Dogs are more like us than you might think. Not only are dogs highly emotional, empathetic, and sociable creatures, but they also develop separation anxiety when their beloved pet parents go to work or even go to the grocery store.
Indeed, many pet parents find themselves perplexed when their dog shows signs of separation anxiety. While separation anxiety in dogs can arise early, it can also arise spontaneously or later in a canine’s life.
Today, let’s break down separation anxiety in dogs and explore what you can do to help your pup get used to you being away.
What Is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Separation anxiety for dogs is very similar to separation anxiety in humans: it’s a chronic disorder characterized by anxiety, fear, and general distress whenever your dog is separated from you (their attachment figure).
While canine separation anxiety sounds bad, it’s actually very common, especially for young pups still learning the way of things. After all, dogs are highly empathetic and love to spend time and bond with us. When we break up the routine and leave home for a little while, whether it’s five minutes or five hours, our dogs don’t know where we’ve gone.
That’s why dog owners have to be careful when training their dogs after adoption. When trained properly, your dog should learn that their owner's absence doesn’t mean something bad will happen.
However, dogs may be more prone to separation anxiety because of uncontrollable factors, like:
- Their personality
- Their breed
- Economic or environmental situations like the COVID-19 pandemic
In fact, many people got dogs during the pandemic and spent all their time with their new canine companions. However, this resulted in a fresh batch of “COVID dogs.” These dogs never learned that their owners could go away during the day for work and come back safe and sound.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms
The symptoms of separation anxiety can vary from dog to dog, though they usually include a core collection of behavior problems and reactions. These symptoms include:
- Destruction like pawing or digging, especially toward the door where you left
- Chewing things they shouldn’t be or otherwise being destructive
- Elimination like urinating or defecating, especially around the door
- Barking or excessive vocalization
- And more
Even after you return from your excursion or workday, your dog may showcase other separation anxiety symptoms like:
- Being emotionally distant
- Being frightened or shaking when you pet them or hold them
- Being overly excited or jumping to a dangerous extent
- Being afraid whenever you approach the door
These symptoms are all because dogs simply don’t understand where you go when you leave. Even if you take your dog with you on one occasion or another, they may not necessarily connect the dots and understand that you are sure to come back if they have separation anxiety.
Why Do Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?
This is the million-dollar question, and it, unfortunately, has several potential answers.
Your dog could develop separation anxiety because of experiences when they were a puppy. For example, if you got your dog when they were with their litter, they may have separation anxiety because they saw their sibling taken away from them to their forever homes. Alternatively, your dog might have separation anxiety because their previous owner abandoned them or left without any explanation.
Some dogs are simply prone to separation anxiety because of their personalities, too. Remember, regardless of breed, dogs have distinct personalities that you may not be able to fully predict. Some pups just can’t handle it when their favorite pet parent leaves home, even if it’s for a few minutes.
Your dog may also have temporary separation anxiety when they are still a puppy. In the earliest months of life, your dog may expect you to accompany them everywhere. When you put them in their comfy crate so you can run an errand, your young dog may not understand why you are doing this or interpret being put in their crate as a punishment.
Your Dog’s Behaviors: Easily Understood
Remember, dogs love routine, and when you shake up the routine by changing your job, your daily schedule, or especially moving to a new house, your dog may not want you to leave until a new routine is established. It’s very common for dogs to be protective of their pet parents and children, so moving to a new home could induce temporary separation anxiety even in the most stable of canines.
Lastly, separation anxiety may also be due to a medical problem. For example, if your dog is hurting or uncomfortable but doesn’t know how to show it, they may simply not want you to leave and may react negatively to you approaching the door or your car.
No matter the root cause of separation anxiety, it’s important to help your dog overcome this condition because:
- It prevents them from causing damage to your home or property
- It helps your dog feel more comfortable when you are away; no pet parent wants their pup to be too devastated when they leave for a quick errand
- It prevents your dog from harming themselves by acting out while you are gone
How You Can Help Your Dog Overcome Separation Anxiety
Although it can be tough to see your dog be so upset or distracted when you leave, there are ways you can help your dog overcome separation anxiety and stay calm for the duration of your absence. Note that most of the below treatments are ideal for treating mild separation anxiety.
If your dog has moderate to major separation anxiety and symptoms like uncontrollable whining or chewing, you may need the help of a professional dog trainer or veterinarian. A veterinarian may also be able to check your dog for any health problems and determine why they are reacting so poorly to you leaving. They may also recommend a calming supplement to help your dog adjust to temporary changes.
Give Your Dog a Distraction
Firstly, you could try giving your dog a nice distraction. Some of the best distractions are long-term chews or snacks that can keep your dog occupied for a half-hour to an hour or even more.
For example, you can put peanut butter into a rubber treat or ball with holes inside. Freeze the peanut butter-filled ball to make your dog have to lick it for longer before they can get all the delicious peanut butter out.
You can also give your dog bones, but stay away from rawhide and go with rawhide alternatives instead. Pure rawhide can actually be bad for your dog’s digestive system.
When using distractions for your dog, give them a distracting toy or chew right before you leave. Do this repeatedly so that your dog associates their owner's departure with something positive and fun (getting something tasty to chew on!). This method of positive association should do wonders for curing mild to moderate separation anxiety.
Train Your Dog for Alone Time
Next, you can try to train your dog specifically to handle alone time more capably. This will involve using positive reinforcement and chews or treats as with the above tip.
