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Separation anxiety in dogs

White and brown dog by the window

A major change in a dog’s life can trigger separation anxiety.

© Shutterstock

Does your dog get nervous when you leave the house? Has he destroyed shoes, cushions and clothes? These could be signs of separation anxiety in dogs.

By Dr Karen Ingleby BVetMed MRCVS

Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:29

Does your dog get distressed when you leave them? Do you come home to chewed sofas or scratched doors? When you get back are you nearly bowled over by them, acting like they haven’t seen you for ages? If you can answer yes to any of these, then your dog may suffer from separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety (‘separation distress’) in dogs occurs when a dog is not able to cope with being left alone in the house or even just being separated from his owner. It can be caused by isolation, where the dog has nothing to occupy them, they are bored, or that they are attached to you and miss you.

This is not your dog just being ‘difficult’ when you leave him alone. Separation anxiety is a serious behaviour problem. Here we explore what the problem really is, and how you can help your dog to cope.

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs

If your pet has separation anxiety, he will display the following symptoms of anxiety:

How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?

There are many different signs that may indicate your dog suffers from some form of separation anxiety. They can include disturbing you in your sleep, becoming withdrawn, losing weight, changing their social behaviour, over grooming and starting to urinate indoors. These behaviours can be worse when you leave them home alone or at night. It is not unusual for a dog with separation anxiety to bark, howl or whine non-stop, or to destroy, chew or scratch windows, doors and furniture. You may also notice they pant or drool excessively and even may try to escape.

What causes a dog to get separation anxiety?

Once you know how to recognise the signs of anxiety in your dog, you must try to understand what is causing it as there are a lot of reasons which will all help you build up a proper structure.

An important thing to remember is that dogs are pack animals: they are social and being alone is not natural for them. But in today's society, most family members work or go to school full-time, and dogs have no choice but to adapt. Even if you are working from home, you can’t entertain your dog all day. So don't be too hard on your pooch! Learning to be contented alone will take time.

It’s also important to remember that often, dog separation anxiety is unknowingly encouraged by dog owners themselves. Think about it: do you usually provide constant attention to your dog when you are at home? Is your dog ever encouraged to spend time by themselves? This might actually give your dog the impression that your absence is a big deal - and because of this, he may start to worry more every time you leave.

The problem usually develops in puppyhood when you like to spend as much time as possible with your puppy. At the beginning, you want to be with your pup every step of the way: you are his source of confidence, security, and stability. But what happens when you have to go back to work, or withdraw attention because you are busy? Your pup goes from having you around all the time with cuddles whenever they want, to not having you there at all.

That’s a very big change to his routine. That’s why ideally, it’s best to start teaching your dog how to be alone as soon as possible.

It’s true that there are other factors that contribute to this disease like stress, boredom and lack of exercise. Consistency in your pet’s routine is also an important factor when dealing with separation anxiety. You need to make sure that your dog has enough confidence in himself and in your care. Only then will he be ready to face situations such as being left alone, because he knows that you will eventually come home. He can learn to amuse himself so that he doesn’t even mind when you’re not around.

How to treat separation anxiety in dogs?

Treating separation distress takes a lot of time and patience, so be prepared. Sometimes, vets may prescribe drugs to calm your dog while he is left alone. While in some extreme cases, dogs might need to take medication for the rest of their lives, medical treatment is rarely sufficient alone. It is always necessary to accompany it with a behavioural modification program, which will help change how your dog perceives being left alone. Consult your vet at the earliest opportunity - the moment you see signs of anxiety and distress in your dog, don’t allow it to build up because your dog will learn from your responses. Your vet can refer you to a clinical animal behaviourist who can set up a behaviour modification program to help.

How do you help a dog with separation anxiety?

