Separation anxiety is a common issue for many dog owners. It occurs when a dog becomes extremely distressed when left alone or separated from their owner. The main signs of separation anxiety include destructive behavior, excessive vocalization, and inappropriate elimination when the dog is left alone. These behaviors are driven by anxiety and fear over being separated from the owner. Separation anxiety can develop in dogs of any age, but is most common in recently adopted dogs or younger dogs. Left untreated, separation anxiety usually gets progressively worse over time. Therefore, it's important for owners to recognize the signs early and take steps to gradually get their dog accustomed to being alone. The good news is separation anxiety can be improved through desensitization training, providing mental stimulation, and other management techniques. This article will provide an in-depth look at separation anxiety in dogs and proven ways owners can help their dogs cope and feel more secure when home alone.
Understanding Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety occurs as a result of a dog’s over-attachment to the owner and inability to cope when alone. Dogs are social, pack animals by nature and can form intense attachments to their human families. Separation from a bonded owner or family member can trigger fear and panic. Dogs experience separation anxiety to different degrees. Some dogs show mild distress of whining or pacing when the owner leaves. More severe cases involve nonstop vocalization, destruction, house soiling, and self-injury when alone. This intense distress continues until the owner returns. Separation anxiety is not a willful behavior. It’s driven by panic at the prospect of being away from the attachment figure. Identifying and addressing the underlying anxiety is key to resolving separation issues.
Common Signs of Separation Anxiety
How can you tell if your dog has separation anxiety? There are several common signs that indicate separation distress:
Destructive behavior – Chewing, digging, scratching at doors or windows. Hard-to-ignore damage often occurs.
Excessive barking and howling – Continuous vocalization the entire time owners are gone.
House soiling – Urinating and defecating when left alone despite being house trained.
Pacing, restlessness, panting – Dogs pace anxiously by doors and windows awaiting owner's return. Heavy panting from stress.
Escaping – Attempts to escape confinement to reunite with owners.
Coprophagia – Ingesting own feces out of stress and anxiety.
Self-harm – Overly destructive behavior directed at self, such as licking hot spots or removing nails/fur.
Any combination of these symptoms in an otherwise well-behaved dog may indicate separation anxiety. The severity escalates when left alone for longer periods. Observation of the dog’s behavior before and after separation from the owner can confirm separation anxiety issues.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
There are a few key factors that can contribute to separation anxiety:
Changes in household routine – Adoption, moving homes, new work schedule. Disrupting the dog’s routine can spur separation anxiety.
Lack of proper socialization – Undersocialized dogs often struggle to cope with any separation.
Traumatic experiences – History of abandonment, abuse, or neglect can heighten separation fears.
Medical issues – Dogs with clinical anxiety or cognitive dysfunction may have more intense separation reactions.
Lack of stimulation – Under-exercised and under-stimulated dogs often develop anxious behaviors.
Rewarding anxious behaviors – Well-meaning owners sometimes inadvertently reinforce clinging behaviors.
While there may be an underlying medical component, most separation anxiety is caused by insufficient conditioning to being alone and lack of independence. Puppies removed too early from littermates are also prone as they miss out on learning critical social skills. Knowing the root causes can help owners address the problem through training and lifestyle adjustments. Catching and addressing separation anxiety early is ideal before the behaviors become ingrained.
When to Seek Professional Help
In mild cases of separation anxiety, diligent owners can often make improvements through gradual training, lifestyle changes, and anxiety reduction techniques. However, for moderate to severe cases involving harming the dog or property destruction, it's essential to consult an experienced trainer or behaviorist. Severe separation anxiety is very challenging to resolve solo. A professional can design a customized training and counterconditioning program. They can also determine if medication may help reduce your dog's anxiety as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Seek professional advice promptly if your dog’s separation anxiety is:
- Harming themselves or property
- Nonstop vocalizing and pacing
- Urinating/defecating when left alone
- Attempting to escape confinement
- Ingesting non-food items out of stress
- Showing aggression when owners prepare to leave
Severe separation anxiety causes great distress for both dog and owner. Working with an expert provides the greatest chance of overcoming the problem behavior. Don't hesitate to seek professional support.
Stop Punishing Anxious Behaviors
A common mistake owners make is punishing destruction, house soiling, or escape attempts their dogs engage in from separation distress. Yelling, punishment, and rubbing noses in it will NOT resolve the underlying separation anxiety. It will only add more stress and worsen the dog’s distress. Any punishment-based approaches should be avoided. Separation anxiety is driven by fear. Making the situation scarier will make the dog’s anxiety worse. Redoubling your training efforts is a better approach. Also ensure the dog has sufficient outdoor bathroom breaks before being left alone. The goal is to resolve the anxiety through gradual exposure to being alone, not discipline after the fact.
Crating During Separation
Owners sometimes crate anxious dogs when leaving them home alone. This can be an effective management technique if introduced properly. The crate should be a place of comfort and security, not confinement. Proper crate training is vital if crating your anxious dog. Give them treats and toys to make it a safe den. Starting with brief sessions in their crate while you’re home builds a positive association before leaving them crated alone. However, if your dog panics and injures themselves trying to escape, cease crating them when unsupervised until their anxiety is under control. Every dog is different, so monitor yours' response. Ensure your dog has had sufficient outdoor exercise beforehand and access to water and safe chew toys in their crate, so their needs are met while you’re gone.