To train your dog to be positive about alone time:
- Pick up your keys or put on your shoes when you don’t plan to leave. This teaches your dog that going through these motions doesn’t necessarily mean they will be alone. When you actually do put on your shoes to leave, your dog won’t freak out over these departure cues.
- When the time comes to leave, approach the door with a treat and hand. Call your dog and give them a treat when you leave. When you repeat this consistently, your dog will start to associate your departure with getting a delicious stack and will actually look forward to it.
- Keep your initial departures short, such as five minutes or so. When you return, give your dog another treat. This shows your dog that they can depend on you returning and, even better, you’ll reward them when you get back.
- Gradually increase the amount of time you spend away from home. The odds are that your dog will respond positively to this training method and will be less likely to destroy things or otherwise act out if they think they will get a reward when you come back.
Naturally, training your dog to be better with alone time only works if your dog is properly trained beforehand. So this treatment of separation anxiety may only be appropriate for mature dogs rather than very young puppies.
Establish a Strict Routine
All dogs love routine (just like many people), so establish a strict routine so your dog can expect you to come home at a certain time each day. This isn’t always possible, but the more rigid and strict your routine, the less likely your dog is to become upset or anxious when you leave, even if it’s for an extended period.
For example, if you train your dog to expect you home at 6:30 PM every day, you might find them waiting for you by the door at the same time each day or even for a little while after.
When you have a dog prone to separation anxiety, don’t make it a habit to come home at a random time each day. Having a sensitive dog is a lot like having a child—you have a responsibility to keep their welfare in mind while you live your life and carry out your other obligations.
Play With/Exercise Your Dog
Many dogs can feel a little anxious or upset if they don’t get enough exercise each day, especially if they are large, very young, or are a particularly energetic breed.
If your dog has trouble staying still or staying out of trouble when you are gone, consider exercising them or playing with them more frequently. Take your dog on a walk before you leave for an hour or more. In this way, your dog will be perfectly content to lay their bed and take a quick nap while you are gone, awakening when you return to greet you with a tail wag and raised paw.
Playing with and exercising your dog is doubly important when you have a puppy. Puppies are easily distracted, so tire them out with plenty of exercise before you leave. This is a great way to get them to settle down and go to sleep while you run your errands.
Give Your Dog a Relaxing Area
Crate training is a key part of any good dog training regimen, and for a good reason; when you train your dog to think of their crate as a safe den where they can hang out or nap, your dog will feel comfortable and relaxed when you put them in their crate for an extended time away.
Say that you have to go visit a family member for three to four hours, but you can’t trust your dog not to get into things for that long. You can place them in their crate with a toy and a bowl of water.
Make sure they have a comfy, accident-proof bed, too. Keep in mind that puppies need to go to the bathroom more often. If unable, they may develop a urinary tract infection.
Your dog doesn’t freak out because they know that the crate is a safe, comfortable place where they can take a nap and that you will be back to let them out soon.
In some ways, dogs can develop separation anxiety purely because they have too much freedom or have too many possible things to do. Limiting their space to the comfort of their crate could be a wise idea.
Behavior Modification: Your Job
Be sure to pay attention to how you behave when you leave your home. If you make leaving a big production and constantly go back to give your dog attention or tell them that you’ll be back in a high, childlike voice, your dog will also make it a big deal.
On the other hand, if you act like leaving is completely fine and are nonchalant about the affair, your dog will be more likely to mirror your actions and emotional state. Dogs often look to us for guidance on how to react when they are facing an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation.
If you act like leaving is no big deal, your dog is more likely to treat it as no big deal, too.
Last but not least, don’t hesitate to contact a veterinarian if you think a medical issue is at the heart of your dog’s separation anxiety. Again, dogs aren’t able to tell us exactly what they are thinking or feeling. Your dog may need to get a vet check out if they are feeling under the weather or need help and don’t want you to leave home as a result.
On top of that, a vet may be able to advise you about further training techniques or tips if your dog isn’t responding to other separation anxiety treatments.
Is Separation Anxiety Normal for Dogs?
Absolutely, although different dogs may have different lengths or intensities of separation anxiety. For example, some dogs only experience separation anxiety very temporarily and only in very minor bursts.
Other dogs may be particularly prone to separation anxiety and develop recurring episodes of the condition throughout their lives. They may also act out more dramatically when they feel anxious compared to other dogs, who may just whine a little bit when their pet parent leaves.
Bottom line: separation anxiety is rather normal for many dogs, and you don’t need to worry necessarily about a health complication or medical issue if you see the symptoms and your pup. But it’s still something to pay attention to since separation anxiety should never be left alone to simply develop in your canine when you can treat it and help them feel better with several of the strategies above.
It’s a Journey, Not a Quick Cure
Ultimately, helping your dog work through separation anxiety will likely take a few weeks or months at a minimum. For some pups, getting over separation anxiety could be a lifelong journey and project. But it’s one you should help them with regardless.
If your dog has separation anxiety, remember that it’s just because they love you dearly and never want to see you leave home. However, it’s still your responsibility as a pet parent to help your dog behave properly when you leave—both for the safety of your furniture and for your dog’s mental well-being!
If you need toys, treats, or other equipment to help your dog overcome separation anxiety, feel free to check out our online store. We’ve got everything you need to create a comfortable, secure home for your pup, ranging from beds to bowls to leashes and more!
Separation Anxiety in Dogs | VCA Animal Hospital
Does your dog freak out when you leave? | The Humane Society of the United States