leaving the home.
Put on your shoes, and sit on the couch to read a book or watch TV. Do this several times until your dog grows bored of this. Next, put on your shoes, put your jacket on and once again sit on the couch. Do this until he seems to care less. Next, put your shoes on, wear your jacket and then grab your car keys, and sit on the couch once again.
Progress to where you can put your shoes on, wear your jacket, grab the car keys and open and close the door with you leaving just a second and then coming right back and then sitting on the couch without your dog worrying too much.
8) Practice Graduated Departures
Behavior modification for separation anxiety entails lots of practice and repetition. As your dog gets less and less worried about you leaving the home for a split second, it's then time to start increasing the duration of your absences. Make sure to couple your departure with great things as explained in the next step.
9) Make Great Things Happen When Alone
It's natural for dogs to associate our presence with many reassuring things. For many good reasons, dogs perceive our return from work as the biggest perk of the day. When we are home, we provide dogs with companionship, exercise, play, food and attention. When we leave, all of that tends to disappear.
Dogs, therefore, come to learn that when we head out of the door, all good things end. Add to this the social nature of dogs, and you have the perfect recipe for a dog with separation anxiety.
So the goal of helping a dog with separation anxiety is, on top of habituating them to graduated absences, to provide positive associations with our absence.
So this means providing the dog's meals when you go out, treats can be hidden around the home, a new toy may be placed on top of a chair and calming music can be played.
I personally like to leave all this good stuff on a tall counter, where the dog cannot reach it but can see and smell it. This builds anticipation so that the dog starts to look forward to my departures day after day.
Make all this great stuff happen contingent upon your departure. Then when you come home, remove all the good stuff so as to delineate the difference between when you are out and back home.
10) Remove Drama From Departures
Dogs are very in tune with our emotions and view us as their secure base. If you lose it every time you must leave your dog alone, rest assured, your dog will feed off your emotions and feel anxious every time you close that door behind.
Rather than making a huge deal about leaving your dog alone, try giving a little pat as you casually say in a chipper tone of voice: “Bye Rover, be good now and watch the house while I’m gone, OK?”
11) Keep Returns Low-Key
Totally ignoring your dog is sort of rude and uncaring considering how much our dogs have missed us, but you don't want to create an overly enthusiastic display either. A calm hello will do as you put away your stuff and run a few errands.
Try avoiding feeding your dog or going on a walk right away if possible so that your dog doesn't come to associate your return with all the good stuff, making your return extra salient.
12) Watch For Barrier Frustration
Some dogs go from mild anxiety to a panic-like state when they are not only left alone but placed in a crate or playpen. These dogs are very frustrated they can't reach their owners so they end up pawing and chewing at the barrier and sometimes risk even getting potentially hurt. These dogs may do better not being confined.
13) Provide Exercise, Training and Mental Stimulation
It goes without saying that dogs with separation anxiety benefit from a structured program of exercise, training and mental stimulation. Both physical and mental activity has the power to release some anxious energy.
Make sure to walk your dog before going to work. This can help tire your dog out. Also, don't forget to train him, encourage confidence-building exercises, increase his coping skills with dog impulse control exercises, and if your dog is social, take him to gatherings with other dogs and dog owners.
14) Foster Independent Behaviors
Do you happen to own a clingy velcro dog that follows you everywhere? Does your dog follow you even into the bathroom, never leaving you alone? If so, you may want to encourage more independent behaviors. So aim to recognize, praise and reward your dog when you catch him acting independently.
For example, praise and reward him for holding a sit/stay out of your view in another room, praise him for exploring the yard at a distance from you, praise him when he isn't following you everywhere around the home, praise him for sleeping at a mat at a distance rather than sleeping glued at your feet.
15) Invest in Technology
Lately, treating separation anxiety has been brought to a new, higher level. Introducing special gadgets that can help keep your dog entertained while you are away. The late Sophia Yin's Manners Minder is one option and Pet Tutor is another one.
One of my favorites is the Furbo camera. This nifty invention consists of a camera that you can use to monitor your dog from work and allows you to, not only see your dog but also talk to him and have the camera toss tasty treats to him at the push of a button.
16) Skip Getting Another Dog
Many dog owners assume that their dog's separation anxiety may magically disappear if they bring home another dog. This well-intent strategy can be a recipe for disaster.
The resident dog risks not getting any relief, and on top of that, changes may further disrupt his life and the new dog may end up feeling confused from the resident dog's behavior, to the extent that he may develop anxiety as well, so then you're left with double the trouble.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid getting a new dog in hopes of fixing the problem. This rarely, if ever works, other than in some very unique situations.
17) Invest in Calming Aids
Comfort Zone DAP diffuser, Sentry Calming Diffuser and Adaptil Diffuser release special pheromones meant to calm dogs. There are also many over-the-counter supplements for dogs.
18) Create the Perfect Environment
Make sure the area where you leave your dog is not too hot or cold and make sure that it's not noisy. Did you know? A recent study has found an association between dogs' noise phobias and separation anxiety. Most likely this is because dogs with noise phobias come to seek their owners for reassurance, but when left alone, they can't gain that and they become anxious over being alone.
19) Read Books on the Topic
There are many great books nowadays that cover separation anxiety in depth. Reading these books can help you better get acquainted with the process.
20) Avoid Getting Angry
Finally, it may be very upsetting for dog owners to notice a dog who has had an accident inside the home and destroyed the door by scratching, yet it's important to hold your tongue, no matter how angry you are and how guilty your dog may have appeared to you in the past.