Nutritional and Pheromone Approaches
There are several natural approaches that may help take the edge off canine separation anxiety:
Pheromones – Products like Adaptil mimic natural calming pheromones. This can help relax anxious dogs without sedation.
Supplements – Compounds like L-theanine, chamomile, and hemp products may promote relaxation. Consult your vet first.
Enrichment Feeding – Use puzzle toys stuffed with food to occupy your dog for part of your absence.
Interactive Food Toys – Toys that dispense treats and kibble can provide mental stimulation when alone.
While not remedies in themselves, these tools may complement your training efforts. Work closely with your veterinarian and trainer when trying supplemental approaches.
Systematic desensitization to being alone is the cornerstone of most separation anxiety treatment plans. This involves gradually increasing alone time in small increments. Start with very short separations of a few seconds to minutes and give praise and treats upon return while your dog is calm. Use favorite toys and activities to distract them in your absence. Slowly increase the separation duration based on your dog’s tolerance threshold. Avoid separations long enough to trigger anxious behaviors. Pair separations with enjoyable activities. For example, give a long-lasting, stuffed chew toy only when leaving. Continue the incremental training until your dog can handle longer periods alone without distress. Going too fast will undermine the desensitization process. Patience and consistency are key.
Providing Mental Stimulation
Providing adequate physical and mental stimulation is important to help minimize boredom and reduce separation anxiety. Make sure your dog gets at least 30-60 minutes of activity daily. Exercise before separations can take the edge off. Give interactive puzzle toys, stuffed Kongs, or chew bones when you leave to occupy your dog. Rotate a variety of enriching toys to prevent habituation. Consider hiring a dog walker for midday exercise and stimulation on days when you'll be gone long hours. Meeting their physical and mental needs better prepares them to settle when alone. Proper exercise and enrichment are key.
Establishing a Routine
Dogs feel more secure with consistent daily routines. Set a regular daily schedule for feeding, exercise, training, playtime, and quality time with your dog. Try to maintain this routine on weekdays and weekends. Establishing a predictable routine creates stability for an anxious dog. Incorporate short separations into the daily schedule. For example, crate your dog for brief periods while home. Vary when and where you leave your dog during the day. Don't make your departures overly emotional. That can inadvertently reinforce clinging behavior from your dog. Be matter-of-fact on exits and low-key on returns. Maintaining structure and minimizing drama around arrivals and departures promotes confidence.
Utilizing Doggy Daycare and Walkers
For owners unable to properly exercise and stimulate their dog daily, temporary use of doggy daycare facilities may be helpful. Quality daycares provide socialization, exercise, and mental stimulation with other dogs and handlers all day under supervision. This can take the edge off for an anxious dog without the isolation of being home alone. Daycare gives them group play all day, with the owner reuniting with them in the evenings. Ask trusted veterinarians for daycare recommendations, as facilities vary greatly in quality. Dog walkers are another option to provide companionship and activity for your dog if you must be absent for extended work hours. Walkers take your dog out for potty breaks, exercise, and play. This can help minimize daytime isolation until proper training resolves separation issues. But it’s still important to implement counterconditioning techniques.
Seeking Veterinary Advice
Sometimes clinical anxiety issues exacerbate separation anxiety. Consulting your veterinarian provides an objective set of eyes to assess your dog’s behavior. They may recommend anti-anxiety medications in conjunction with behavior modification training. Medications like fluoxetine and clomipramine can reduce clinical anxiety levels. While not a cure alone, they may help improve training progress. Ensure your vet regularly monitors your dog to determine if medication is beneficial. Don’t give over-the-counter human anti-anxiety medication without veterinary guidance. Work closely with your vet and trainer when medication is warranted for canine anxiety.
Preventing Future Separation Anxiety
If you bring a new puppy or dog into your home, you can take steps right away to prevent separation issues:
Socialize your new dog extensively to build confidence. Introduce them positively to new sights, sounds, people, and stimuli.
Build independence. Avoid constant supervision and teach them to self-occupy at times.
Crate train during the day and prevent clinging.
Establish a consistent daily routine with exercise, training, play, etc.
Practice brief absences from day one, varying duration and timing.
Provide interactive toys and puzzles when leaving.
Don't make reunions overly emotional. Keep arrivals/departures low key.
Ensure they have sufficient physical and mental stimulation daily.
Starting these habits early prevents neediness and eases the transition to being left periodically alone. An ounce of prevention goes a long way with separation anxiety!
Separation anxiety is a very challenging and stressful issue for dogs and owners alike. While it may not be quickly resolved, you can help your anxious dog feel more secure alone through diligent training, mental stimulation, routine, and potentially medication. Professional guidance is key for severe cases. With time, patience, and consistency, your dog’s separation anxiety can be improved so they feel less panic when you must be away. Don't hesitate to seek support from veterinary behaviorists, certified trainers, or other resources if needed. Your dog's well-being and your peace of mind are worth the effort.