Separation anxiety in dogs is a well-known behavior problem for most owners. Some sources mention that 8 out of 10 dogs have experienced some anxiety symptoms before. Far too many, right?
If you’re one of the 2 out of 10 that isn’t affected (yet), make sure you prevent separation anxiety from occurring in the first place.
If you’re one of the 8 out of 10, I have great news for you.
Separation anxiety can be stopped.
I’m not talking about managing, I’m talking about stopping this undesired behavior entirely to make sure your pooch feels safe and sound while you’re out and about.
For this, I compiled this ultra comprehensive guide. How exactly do you stop your dog’s separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety can be stopped through gradual exposure to being alone, paired with positive reinforcement and other preventative methods like crate-training, mental exercise as well as clear structure.
What is Separation Anxiety?
First of all, we have to be on the same page and you may have heard about this condition before but are not completely sure what it is.
“A condition in which animals exhibit symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone.”Dr. Karen Overall
Separation anxiety is a constant mode of distress for a dog when his main handler is away.
They should feel safe in their own home, right? Wrong. Actually, there is very interesting research about canine anxiety, as well as an article by a veterinary medicine school (the book they mention is written by Patricia B. McConnell Ph.D.).
This condition is actually a natural canine instinct. Dogs are pack animals and without their pack, they are vulnerable and have a lower chance of survival.
If you see a wolf that has been separated from his pack, he will howl for days to lead the others back to him. It is a call for help.
Your dog calls for your help.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
There are many situations that can encourage anxious behavior and some of them are just temporary, unique circumstances.
However, if your dog is constantly displaying the symptoms below, you probably have a deeper issue than the following reasons.
If your dog falls under one of this categories, you can still apply the mentioned training tips but can expect quicker training progress and probably have to focus on more specific areas while other areas already get a green light with your dog.
Change in Routine: Dogs love routines. They know what will happen each day and when it will happen.
If your dog is used to being left alone for half an hour each day and you suddenly have to leave him alone for 5 hours, this might set him off and can cause anxiety.
If you have not properly desensitized your dog to being left alone and he suddenly has to be when he was used to being around you all day, this will cause him much stress and great discomfort.
Change in household: If a new family member has been added to the household or someone has recently died, separation anxiety can begin to develop.
Coming from a shelter: If you have recently brought home a dog from the shelter, he will probably experience a certain level of anxiety.
Give him time to adapt to his new home, it is a very exciting new time for everyone involved. Try to avoid leaving your new dog alone for too long during the first few weeks.
Moving: Of course, it is very stressful to move to a new residence, especially for a dog. He suddenly doesn’t have his own territory anymore and has to slowly adjust to the new home like everyone else.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Too many people jump to the conclusion that their dog has insufferable separation anxiety when all he has is a negative behavior pattern that we created.
Separation anxiety disorder ≠ Simulated separation anxiety
Both are undesirable and both need to be and can be treated but it’s important to differentiate between these. It’s quite simple.
Simulated symptoms / learned behavior: If you have given your dog attention (even negative attention) in the past when he whined or barked in his crate, chances are that your dog has learned to use this behavior to get your attention.
Some of the stages that only occur in a real disorder can happen here too and among them, barking and whining is most common.
Most separation anxiety symptoms usually manifest within minutes of the owners’ departure and gradually increase in intensity.
Separation anxiety disorder: What happens if your dog displays a real disorder when his attachment figure is away?
1. Barking & Howling: Excessive barking and howling is common for dogs with separation anxiety. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel and the barking only happens being left alone.
He continuously tries to call you back home as he thinks you might have forgotten him. Often, this is the first action dogs fall back on before going on to the next stages.
Note: If nothing helps and you followed my guide on how to stop barking but you’re just not able to control the barking in a way that is bearable for the neighbors, check out this anti-bark collar.
Be aware that this might interfere with the separation anxiety training and should not be used for a dog with an underlying medical reason.
2. Pacing: This is caused by general nervousness. The dog seems to be wandering around restlessly and might even panic.
All he thinks about is what he could to reach you.
3. Destruction: Destructive chewing and digging usually follow next.
If you have come home before to find your couch in pieces, there was probably a lot of anxiety involved.
Stress causes him to chew on objects, doorframes or furniture which could lead to self-injury.
