Understanding & Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety is a behavioral condition that causes signs of distress and other behavioral problems when dogs are left alone. Thomas Labs understands that separation anxiety can be stressful and challenging to deal with, especially since many people don’t know how to deal with separation anxiety in dogs.
What Causes It?
The underlying cause of this condition can be environmental, medical, or behavioral. Although it can be hard to pinpoint the cause of a dog’s separation anxiety, there are different events that can trigger separation anxiety in dogs, including:
- Experiencing a change in the family’s routine
- Going through a traumatic event
- Experiencing a move
- Becoming physically ill and/or having medical problems
- Starting to reach old age and/or developing dementia
- Being left alone for the first time
- Losing a family member or other pet
- Having a negative experience at a boarding kennel
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
The signs of separation anxiety in dogs often occur when they are left alone and separated from their owner. Anxious dogs may start to show signs of anxiety as the owners are preparing to leave. Common signs of separation anxiety in dogs include:
- Excessive barking, howling, or whining
- Destroying things in the house (destructive chewing, digging, or scratching)
- Urinating or defecating in the house
- Acting restless
- Excessive salivating or panting
- Refusing to eat
- Following you from room to room when you’re home
- Acting overly excited when you return
- Becoming withdrawn
Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Treating this behavioral condition requires patience, as it can be challenging to treat. Your first step should be to consult with your veterinarian to ensure that your dog’s behavior is not medically related. If your veterinarian finds an underlying health issue, resolving that issue will be important for treating the anxiety. Your veterinarian can also help you come up with a treatment plan.
Treating your dog for separation anxiety may require a variety of different methods and steps to help alleviate stress, including:
Increasing exercise: Making sure your dog gets plenty of exercise can help tire your dog out, plus it provides both physical and mental stimulation through a variety of smells, sights, and sounds. Regular exercise is also important for releasing energy.
If dogs don’t have a proper outlet for energy, they can become bored and start developing destructive habits. Have you ever heard the saying that a tired dog is a good dog? There’s some truth to that!
Establishing a predictable routine: Similar to humans, pets thrive on consistency and routine. Changing up your pet’s daily schedule can increase their anxiety, so if possible, keep your pet’s routine consistent. Sticking to your pet’s regular routine (especially when it comes to playing, elimination, exercising, and feeding) will help minimize stress. This also helps your dog understand when he should be relaxing and when he can look forward to your attention.
Developing a safe and comforting place for relaxation: Creating a consistent, safe place can help ease your dog’s anxiety, plus it helps limit his ability to be destructive. Some dogs may not be safe in a crate because they may try anything to escape and could injure themselves in the process. VCA Hospitals says, “For dogs with separation anxiety, crates should be used with caution because they can promote intense escape attempts and may result in fairly serious injuries.”
Having a bed in a room or pen can provide a secure place for your pet to relax and rest while you’re gone. Encouraging your dog to relax there on a regular basis (perhaps after exercise) can help teach him that it’s a safe and relaxing area for him.
Ignoring attention-seeking behaviors: It’s important that you don’t reinforce your dog’s negative behaviors, like getting overly excited when you return. Essentially, you will be retraining your dog to remain relaxed in your presence.
It’s best to stay calm when you’re leaving the house and when you return home. Many owners accidentally encourage their dog’s attention-seeking behavior by giving their dog too much attention before they leave and when they return. This can actually increase anxiety levels in your dog during these times.
Although it might be difficult, it’s best to ignore your dog during departures and arrivals. When you return home, ignore your dog until he is calm and then calmly pet him. This will help encourage calm behaviors in your dogs.
Retraining your dog: One of the best ways to teach your dog some independence is to retrain his behavior. You can start by teaching your dog to remain in his safe space for a short period of time and then you’ll leave the room. Then you will gradually increase the amount of time of each session.
This will help train your dog to relax in his safe space and to accept periods of inattention. You can start this process while you’re home and then gradually leave the house for a few minutes and slowly increase the time you’re gone. Making sure that your dog is relaxed and calm when you depart and return is crucial.
Using anti-anxiety medication: You can talk with your vet to see if your dog would be a good candidate for anti-anxiety medication like fluoxetine or clomipramine. VCA Hospitals points out: “Although drugs may be important in reducing underlying anxiety and helping your dog cope, it is the retraining program that is needed to help your dog gain some independence and accept some time away from you.”
Using calming aids: There are a variety of calming aids that may also help ease your dog’s anxiety, including pheromones or a thunder shirt.
Distracting with toys or treats: Keeping your dog distracted during the day can help take his mind off of being alone. Rotating your pet’s toys can help keep him stimulated and minimize boredom. Having a wide variety of toys and rotating them regularly can provide ongoing entertainment and interest.
There are also a variety of puzzle toys that require your dog to manipulate it to receive a treat. A KONG chew toy is a popular choice to keep your dog entertained! These chew toys can be stuffed with a variety of treats, such as peanut butter, to keep your dog busy for hours, plus they help stimulate mental exercise.
If your dog is suffering from a severe case of anxiety, you may want to consider making different arrangements for your dog during the training process. Hiring a dog sitter or taking your dog to a doggy daycare center may help!
Preventing Separation Anxiety
Although separation anxiety isn’t always preventable, there are steps that can help reduce the risk of developing this behavioral condition. Here are some steps that can help:
- Help puppies learn to spend time alone in their beds or crates by having scheduled times where they spend time alone, even if you’re home
- Have a consistent safe place for your dog (a room, bed, or crate) to help comfort your dog during your absence
- Spend time socializing your puppy to help promote confidence and expose him to a variety of different experiences
- Exercise your pet on a regular basis to help keep him active and stimulated
- Ignore negative and needy behaviors in your dog, such as whining for attention
What Not to Do
The Humane Society of the United States points out that there are a number of things that won’t help solve your dog’s separation anxiety, including:
Punishing your dog: Punishing your dog will only increase his anxiety, which will make future departures worse. Therefore, punishment is not an effective method for treating separation anxiety.
Getting another dog: Because your dog has anxiety from being separated from you, getting another dog doesn’t usually help the situation.
Thinking that obedience training will fix the issue: Obedience training probably isn’t the answer to solving your dog’s anxiety because it’s not the result of disobedience or a lack of training.
If your dog has an excessive case of separation anxiety, it may be helpful to consult a professional who specializes in animal behavior. It’s important to remember that treating separation anxiety in dogs will take time, so being patient and consistent is key!
The materials and information provided on this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of your veterinarian or other pet healthcare professional. Consult your own veterinarian if you have medical questions concerning diagnosis, treatment, therapy, or medical attention.