If you're a parent to family members of the non-furry variety, you've probably heard the term “separation anxiety.” Children typically develop this form of anxiety when they develop object permanence — the knowledge that something still exists in essence even after it has left their line of vision. As children make this connection, they start to become upset when they are removed from their parental figures or others they spend a lot of time with.
What you may not know is that this anxiety is very similar for dogs, and is one of the most commonly diagnosed behavioral problems in our canine population. Separation anxiety in dogs stems from fear of being removed from the pack, creating a feeling of vulnerability and insecurity. Separation anxiety occurs when dogs can no longer see or hear their pet parent, who in their mind is the pack leader and the provider of a safe and viable life.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
The cause of each dog’s separation anxiety is not always known, especially if the dog was rescued from a shelter and has an unknown history. Dogs that have suffered trauma have lasting effects on their mental peace and ability to adjust and thrive.
Dogs that were brought into the home when they were younger than 8 weeks of age may also develop separation anxiety because their attachment formation is inappropriate when they leave their mother early. This premature removal from their mother causes them to become abnormally attached to their pet parent.
Dogs that have suffered a disruption in their environment may also be more prone to separation anxiety as they become more and more anxious about their home structure changing again. Examples include pet parents that have to leave for an extended time period or pets that change homes several times. A death in the family or an unplanned absence can also trigger your dog's separation anxiety. All dogs love things to be predictable and constant, so when this structure changes, many pets have difficulty adjusting.
Genetic factors can also play a role in the development of anxiety. Some breeds are naturally more secure and independent. Breeds that need more direction and attention from their owner are typically dogs that are more social. Examples include retrievers, bully breeds, and small breed dogs. Some herding dogs also tend to have separation anxiety if they don't get enough exercise or have a job to do each day. These dogs need substantial stimulation each day to help ward off anxiety-related behavioral issues. When these needs aren't met, anxiety often flares up.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
While commonly diagnosed, "separation anxiety" is often incorrectly used to describe a dog's behavior when the cause may actually be entirely different. To avoid a misdiagnosis, it's important to recognize the true signs of separation anxiety in dogs.
These signs can vary, but in general, dogs will often whine or pant, lick themselves frequently, lick other objects (such as furniture), bite or scratch at objects in their home, urinate or defecate inside, bark nonstop, pace, be unwilling to stop following their owners, or simply appear unsettled. These behaviors are typically more noticeable while the pet parent is absent from the home but can begin to manifest as the pet parent prepares to leave or first gets home.
Dogs with separation anxiety can become so anxious that they may chew on furniture, tear pillows up, scratch at walls to the point of penetrating the drywall, damage their owners' belongings, or even make escape attempts that cause destruction around exit points like doors and windows. Some dogs will exhibit this destructive chewing and scratching even when left in a vehicle for a short amount of time, often tearing the vehicle apart.
Unlike dogs that are simply boarded and may bark while their humans are away, dogs with separation anxiety will not stop or settle. Most commonly, destruction, inappropriate urination or defecation, and excessive vocalization are the key signs that your dog suffers from separation anxiety.
Treating Separation Anxiety
Regardless of the underlying cause, dogs with separation anxiety need to be taught new behaviors just as their pet parents do. Providing a stable, predictable environment is key to minimizing anxiety.
Create a Separation Routine
Dogs thrive on routine. A dog would be happy doing the exact same thing every day for their entire life. When routine changes, dogs begin to panic and can lash out with destructive or unwanted behavior. Pet parents can help their dog by making the “leaving” routine the same each time. This ritual teaches your dog that though you are leaving, it will be the same as the last time you left; nothing terrible happened then, and nothing terrible will happen now. This is called counterconditioning, and is usually very effective. Even dogs without separation anxiety will benefit from this type of effort from their owners, creating trust and a lasting bond.
Typical routines involve staying calm while preparing to leave, making sure not to give your dog tons of attention while leaving, and putting your dog in a safe, peaceful place (such as a crate) with a toy or treat as you leave.
This routine can vary between pet parents, but the goal is that the routine does not vary from day to day. If this leaving ritual does not work, consultation with a veterinarian or behaviorist should be considered, as more help may be needed. Canine behaviorists are all trained in separation anxiety management since this is a common condition they advise clients on. Your veterinarian should be able to point you in the right direction as far as whom to call.
If you're a puppy parent, start making time daily for your puppy to be by themselves. This will help them learn at a young age that being apart from their parents is not something they need to worry about. Start by making these events short, then slowly increase the time your puppy spends alone, working up to several hours by the end. Gradual training on how to be alone will help avoid the development of separation anxiety in the future.