4. Urinating and Defecating: If your dog is a bit older and has already been house trained, separation anxiety can cause him to urinate or defecate in your house while being left alone.
Sometimes the dog will even try to eat his own poop.
5. Escaping: If your dog is crated when you leave the home, he might attempt to escape from it by chewing through doors or pounding at the wall.
Some cases are so bad that the dog will literally jump out of the window which could end in serious injuries.
If your dog is kept in the yard, he might try to dig his way under the fence.
6. Extreme excitement: When you arrive home, your dog will be extremely excited to see you and will try to jump up on you bark or urinate on the floor.
7. Wolfing down food / Eating grass: If you provided your dog with food during the alone time, he most certainly didn’t eat it.
In case you used to feed him before putting him in the crate or kennel, he might have recognized that pattern and will refuse to eat.
Now that you come home, your dog’s nutrient deficiency will kick in and he will seek anything with nutrients in it like crazy, even if it’s grass.
Eliminate Behavior Issues
Before we get into the nitty-gritty detail of how to treat the actual anxiety, we have to discern which of these problems might be behavioral issues that occur when your dog is not alone too.
Make sure you clear these up before you start training your dog’s anxiety.
1. Excessive barking doesn’t have to be caused by anxiety. If you have a very loud dog in general, he will bark the same amount with or without you being in the house. Barking is usually triggered by loud noises or other dogs barking outside.
The best way to eliminate the problem is by teaching the “speak” and “quiet” command.
Teach your dog “speak” when he starts to bark and wait for the next time in between the barking and reward him for being “quiet”.
2. Potty training: Urinating can be caused due to your dog not being house-broken. If you have a puppy, rescue dog, or even a senior, make sure your dog is house-trained as well as healthy before training on separation anxiety.
If you have trained him inconsistent or if you have punished your pup before for accidents, incomplete house training will be the cause of this problem.
Many dogs also urinate if they are extremely excited or afraid or if they want to mark their territory in their own home.
3. Extreme excitement: If your dog’s extremely excited, train him to be calm around other places first. Learn how I calmed my overexcited Rottweiler on walks.
4. If your dog is regularly wolfing down his food, introduce a clear feeding schedule. Food twice a day is the most common choice.
You feed your dog always around the same time in the morning and evening and you take it away after 15 minutes, even if it’s not finished.
If your dog has access to food all day, it’s not as precious anymore.
Don’t hope that you’re leaving an anxious dog in his kennel and he will properly eat his bowl. He won’t.
Your dog will literally starve himself to death and not drink just to revive himself with grass or anything else he can get his paws on when you’re back.
If you’ve made sure that none of these points are the sole reason your dog dislikes being alone, go ahead with the training below.
If you want to see how your dog behaves when you’re away, set up a Furbo and see if your dog goes surfing on the table or scratches at the door.
Of course, you can see the signs of destruction when you get back but having a camera where you can baby-talk your dog a bit might help ease a lot of his anxiety (apart from exercising beforehand).
If that is too expensive for you, you can opt for this pet camera or just buy a security style camera to record.
Get Rid of Excess Energy
A lot of problems stem from dogs having too much energy. Your dog might still have separation anxiety but the symptoms will be much milder and your dog will thus be far safer if you exercise him mentally and physically.
In contrast to the possible behavioral issues like barking, urinating, excitement and food, exercise can solve or at least ease nearly all the symptoms.
A tired dog will not pace so much, destroy things, or try to escape.
How do I know if my dog is just bored instead of having separation anxiety?
If your dog is bored all day long, he will constantly try to engage you to play, seek attention through barking or pacing.
A poorly exercised dog will pull on the leash, play too rough, and jump up on the furniture.
Getting rid of excess energy is simple.
Brisk walks for 30 minutes may be sufficient for some. Depending on the breed and age of your dog, walks may need to be more frequently and/or longer than 30 minutes twice a day.
Crate trained dogs are usually less prone to developing separation anxiety. If your dog is not crate trained yet you can check out this crate-training post and learn how you can introduce and make your dog love
Crate-training needs to be done gradually and is no replacement for proper training. Never ever leave your dog in the crate for more than 2-3 hours at a time.
Whether you want to keep your dog in the crate or not is completely your own decision but I would at least give it a shot. This is the crate I have (but don’t use anymore).