Here are a few top tips to help combat separation anxiety:

1. Exercise your dog before you leave the house

A dog that is tired will have less energy to wreak havoc in your home while you are gone, and will want to rest instead. The goal is not to exhaust your pet, but to make sure he is as comfortable as possible before you leave. Depending on the breed of dog you own, exercise needs will be different. If you’re the proud owner of a high-energy working breed such as a Border Collie, you may have to get up very early before leaving for work, and prepare for plenty of stimulation and exercise at other points throughout your dog’s day.

2. Give your dog something to keep him occupied

You could, for instance, stuff a Kong or other rubber food-containing toy, and give it to your pet to play with while you are gone. This will keep his mind busy for at least the first 20 minutes of your departure. It also has the added benefit of associating something good to your departure, therefore helping your dog actually look forward to you leaving! You need to ensure that you put strong-smelling, tasty and ideally ‘sticky’ food inside (such as special dog-safe liver paste). Dry biscuits are not going to compare to the loss of your attention.

3. Don’t make a fuss

Be careful about contrasts! Don’t constantly allow your dog on your lap, make a big announcement telling your dog goodbye before you leave (which he will see as a big signal that the loneliness is about to start), and avoid making a huge fuss when you return to the house. Whilst some evidence shows that separation distress isn’t worsened by big greetings/exits, it makes sense not to be over excited about the whole event.

Try instead to spend time each day allowing your dog to amuse himself. When you arrive back, calmly direct your dog to their toilet area, allow them to toilet, then you can greet them but keep it gentle! If your dog jumps all over you, direct him to his bed and fuss him there, ideally when he is sitting or lying down (you can teach this gradually). This will teach him that he is only rewarded with your attention when he is calm and doing something preferable with all four feet on the ground.

4. Desensitize your dog to your departure

Dogs with serious cases of separation anxiety will start feeling stressed the moment you start getting ready to leave the house. These can be tiny signs of pet anxiety. To reduce your dog’s stress, you need to show him that these cues don’t necessarily mean that you’re leaving. Pick up your keys, then go sit on the sofa and start watching TV. Put on your coat and start cleaning the house. Open the front door, then close it again. Make these cues as unimportant as possible, until your dog hardly reacts to them at all anymore.

5. Gradually increase time alone

You should start by separating yourself from your dog in the house, with the use of a baby gate or a door, for instance. Give your dog things to occupy him such as food games, or start when he’s eating his dinner. This teaches your dog independence without leaving him alone completely. Then, start leaving your home for just a few seconds. Don’t leave him so long that he cries or barks. Keep it to just a few seconds at a time first. If this is hard to do, a clinical behaviourist can show you how to build it up properly.

Gradually increase the length of time you are gone from a few seconds, to a few minutes, and eventually, a few hours. Increase the amount of time you are gone based on your dog’s comfort. Don’t rush through the steps, this will only make the process more difficult.

The importance of training when working with separation anxiety in dogs

Clinical animal behaviour professionals believe that the true cure for separation anxiety is consistency. Establishing a routine enables your dog to know what to expect, therefore reducing stress and anxiety. Moreover, this will help him understand that his calm, relaxed behaviour needs to become a habit. This needs thorough training, from everyone in the family, and does not happen by accident.

This takes time. You can’t try a routine once and expect your dog to follow it perfectly for the rest of his life! Remember that repetition is the mother of knowledge.

How to help an older dog with separation anxiety

Older dogs may also have symptoms of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, which is where their brain begins to degenerate. A dog that previously was able to tolerate being alone no longer can. They can suddenly become restless at night, barking even when you are still around. Your vet can help with supplements, and can refer you to a clinical behaviourist for support too.

How to help puppies with separation anxiety

Puppies commonly suffer with being separated from you and it’s not surprising, given that they have been split from their littermates and mother. The best advice is to allow them to be left for short periods in the daytime rather than allowing everyone to cuddle the pup all the time. You may want to stay close to your puppy at night for the very first few times, perhaps bringing their crate closer to your bedroom and moving it steadily away as the nights progress, a little per night until they are happily asleep in their own space.

How to help a dog with separation anxiety from another dog?

