How To Deal With Separation Anxiety In Dogs

Lab next to fence (caption: Tips for Separation Anxiety in Dogs)Unable to leave home without your dog destroying the place? Or maybe your neighbor calls your landlord to complain about the howling pup? If this story sounds familiar, there’s a chance your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. Let’s explore what dog separation anxiety is and how you can help your dog overcome their fears.

Post-Pandemic Separation Anxiety

Studies show that pets help people cope with anxiety (especially those living alone). During the initial COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., the ASPCA saw an increase of 70% in adoptions in April 2020 compared to 2019, and 73% of pet parents say that having a pet helped them stay sane during lockdown1. With so many dogs having their parents home full-time for months (and newly adopted dogs from day one), they likely spent more time bonding with their families.

Now, the tables are turning. As some people return to the office and school, pets may encounter separation anxiety (whether they are new to families or not). More than a quarter of dog owners say they fear their pooches will suffer from anxiety when the work from home era ends, and 38% of those surveyed say they’d take a pay cut if it allowed them to continue working from home with their pet1. Since that’s not an option for everyone, we recommend easing your pup back to “normal” by preparing ahead of time with these tips, allowing time to adjust.

Article Overview

What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?

Sad pugWhen a dog with separation anxiety is left alone, he may exhibit behavioral problems. Common signs of distress include digging, scratching at doors or windows, urinating, defecating, barking, howling, and chewing. Yes, some of these sound like he may not be house trained yet, but these are also signs of a different problem.

What Triggers It?

When a canine becomes upset that you (or anyone she’s attached to) are leaving, she feels anxious. Being separated from her loved one is difficult for her, and she may try to escape to follow or find you. These escape attempts may result in self-injury or destroyed property (as mentioned above).

Are There Physical Issues Associated With It?

Just like in humans, dogs can show signs of physical health issues from separation anxiety. They may experience restlessness, insomnia, reduced energy, and sadness. Your dog might also pace around more while you’re away than when you are home.

Treating Separation Anxiety In Dogs

Treating separation anxiety in dogs can vary depending on the level of nervousness your pup is feeling. Every case is different. Some will respond well to the strategies discussed below, while others will require more persistence.

Mild Cases

If your dog is experiencing a mild case of separation anxiety, we suggest trying counterconditioning. Counterconditioning is when you change an undesirable behavior to a desirable one. To accomplish this, you must associate something the dog loves with the disliked situation.

For example, if your pup dislikes staying home alone when you go to work, you could leave a treat or food. You might consider purchasing a puzzle toy and placing a favorite treat (i.e., peanut butter) in it. This will keep them occupied for 20-30 minutes. Remember that counterconditioning will only work for mild cases. Very nervous dogs don’t typically eat when you aren’t home.

Moderate To Severe Cases

Are you unable to leave the house because your dog becomes anxious when you put your coat on and grab your keys? Teach your dog that just because you are doing these things doesn’t mean you are leaving. Do these things throughout the day without going away. This will help reduce your dog’s stress levels, and she won’t associate it with you leaving anymore. Note that this may need to be done multiple times a day for weeks. Anxiety is not something that will disappear in a day.

Dogs who suffer from severe cases of nervousness need to be weaned into short periods of disconnection from you. These separations should not produce any anxiety, so be sure you start with a reasonable time limit. To start, try performing an out of sight stay.

  • For example, teach your pup to stay or sit while you go on the other side of the bathroom door. Start with a short time and gradually increase to longer periods.
  • Next, grab your keys and put your coat on and go into the bathroom.
  • Once he is comfortable, shift to training the same behavior with an exit door. Note: if you always leave via the garage door, try implementing this technique on the front door first.
  • Now you can incorporate counterconditioning. Give your pup a puzzle toy before you step out the door.
  • Wait until he is calm before trying another detachment session. If your dog is anxious, he will notice this going into the next separation and be overwhelmed.
  • While you are exiting and entering the house, remain calm and quiet. This will lessen the difference between you being home and away and make it more likely that your dog will remain calm.
  • Increasing detachment times is a slow process, and each dog is different. In the beginning, you may only be able to increase by a few seconds every other session. Once you have built up to 40-minute sessions, you can increase the chunks of time by larger increments. Maybe increase by 5 minutes and then see how your dog handles it. Perhaps the next time, you can increase by 15 minutes. Once he has made it up to 90 minutes, he can probably last 4-8 hours. Just remember to be careful and take your time.

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Barley and Lily 2 dogs cuddling

Does Having A Second Pet Reduce Anxiety?