Crating your dog has many benefits and restriction of space can actually be beneficial for your dog too as they like a secure spot.
It also prevents pacing or destructive behavior where your dog gets himself hyper.
The crate makes use of the natural canine instinct as den animals. Dogs feel safe in their own enclosed space which reduces anxiety and stress. Your dog might just avoid peeing in his own crate.
Benefits of crate-training:
- Prevents destructive behavior, pacing, and potty accidents as dogs like to keep their place clean. The crate should be seen as safe-haven.
Crate-training a puppy is easier than restricting space for an adult dog. Additionally, it needs to be said that crate-training is not for all dogs.
My dog could never get used to the crate when she was a puppy. She simply didn’t like it.
She never had separation anxiety or any signs of stress whatsoever but she would cry in the crate non-stop if you would just leave the room.
The solution to the problem was to simply skip the crate and let her roam the house and she loved it.
She is totally fine with spending time alone which also has a lot to do with discipline and trust. So, do not try to force your dog into an idea that simply doesn’t work for him.
If you want tips on how to improve the bond with your dog (which will also help with separation anxiety), read this about bonding.
Some breeds are even more prone to disliking the crate. Guarding/protection breeds and livestock guardians come to mind.
They like to patrol their territory and make use of the available space.
Dog-Proofing Your House
If you do not decide to go with the crate, you have to make your house doggy-proof and that means cleaning up.
Store away any cables, food, trash cans (if your dog is so inclined), and anything else your dog could hurt himself with or just tear to pieces.
Besides securing your own stuff, you should also secure the house. If your dog knows how to open windows or doors, take preventative measures.
If you intend on leaving your dog in the yard with access to his open kennel, make sure your yard is fenced high enough and that’s it’s digging-proof.
A lot of dogs can develop incredible strength and are shortly transformed into canine geniuses if confronted with so much anxiety. Secure your yard to keep your dog and others safe.
How to Treat Separation Anxiety
There are three steps to treat dog separation anxiety which include desensitization to common triggers like jiggling keys, avoiding the pre-departure “goodbye” routine, and providing your dog with something to chew on while you’re away.
Additionally, it can help to give your dog a piece of clothing that has your smell.
After following the mentioned steps, your pooch will have a much better time when he’s alone at home and you’ll feel better at work where you shouldn’t have to constantly think about your dog’s distress.
Some dogs get nervous if they hear the sound of the keys when you pick them up or when you put on your jacket.
To treat the pre-departure jitters, you have to desensitize the dog that the keys or the jacket doesn’t always mean that departure is about to happen.
- A few times a day, just walk up to your keys, pick them up and put them down again. If your dog has responded positively, you can give him a treat.
- We want to do the same with the jacket. Put it on and walk around your house with it for a few minutes.
Depending on how severe the condition this can take a couple of days or weeks. Try to think of all the things that you usually do before leaving the house.
If you have successfully completed this point, we can move on to the next step.
Don’t forget to provide your dog with enough mental and physical exercise throughout the day because if he is tired, he might sleep most of the time when being alone. I always walk or play with my dog right before I leave her alone.
Low-Key Departure & Arrival
Don’t say goodbye when leaving your dog and don’t greet your dog when returning.
We do not want our dog to fail and get back on his old habits. Do not make a fuzz about leaving and do not say goodbye to your dog, simply leave.
When you come back, ignore your dog for the first couple of minutes until he has completely calmed down. We don’t want to associate coming home with excitement.
In order for your dog to enjoy his time alone, we want your dog to make good associations with being alone.
Before you leave, give your dog a Kong that is stuffed either with his food or other yummy treats.
My dog has a couple of favorite recipes and if you freeze the Kong after it, your dog will be occupied quite long.
The recipes are really simple, here’s one from the Kong company, for example:
- 1 cup cooked ground turkey
- 1/2 cup shredded carrots
- 1/2 low fat cup cream cheese
Just mix everything together in a bowl and freeze. You can replace each ingredient with whatever your dog likes most.
Although I really like the Kong to keep your dog entertained, I never use the processed bottles from the store. Use the chance to make your own healthy recipe!
Play and food release endorphins and chewing is the best relaxation method for nervous dogs.
Also, do not forget to provide your dog with fresh water if you give him a stuffed Kong.
