Because dogs can't tell us what they're thinking, it can be hard to understand their emotions. But thanks to MRI scans, we know that dogs experience complex feelings, like stress, fear, and anxiety. A variety of things can trigger anxiety in our pets, including thunder, crowded dog parks, and angry people. Dog separation anxiety is one of the most common causes of behavior problems in dogs.
Separation anxiety is when a dog feels anxious or stressed because their owner has left for a period of time. It's considered a behavioral problem because many dogs will act out when they feel stressed, which can frustrate dog owners. But, with a little understanding, you can help your dog become more comfortable with separation and train them out of the unwanted behavior that often accompanies it.
Here's what you need to know to recognize and manage separation anxiety so both you and your dog can be less stressed when you leave the house.
Why Dogs Get Separation Anxiety
Canine separation anxiety, like human anxiety, can have several causes.
Some dogs are born with more anxious personalities or a stronger need for one-on-one time with their families. Certain dog breeds — like golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, border collies, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, and bichon frises — are more prone to separation anxiety because of how closely they bond with their owners.
In other dogs, separation anxiety can be a learned behavior. If something bad happens every time you leave your dog alone — for example, if your dog is left alone for long periods of time and is in pain from having to hold their urine, or if you have small children who run over and harass the dog every time you leave the room — it can lead to an anxious dog.
Dog separation anxiety can be brought on by a traumatic event. For example, a dog who was abandoned at a shelter by a previous owner could have trouble with being alone. But, that doesn't mean every shelter dog will have separation anxiety. Each dog responds to traumatic events in their own, unique way.
Some dogs will only have separation anxiety if they're left all alone. Other dogs may become strongly attached to one family member and will show signs of separation anxiety any time their favorite person leaves, even if there are other family members around.
Signs Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
Your dog's behavior when you leave them alone or when their favorite person leaves will show you whether they suffer from separation anxiety or not. A dog with separation anxiety may exhibit one or more of these behavioral problems and biological indicators:
- Drooling: Some dogs drool regularly, some dogs never drool, and some dogs drool when they're stressed. If your dog experiences excess salivation whenever you leave the house and you come home to drool puddles or drool marks on pillows and cushions, it could be a sign of separation anxiety.
- Panting: Like drooling, panting when your dog isn't hot is a sign of stress.
- Excessive licking: An anxious dog may bite, scratch, or lick their paws, stomach, or other body parts as a form of self soothing. Some dogs will lick so obsessively that they wear away their fur or give themselves hot spots.
- Excessive barking: Vocalizations like barking and whining are your dog's way of telling you she's unhappy. If your neighbors report that your dog barks the whole time you're gone, it's likely because of separation anxiety.
- House soiling: If your potty-trained dog suddenly has trouble with their house training, urinating or defecating on the floor when you leave them alone, it could be because of separation anxiety, or it could be that you're leaving them alone for longer than they can hold in their urine.
- Destructive behavior: It's common for dogs to become destructive when they're left alone. You may come home to shredded pillows, chewed baseboard, or scratched-up doors. Sometimes, a dog's destructive behavior can mean that they were trying to escape the house to follow you (like with scratched doors). Other times, a dog will simply destroy something as an outlet for their anxious energy.
When taken together, these are all signs of anxious behavior, but separately, they can also indicate different issues. For example, a dog may exhibit destructive behavior because they are anxious or simply because they are bored. And while licking and house soiling can indicate anxiety, they can also indicate medical problems like a UTI or skin allergies, respectively.
Work with your vet to rule out medical causes of your dog's symptoms. Then, use these training techniques to help your dog cope with separation and boredom.
How to Manage Dog Separation Anxiety
With a few training techniques, you can help your dog become more comfortable when they're left alone. If you're training your dog for the first time, it can help to take a week or two off of work to stay home with your dog as you slowly introduce them to the concept of being alone in the house.
While some dogs will respond more to some of these strategies than to others, these techniques work best when they're used in combination.
1. Crate Training
Training your dog to enjoy spending time in their crate helps with separation anxiety in three ways.
First, it creates a cozy space where your dog can hide — many dogs naturally feel more secure in small spaces. Second, it keeps your dog from destroying your home and chewing up items that could be dangerous for them. And third, it helps with house training because your dog won't want to lay in their urine while they wait for your return.
Use this guide to crate train your dog using positive reinforcement. Never force your dog into the crate, and don't leave your dog in the crate for more than 6-8 hours at a time. This will create a negative association and make your dog less willing to enter the crate in the future.
Desensitization is a training process that relies on baby steps. You start small and incorporate multiple short training sessions, then as your dog becomes more comfortable, you'll gradually incorporate more of the stimuli that makes your dog anxious. It's one of the most common training techniques that veterinary behaviorists use to help skittish and anxious dogs.
When it comes to desensitizing your dog to separation, you'll start by leaving your dog alone for a very small period of time — this could be anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, depending on how sensitive your dog is. Then, you can slowly increase the amount of time that the dog spends alone before their owner returns.
Keep working on desensitization until your dog can be left alone for a few hours without signs of separation anxiety.
With counter-conditioning, you slowly teach your dog to associate something negative (like being left alone) with something positive (like a fun toy). Using this technique, you can show your dog that something they thought was bad is actually good.
If your dog is going to be alone for an extended period of time, offer them a long-lasting activity by giving them a puzzle toy, a KONG filled with xylitol-free peanut butter, or an all-natural yak chew. Providing these forms of entertainment can also help prevent boredom, another common cause of destructive behavior in dogs that are left alone.
4. Doggie Daycare
If you've tried the first three strategies and your dog is still experiencing anxiety when they're left alone, doggie daycare or a dog sitter can give them the company they need.
Doggie daycare is a good option for dog-friendly pets, but a dog sitter who works out of their own home may be better for dogs who don't get along with other pups or who are stressed out by busy environments. Doggie daycares or sitters are also a good resource if you've just started the desensitization process but you need to be gone for longer than your pet can handle.
If your dog is having accidents in the house when you're away, you can also try a dog walker. This will give your dog a chance to relieve themselves. So, if your dog's accidents happen because they can't hold it — and not because of separation anxiety — they can get the bathroom break they need.
5. Calming Aids
Calming aids can provide additional stress relief as you work on training your pet. Look for calming pheromone sprays made to mimic that pheromones a mother dog lets off when she's nursing. Or tried an air-dried calming supplement made with proven natural ingredients like melatonin, l-theanine, thiamine, and hemp seed powder.
You can also get prescription anxiety medication, like clomipramine or fluoxetine, from a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM). But, these can come with serious side effects, so they should be used as a last resort and only after other training methods fail.
6. Behavior Modification
In severe cases, you may need to enlist professional help. Look for a certified applied animal behavior specialist in your area or ask your vet for a recommendation. Animal behaviorists often deal with the most difficult behavior problems, and they can be the difference between a dog that gets returned to a shelter and a dog that successfully adjusts to their new home.
Put Some Space Between Your Dog and Separation Anxiety
Helping your dog adjust to being left alone is a process. It won't happen in a day or even a week. But, dogs who suffer from separation anxiety can become more comfortable being alone in their homes.
When you use crate training, desensitization, counter-conditioning, calming chews, and the other tools that are available to you and your dog, you may lower your dog's stress levels and eliminate many of the behavioral problems that accompany separation anxiety.For more information on raising a happy, healthy dog, check out the Native Pet blog.