Companionship can help a dog feel less lonely. However, having a second dog (or a cat) doesn’t necessarily solve the issue. Some dogs are inherently more shy and anxious, whereas others are more social by nature (in which case a second dog can help).

If you’re considering getting an additional pet, try introducing them to the idea by sitting for a friend’s pup or having them stay at another dog’s home. It’s a safe way to test the waters and see if companionship will reduce their separation anxiety.

Does Crate Training Help With Separation Anxiety?

Lily in dog crate (caption: best dog crates)A crate is an excellent option for anxiety relief because it creates a cozy den for your dog. Many reports indicate that even the most anxious dog will calm down in 5-10 minutes of your leaving. A crate will be most effective if you take the time to teach your dog that it’s a safe haven and not just a place to punish bad behavior or to stay when you leave.

It is important to emphasize that a crate is a happy place. You can do this by giving treats and other positive reinforcements to encourage your dog to go in. And, don’t forget to reward them again once when they are calmly inside. Some pet parents even find the dog sleeping in their crate with the door left open since it is a safe and cozy place where no one bothers them.

A crate is also an excellent way to keep your pup out of trouble. Find the best dog crate to fit your needs and read our guide on how to crate train your dog. And if your dog isn’t a fan, a dog gate might be an alternative way to contain them to a particular area of the house.

Ways To Entertain Dogs While You’re Away

GoBone Interactive Smart ToyAnother way to make dogs feel more comfortable is to leave them with their favorite toys. Some playthings are made for endless hours of fun, including the GoBone, that you can control from your phone.

You might also try turning on the television or soothing music in the background to calm their nerves and make it seem like you’re home. Turn on Animal Planet or a dog-specific YouTube channel as a fun form of entertainment for them.

Learn about more dog brain training tools

How To Keep Your Pet Occupied In Their Crate

If leaving them in a crate, we recommend giving your dog a bone or something to enjoy as it can help distract from the fact you’re gone. I personally use a IQ Treat Mat for our pup. Fill with peanut butter, yogurt, or mashed banana to give your dog a yummy challenge. Repetitive licking is also helpful because it releases cortisol, a calming hormone, into the body. Additional benefits include stimulating saliva production (aids with digestion) and removing bacteria from the tongue (improves breath).

Our Firsthand Experience

Lexie in crate with LickiMatWe tried out the IQ Treat Mat in exchange for an honest review, and Lexie, our separation anxiety-prone King Charles Cavalier, loves it. She licks until the mat is clean, then she falls asleep on top of it. The only downside is her long ears tend to get messy when they drag through the peanut butter. The mat washes clean, and it’s easy to store when not in use. Lexie seems to look forward to when we leave because she jumps when I get the IQ Treat Mat out.

Cameras: Don’t Have Mom (Or Dad) Guilt

Pawbo CameraLeaving your loved one behind can be as stressful on the pet parents as it is for the pup. But, there is no need to suffer from unnecessary guilt. Your furry family member will be excited to see you when you return, no matter the circumstances.

But if you need a regular Fido fix, a dog camera is an effective way to peek in on your pup. Most pet cams record, have motion detection, and even have two-way audio so you can talk to them (but we don’t recommend doing this too often as it can be confusing, they may think you’re there when you’re not). There are even smart feeders that can feed your dog treats with a command from your smartphone.

Check out our dog camera article, where we review several options and provide our recommendations.

Video: Examples Of Dog Separation Anxiety

Now that we’ve learned how to help our dogs with separation anxiety, let’s watch this video to see how this pup has overcome its lonely and stressful situation.

In the video, the dog was kenneled and left for about 2 1/2 minutes. This may not seem like a very long time, but for dogs who suffer from severe separation anxiety, it can seem like an eternity. To avoid this during training, start with a very brief period of unkenneled time. The time will vary by pet, but try a detachment session of 5 seconds, see how your dog reacts, and then go from there.

Need More Help?

Be sure to learn about the other types of dog anxiety. Remember to be patient and know that change takes time. Additionally, each case is different, and your canine has specific needs. If you’d like help determining a plan for your pup’s condition, contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.

If you prefer not to work directly with a human during the pandemic or you just wish for more scheduling flexibility, we recommend these excellent online dog training classes. In most cases, it is also a more affordable option.

If you are unable to find a behaviorist in your area, you may contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). Not all CPDTs are qualified to mitigate separation anxiety, so be sure to ask if they are qualified.

Do you have any tips for dog separation anxiety?

Source: [1] AdWeek