Slowly Increasing Time Alone
Without picking up your keys and putting on your jacket, get up from wherever you’re sitting and just walk out the door. Immediately come back again and see how your dog has reacted.
Repeat this method a few times a day just like before and slowly increase the duration. With this training, we want to prevent separation anxiety symptoms from even happening in the first place.
If your dog has mastered this one, you can continue on with picking up your things and leaving the house for just a second.
Come back in and get your dog accustomed to the fact that walking out the door is totally normal and nothing happens to him.
After you have trained him all these steps for a few weeks, you can get to real time spent alone. Start with only five minutes and slowly build up to half an hour.
I Can’t Leave My Anxious Dog for a Second
If your dog already shows problems with this method, we want to take a step back and start by teaching him to be left alone in another room.
First, your dog has to have a solid sit and stay in place. If you have not already taught “stay” you can learn this here.
Tell your dog to stay and leave the room or walk just behind the next corner. Immediately come back and give him a treat if he stayed in his position.
Slowly increase the duration until you can go to the bathroom with your dog being left alone in the other room.
How Long Can I Leave My Dog?
No dog likes to be left alone but it is also not healthy for them.
Even an adult dog shouldn’t be left alone for more than 4-6 hours but too many owners leave their dog alone for 8 hours or even more.
It’s not only harmful
During his separation anxiety treatment, you cannot leave him alone for more than 30 to 60 minutes at a time.
If it is not doable with your work then it’s your job to bring someone over that cares for him. You wouldn’t leave your three-year-old child alone for 8 hours, would you?
Hire a Dog Walker (or Doggy Daycare)
If possible, bringing your dog with you to work is the best option, of course. He would need to have a calm corner near you.
Depending on your workplace (office, garage, stores, etc.) you have to teach your dog to be calm around people and noises first.
Bringing your dog to work is not an option but you’re away for 6 or more hours? Friends and family don’t have time for your dog either?
Hire a dog walker or a dog sitter. They will take care of your dog individually and he can stay within his comfort zone in his own home.
For a successful experience, you should make your dog familiar with the dog walker or dog sitter and then take it from there.
Laying out clear guidelines and being upfront about any issues is the best way to go.
Another option is doggy daycare. This will only work if your dog has no attachment figure problem in general, meaning the presence of other people or even other dogs is sufficient to ease the separation anxiety.
Doggy daycare cost depends on your area and the services they offer but in general you can expect to $350-550 for 4 weeks (20 work days).
If you absolutely have to take a trip and can’t take your dog with you, professional boarding services that provide individual care might be a solution.
It’s an investment in your dog’s mental health that will definitely pay off. Check out my article on the lifetime cost of owning a large-breed dog (like my Rottweiler) if you want to know more.
Preventing Separation Anxiety
The prevention of separation anxiety starts from the moment you bring your puppy to his new home.
There are a few steps to take in order to prevent stress and anxiety when he is being left alone.
Also, avoid leaving your puppy alone for the first weeks/months as he is still too young to spend time by himself.
The most important aspect is that we do not want to reward for whining or crying. Many owners tend to pet the dog when he begs for your attention.
A crying puppy in the crate will be let out. These are all situations where the dog is being rewarded for his behavior which will lead to learned separation anxiety.
If you constantly tell your dog “no” when he is being loud to get your attention, this is also a form of reward for him.
He has to enjoy his time alone instead of fearing it.
Learn more about your puppy’s first night at home to set yourself up for success.
If none of these steps above have helped you or your dog and the training has no progress then you will need to consult a professional dog trainer or talk to your vet if the underlying issue is medical.
Medication should never be your first step but can definitely help once you’ve exhausted all the options and made sure it’s really separation anxiety, not simulated anxiety or bad house manners. You still need to fix the problem at the root.
There are a variety of meds that your vet can prescribe, do your own research and never blindly accept anything that might worsen the condition or cause other issues.
Natural remedies can be used to improve separation anxiety too. Even though it’s not for psychological purposes, you can learn for what I use coconut oil). Remedies include homeopathic solutions or CBD oil.
Some owners report that music or other nature background noise helps their dog with making separation easier (including Cesar Millan).
A Thundershirt can also help ease your dog’s separation anxiety.
Let me know about your experience with separation anxiety. If you are currently struggling with a new puppy and you’re worried he might develop an unhealthy attachment, feel free to reach out or drop a comment.