Create a Safe Space
For many dogs that are prone to the development of separation anxiety, treatment and prevention are possible and often very successful. Preventative measures are aimed at providing your dog with routine and structure so they can predict what happens from day to day. This works to minimize their anxiety.
It's also helpful if you provide your dog with an area in your home that has boundaries indicating that the space is for them. Examples include a crate or a corner of a room with a bed and food dishes. These areas should be in an area that your dog has a positive association with and should never be used for punishment.
Leave Treats and Toys
When you do need to leave your dog alone, you should leave them with a safe treat to distract them. This allows them to stay busy and also provides positive reinforcement that being home alone is good and carries rewards.
Kong toys are great for dogs with anxiety; these can be frozen and stuffed with yogurt or canned dog food and can keep pups busy for hours. Puzzle toys are another great option for keeping your dog occupied while you're away. Just be sure to avoid bones and rawhides because dogs may eat these too quickly. To avoid choking, you should only provide these when someone is there to supervise your dog.
Once you arrive home, you should remove the treat or toy. That way, your dog will begin to associate these comforting items with your absence and give them something to look forward to during your time apart.
Give Them Plenty of Exercise
Pets suffering from separation anxiety will usually reap huge benefits from regular exercise, and you'll need to build this into their daily routine. Each dog has different needs when it comes to how much exercise is needed. Check with your veterinarian to learn what's appropriate, but as a general rule, every dog needs at least 30 minutes of exercise daily.
What NOT to Do
With time, positive changes will help desensitize your dog and make it easier for them to adjust to their owner being gone. But be aware: With only good intentions in mind, many pet parents actually worsen their dog’s anxiety with certain cues and household management.
There are several things to avoid when dealing with a dog's anxiety. Anxious dogs should not be left alone for more than 6-8 hours. Furthermore, you should only increase the period of time that you leave them alone gradually. For example, you can start by leaving them alone for a half-hour window and then work up to a period of hours over several weeks. Always repeat the same leaving and returning procedures, so your dog begins to rely on this as a predictable part of the day. You can also consider hiring a dog walker for long days away to give your dog a break, but make sure they know the greeting and leaving protocol.
And this is extremely important: Dogs should never be punished for anxiety-related behavior. These dogs already have a high level of stress, and punishment will not teach them to stop having anxiety behaviors. In fact, punishment will often make the behaviors worse by increasing the dog’s anxiety and stress.
When Should You Talk to a Behaviorist or Veterinarian?
A canine behaviorist or veterinarian may be able to help your dog's separation anxiety, especially if nothing else works. Here's how.
Seeing a behavioral specialist
You should schedule a consultation with a behavioral specialist if your dog doesn't exhibit any behavioral improvements after you've made the right changes, like coming up with a leaving routine, making a safe space for your dog, or introducing other predictable lifestyle habits that your dog can rely on. If you've made all these changes and your dog is still showing signs of separation anxiety, expert help is needed.
Canine behaviorists will spend time working with you and your dog, often during home visits. Canine behaviorists are akin to canine psychologists and can get into your dog’s headspace and find out what's going on. A behavioral specialist will help to analyze your dog's triggers, history, and home environment and will provide you with the tools to help with these behaviors.
This can be extremely helpful because oftentimes there are triggers causing anxiety that pet parents are simply not aware of, and a trained behaviorist can identify them. Mitigating these triggers is key to establishing a successful relationship with your dog and easing their anxiety.
Seeing your veterinarian
If you're unable to find an available canine behaviorist, you can also make an appointment with your veterinarian for assessment. They will discuss your dog’s home and environment to find out what may be triggering these episodes. In addition, your vet will check for any health issues that could be contributing to your dog’s anxiety.
In some cases, certain diseases can cause behaviors that appear similar to the signs of separation anxiety but are actually medical issues that can be treated. For instance, dogs with urinary tract infections will often urinate inappropriately in the home. In this case, the pet simply needs a urinary test and antibiotics.
Dogs that are in pain can also display similar behaviors to those pets that are afflicted with separation anxiety. These pets will often pace, pant, and have difficulty settling down. They'll need medication to help them feel more comfortable, and this will typically suppress their restlessness. Involving your veterinarian will help you differentiate between anxiety and a medical issue.
What About Anxiety Medication?
If your vet rules out medical causes, they may suggest some medication to help alleviate your dog's anxiety. Some examples include Trazadone, Alprazolam, and Fluoxetine. These medications help release substances in the body that help calm your dog. But remember: These medications are not a substitute for home modification and other changes you'll need to make to help your dog feel more comfortable when you leave them alone.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re working with your veterinarian, a behaviorist, or just going it alone, you’ll likely be able to eliminate — or at least significantly mitigate — your dog’s separation anxiety. It may just take a lot of work and commitment.
But it’s worth it.