Dogs with separation anxiety are not acting out of spite or being vindictive. They are simply suffering. If you have noticed a guilty look on his face, don't assume it's proof of him being guilty, rather it's in response to your angered state.
A Word About Prognosis
Owners of dogs suffering from separation anxiety may be wondering what to expect when they institute treatment. How long will it take before they start seeing results? Results tend to vary based on several factors.
In general, when behavior modification is combined with the drug Reconcile (fluoxetine) 73 percent see overall significant improvement after 8 weeks, compared to 51 percent improvement seen with behavior modification alone.
Source: Sherman-Simpson B, Landsberg GM, Reisner IR et al. Effects of Reconcile (Fluoxetine) Chewable Tablets plus behavior management for canine separation anxiety. Vet Ther 8, 18-31, 2007
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 14, 2020:
Thanks for the details! I think there are several options you can try. One is to take him in these couple of weeks to your parent's home to get used to being there. Have his get used to being in your parents house and practice having your family take care of him (make sure they are aware of his toy/bone food guarding). Chances are, if he suffers from isolation distress (just needs to be in company) he'll fair pretty well as long as somebody is with him at home. The other is to take him to daycare if they're Ok with a potential toy guarder. They shouldn't have toys around in any case to prevent fights. The third option is to ask your vet for sedatives if he's not doing well at your parent's house. This can be just a temporary measure until you can start adding in behavior modification. Discuss this with your vet.
LaNora Hall on August 14, 2020:
Thank you for responding! He tends to resource guard toys. He is rarely aggressive toward other dogs. He occasionally will bark or lunge at one of the dogs if he is tired of playing and then that is the end of the aggression. He hasn’t acted aggressive In a few weeks. He has never bitten anyone that I know of but he shows his teeth or growls when he thinks you are taking away a toy or a bone. (As most dogs do) I have caught him hoarding toys. He does wonderful in the presence of other people and loves everyone. My mother more than likely will be working until an average of 4 pm while my grandmother should be home unless she is running errands.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 14, 2020:
Hi Lanora Hall,
What does he resource guard? Is it directed towards other dogs or people too? Two weeks is a rather short time to work on this issue. Does he do OK in company of other people? Will your parents be home?
LaNora Hall on August 13, 2020:
Hi Adrienne, my 4 year old lab suffers from extreme separation anxiety as well as resource aggression, his separation anxiety is so bad that I cannot even leave him outside. If I close the door to the yard he intensely scratches and jumps at the door. He is glued to my bf and I and follows us even into the bathroom. He even sticks his head in the shower while we are showering. We have not had him very long about two months. He has on been left alone one time in the bathroom for about 15 minutes. He was crying so much we could hear him from the apartment parking lot my bf has taken a job in a different state and will not be back for six weeks and I am starting a new job in about two weeks. I moved back home so he now has a big yard to play in, two other dogs to play with and we go on a mile walk everyday. I was wondering what your advice is my job will be from 2:30-6:30 so he will not be alone for a long time but I fear he will destroy my parents house while I am gone. He doesn’t purposely try to tear things up but I am afraid he would jump at windows and walls while I am away. I have tried to tough it out and let him cry and jump at the door but he is so pitiful and I have no idea what steps to take. Please help! He is a very sweet loving dog and I have fallen for him and do not plan on rehoming him.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on August 11, 2020:
Your advice on how to treat dogs dealing with this condition is so informative and practical that anyone can do it. Thanks for sharing this advice. I think this information is something that every dog owner should know.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 11, 2020:
Hi Linda, separation anxiety in dogs can be quite problematic, not only for the dog, but also to an owner's property. It's important to take steps in preventing in or at least tackling it before it puts roots and becomes more and more established.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 11, 2020:
Hi Devika, it's unfortunate that so many dogs suffer from separation anxiety, and many other forms of anxiety nowadays.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 11, 2020:
I agree, the camera that tosses treats is a great invention for dogs who are left alone. I think it works great for most dogs who spend time alone, even those not suffering from separation anxiety.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 11, 2020:
Indeed, we have seen an influx of separation anxiety cases since the lock down. It's like turning their lives upside down. Nipping this in the bud is important before the behavior becomes more established. Great to hear your dogs are chill when you leave!
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on August 11, 2020:
Dogs have their behaviors and anxiety is one of it. I have read many of your hubs about dogs and this one is just as good as the rest. Informative, interesting and useful to all dog owners.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 10, 2020:
This article is a great resource for pet owners, Adrienne. It includes a lot of useful information.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 09, 2020:
Wow! A camera that can toss treats to a dog is fantastic. I was unaware that such a thing exists. Your tips about how to treat a dog that has separation anxiety sound excellent. It would take some time and effort to get that corrected but would be well worth the effort to do.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 09, 2020:
I think we're going to see a spike in this problem as people return to work after coronavirus lockdowns. What really concerns me is the people who got a dog--or worse, puppy!--as a companion during lockdown, only to jar the pup's life when lockdown ends. Dogs aren't toys or entertainment!
The one thing that I think helps our dogs is that I try to keep a regular daily routine. They know that I leave and come back after a certain time. I do the same leaving routine so they know I'm not just going outside, feeding them before I go. Even though they're pretty chill most of the time, I do think this helps.
Great tips, as usual! Have a great day!