Tips for Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety can be one of the most frustrating behavioral issues that a dog owner can encounter. The more severe the issue, the most frustrating it is. It can be overwhelming, and dogs can lose their homes due to it. Unfortunately, when a dog has separation anxiety and is rehomed, the issue normally becomes worse with each rehoming.

It is important to understand just what separation anxiety is and how to recognize what it looks like to make sure this is truly what you’re dealing with. Sometimes a bored and destructive dog is mislabeled.

Separation anxiety is truly a very stressful time for a dog. He can’t control how he feels or what he does. He is in a deep state of anxiety, and there are many symptoms to help you recognize it. Your dog may or may not have all of these symptoms, but if your dog has more than one, you’re likely dealing with separation anxiety on some level:

1. Dog becomes restless or anxious long before you leave. He knows the routine, and that routine helps stimulate the anxiety.
2. A well housetrained dog that never has accidents appears to have many accidents when left alone (assuming he’s not being left for too long of a time while you are gone).
3. The dog is destructive. The destruction normally occurs around exit points such as he may rip down blinds or curtains. He may scratch at the door or chew the door frame. He may attempt to break out of his crate or even jump through a window.
4. The dog vocalizes while you are away. He may howl or bark for hours, even until he is hoarse.
5. He looks or acts different. He may be wet from saliva when you come home from excessive panting and drooling. He may be shaking. He may be excessively hyperactive when you return, as if you came back from the brink of death!

There are levels of separation anxiety. On the mild end of the spectrum, the dog normally whines when you are gone or sits and waits for you to come back. On the severe end of the spectrum, the dog is very destructive, has terrible accidents, and is very anxious.

Some dogs only have separation anxiety when they are alone. It is not tied to any specific person. You can easily find out if this is the type your dog has by leaving him with a friend or family member while you leave. If he will interact and play with the new person, he is only affected by being alone. These dogs can be managed by utilizing people to watch the dog while you are absent. He may be a candidate for a dog sitter or dog daycare situation, or his issue may be helped by the presence of another dog.

The more common separation anxiety is a dog that is tightly bonded to one person, and the dog has great anxiety when separated from that person. It will not matter to him if he is with other people or another dog. Getting another dog usually won’t help this type of separation anxiety, but you can borrow a friend’s dog to find out before officially adding a dog to the family.

Why does separation anxiety form in the first place? There are two common scenarios that help create separation anxiety:

1. The first situation occurs when a dog spends all of his time with one person. This may happen when someone always takes the dog with them and always spends time with the dog. He has never learned how to be independent or alone, and so he experiences anxiety when he is.
2. The second situation is when a dog quickly and tightly bonds to a person. This often happens when a dog is rehomed or when the dog experiences a stressful event. For example, a dog that is given away or taken to the shelter may quickly bond to the new person and be afraid to let that person out of sight. A dog can also latch onto someone in cases of stress, like the death of a canine playmate.

When the separation anxiety is very severe, speaking with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist is the best first step. Next, consider utilizing additional tools for when the dog will be alone. Not everything will work for every dog, but you might try products like pheromone sprays or collars, relaxation sprays (like lavender) on bedding, Bach’s Rescue Remedy, or body compression wraps like the Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap. Speak with your veterinarian about any natural or holistic supplements you would like to try before doing so to make sure it will be safe.

The third phase is the longest…teaching the dog it’s okay to be alone. In an ideal world, your dog would never have to be alone. If it’s possible for you to do this (through the use of sitters, daycares, etc.), this can be a good idea in the beginning. In most situations, he will have to learn to be alone. He can be taught to learn independence from you, but it will take time initially. Here are some ideas to begin with when dealing with separation anxiety:

1. Try to break up your usual routine so that he doesn’t focus excessively on your exits. Do things out of order when you need to leave or break them apart.
2. Make sure you have YOU time apart from the dog. Many people allow the dog to follow them everywhere! It’s okay for him not to do this. Walk into a room, like a bathroom, and close the door behind you. Try tossing a handful of treats as you enter and leave him. You don’t have to be gone long. In the beginning, it may only be a few seconds.
3. Determine if leaving him in the crate or leaving him loose in the house is better. For some dogs, one versus the other is clearly better. If the crate is the better choice or safer choice for him, try to utilize the crate when you are home too. Keep it in an area where he can easily access it and leave the door open to it. Put toys, treats, etc. inside to make it an enjoyable place to enter.
4. Make your absence a more enjoyable thing. Try leaving a special food item, like a Kong toy with peanut butter inside, when you need to leave. You can place it on the floor as you exit.
5. Lessen the importance of coming and going. Ignore the dog when you leave and when you return for a few minutes for him to calm down. The greater the production you add to it, the more intense the emotion is for the dog.
6. Don’t forget to exercise him! Exercise alone will not cure separation anxiety at all, but a dog with anxiety that is also not properly exercised will run themselves ragged. A well exercised dog has less gas in the tank. Try to schedule a good exercise routine around your schedule so that he will be well exercised before you have to leave him alone.

It’s okay to be frustrated with a dog that has separation anxiety, but don’t let it show to the dog. It may only serve to make him more anxious. Instead, focus on managing the situation and teaching the dog it’s not only okay for him to be alone, but it might actually be a good thing too. Lastly, don’t be afraid to contact a professional. It’s is often necessary, and this person can drastically help the situation much faster than going it alone.

Dog aggression and behavior expert with 30 years of experience.

Posted in Dog Behavior