The Complete Guide to Dog Separation Anxiety

The Complete Guide to Dog Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety in dogs is a well-known behavior problem for most owners. 8 out of 10 dogs have experienced some anxiety symptoms before. But many jump to the conclusion too quickly that their dog suffers from separation anxiety just because he as barked a few times when being left alone.

Signs of distress and separation anxiety can be very severe to the point where the dog would do anything to escape his house. This disorder can be described as:

“A condition in which animals exhibit symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone.”

Dr. Karen Overall

This condition is a natural canine instinct. Dogs are pack animals and without their pack, they are vulnerable and have less chance of surviving. 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.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

First, we want to discuss how you can identify if your dog suffers from separation anxiety or if he is showing learned behavior patterns. There is a difference between a real disorder and simulated symptoms.

If you have given him 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. But with real anxiety, your dog experiences real distress when being left alone, including these symptoms which mostly don’t occur when you are around:

  • Barking & Howling – Excessive barking and howling is common for separation anxiety. It seems to never be ending and usually only happens being left alone. He continuously tries to call you back home as he thinks you might have forgotten him. This is often times the first attempt before the anxiety kicks in and he realizes that he is being left alone.
  • Pacing – This is caused by general nervousness. The dog seems to be wandering around restless and in a panic of what he could do to reach you.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

There are many situations that can encourage this anxious behavior and many are being trigger to the whole problem. If your dog experiences symptoms from above, it is time to find out what causes him to do that:

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 in the first few weeks.

Moving – Of course, it is very stressful to move residency especially for a dog. His suddenly doesn’t have his own territory anymore and has to slowly adjust to the new home like everyone else.

Behavior Issues

None of the symptoms above have to be caused by separation anxiety. So to further determine the problem that your dog has we need to be able to exclude all other behavior problems he could have.

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. His 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 after that wait for tiny spaces in between the barking and reward him for being “quiet”.

Often times dogs show destructive behavior out of boredom even when you are around. This means that you will have to stimulate your dog mentally more often and exercise him on a regular basis.

Like I said, before you make a decision that your dog has a disorder when urinating in his home to have to rule out first that he is completely potty trained. If you have trained him inconsistent or if you have punished him before for doing that, 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.

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 to really prevent stress and anxiety when he is being left alone. Also, avoid leaving your puppy alone for the first months as he is still too young to spent 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. From the get-go we want to slowly introduce our puppy to the concept of being left alone.

He has to enjoy his time alone instead of fearing it. We will take about how you can achieve this below.

Treating Separation Anxiety

To enjoy his time alone we want to associate it with a good experience. Before you leave to give him a Kong that is stuffed either with his food or other yummy treats. My dog really loves this summer smoothy recipe and if you freeze the Kong after it, your dog will be much longer occupied.

Play and food releases 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.

Pre-Departure

Some dogs just get nervous if they hear the sound of the keys when you pick them up or when you put on your jacket. To treat this we 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 the severe ness of 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 with the next step.

Make sure to also 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.

Slowly Increasing Time Alone

Without picking up your keys and putting on your jacket, get up from wherever your sitting and just walk out the door. Immediately come back again and see how your dog has reacted. In this training, we want to prevent separation anxiety symptoms from even happening in the first place. Repeat this method a few times a day just like before and slowly increase the duration.

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 make your dog accustomed to it that walking out the door is totally normal and nothing happens to him.

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 you stayed in this position. Slowly increase the duration until you can for example visit the bathroom with your dog being left alone in the other room.

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 like half an hour. We do not want our dog to fail and get back to 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.

Severe Anxiety

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 and talk to your vet.

Maybe there is an underlying illness that causes this behavior, especially house soiling can have many causes. If you do not get help you set your dog’s health at risk of injury himself.

Crate Training

Crate trained dogs are usually less prone to developing separation anxiety. If your dog is not crate trained yet you can check out this post and learn how you can introduce and make your dog love the crate. If you want to crate train or not to crate train is completely your own decision but I would at least give it a shot.

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. It also prevents him from destroying the house.

But the crate 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 what so ever but she would cry in the crate non stop if you would just leave the room (puppies at a young age cannot have separation anxiety).

The solution to the problem was to simply forget the crate and let her walk around the house and she loved it. She loves 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.

What You Can Do

No dog likes to be left alone but it is also not healthy for him. An adult dog can only be left alone 4-6 hours but too many owners leave their dog alone for 8 hours or even more. It is not only harmful for his mental health but also for his body. If he has to continuously hold his bladder longer than he can every day, it will lead to serious physical damage.

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?

If possible, bring your dog with you to work. He would need to have a calm corner near you where not many people walk by.

Ask your friends, family or neighbors if they could care for your dog while he is being left alone. You could also hire a dog sitter. If you live in the US, check out Rover.com, there you can choose between plenty of dog sitters and walkers near you.

Tell me about your experiences with separation anxiety in the comments below and how you where able to treat it.

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