Dogs form bonds with people and other animals too! It’s not unusual for littermates adopted together to find separation hard. Always take them for walks separately and do separate training time with each dog, so that they learn not to depend on one another.

Should you crate a dog with separation anxiety?

The idea of crating a dog should be all about safety and building a secure bed area for the dog that they can happily retreat to. A crate is not to be suddenly introduced since the dog will panic and try to escape. They end up hating the crate! Instead, treat it as a favourite den and train the dog or puppy to enjoy their time in there. Feed them in there, leave them some water, keep toys in there especially tasty ones, and pet them when they are in there. Sit next to the crate and read whilst your dog relaxes. Gradually start to leave them - they shouldn’t even want to come out!

How do you treat an anxious dog?

If you have a dog with separation anxiety, they will need to go through some sort of retraining to help them. This will include getting them used to spending time on their own and helping them find an area they feel ‘safe’ when you are not there. It could also involve installing stair gates and in some situations seeking advice and help from professional animal behaviourists. They may also benefit from calming supplements.

Does cannabidiol (CBD) oil help dogs with separation anxiety?

There isn’t any official research that has proved CBD to be beneficial for separation anxiety, although some products are marketing themselves for this. It is always best to discuss it with a veterinarian before starting your dog on any supplements.

Is CBD safe for dogs with anxiety?

There isn’t any official research that has proved CBD to be beneficial or safe for separation anxiety. But there has been research in using it for a treatment for osteoarthritis and there were no negative side effects in the dogs, meaning it potentially is safe for canines. Yet it is always best to discuss it with a veterinarian before starting your dog on any supplements.

Does Benadryl help dogs with anxiety?

Benadryl or diphenhydramine is an antihistamine and is sometimes prescribed by vets for its sedative effect. It has a short-term effect and may be helpful in a one-off situation, but for a long-term condition like separation anxiety it is unlikely to be beneficial.

There are other options that are licenced for this condition. Speak to a veterinarian about what they feel would be most appropriate for your dog.

What can you give an anxious dog?

There are various calming supplements available, including plug-in appeasing pheromones and tablets that are based on a milk protein. Speak to a veterinarian about what they feel would be most appropriate for your dog.

When should I see a vet?

Before you get a new puppy, speak to a vet about how best to try to reduce the chance of separation anxiety, especially if you are likely to be leaving it at home on its own a lot.

If you have a dog who is already showing signs of separation anxiety, for example they appear distressed when you leave them alone in the room, or at night or when you go to work, then please speak to a veterinarian, who can discuss ways to help with behaviour changes, refer you to a specialist or prescribe medication that may help.

Which dog breeds have separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can develop in any dog. There is some evidence to suggest certain breeds can be more prone to suffering with it than others. You will find multiple breeds suggested but Border Collies, German Shepherds, Labradors and Bichon Frise are widely agreed on as being more at risk of developing the condition.

What is the most needy breed of dog?

All dogs enjoy human interaction and contact. Yet just by nature, some seem to be more independent than others. Although there is no definite evidence, many would say that breeds that have historically been used for working dogs and used to spending nearly all day with their humans can be more needy for attention than others. These breeds can include Labradors, Border Collies, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Pointers.

Will dog separation anxiety go away?

It would be untruthful to say that dog separation anxiety will go away 100%, as there is no easy way to rectify separation anxiety once it has developed.

We do know it will not go away on its own and most often a complete "cure" is never experienced. Having said that, there are many things you can do to begin to ease the symptoms and then allow you and your dog to manage the condition.

Final thoughts

If you are working full-time, it may be worth contacting a pet-sitter to come walk your dog midday or finding a reputable doggy daycare to watch your pet while you are away. Some owners also consider adopting another pet to keep theirs company. All of these are good ideas, however, you need to make sure they are well suited to your pet's personality - the end goal is to reduce their anxiety, not to add to it!

If you’ve tried everything and your pet still struggles with separation anxiety, you may need to consult a professional. Ask your vet about a referral to a trusted clinical animal behaviourist.

Article reviewed by Karen Wild, CCAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist