Separation Anxiety and Your Dog: Positive Ways to Help Them Cope

The impact of separation anxiety can be catastrophic for both you and your dog. To build a happier life for both of you, learn what it is and how to control it.

Updated May 20, 2023
Cute Puppy Lying On Sofa

Separation anxiety can be very frustrating for both you and your dog. Coming home to a mess isn't fun for us. And being stressed definitely isn't entertaining to your dog. That's why it's important to understand what separation anxiety is and what you can do about it. Being proactive means you can get ahead of the problem before your dog can't stand it when you're away.

What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

Separation anxiety is a condition where your dog becomes anxious and stressed when you leave them alone. It's a common problem in dogs, especially among dogs who have been abused or abandoned, but it can affect any dog.

Some dogs have mild cases of separation anxiety, while others may become so distressed they become frantic and destructive until their owners return home. In severe cases, dogs may even become aggressive and attack people who try to enter their homes while they're alone.

What Are The Signs of Separation Anxiety?

Pet dog waiting in hallway of house

The signs of this condition are very similar to other types of anxiety. It can be difficult to tell the difference, but there are some common signs of separation anxiety in dogs:

  • Trembling or shaking: This is first sign your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. They may also whine or bark when they see you getting ready to leave.
  • Excessive drooling: This is caused by stress, which leads to an increase in saliva production.
  • Panting and panting: In turn, stress increases blood flow to the lungs, which leads to rapid breathing.
  • Urinating or defecating inside: Dogs don't do this on purpose, but it tends to occur when they're experiencing severe sparation anxiety.
  • Chewing on inappropriate items: Your dog may chew shoes, furniture, or anything else in the house that helps calm their nerves.
  • Excessive vocalization: Whining, howling, or barking when left alone.
  • Destructive behavior toward family members: This includes biting and growling at them when they come home after being gone for an extended period of time.
Quick Tip

Every dog reacts differently and may experience different syptoms. The key is that your depature triggers the anxiety.

What is Mild Separation Anxiety?

Dog looking out of window

Dogs with mild separation anxiety are those that can be left alone for short periods of time, but still show signs of anxiety. They may bark or whine when you leave them alone, or they may chew on things in the house. They may also exhibit submissive urination when left alone.

There are many training techniques that can help your dog overcome mild separation anxiety. The first step is to make sure your dog understands basic obedience commands, such as "Sit" and "Stay." Before you start trying to train your dog away from this behavior, establish a regular daily routine for them, and make sure they have enough enrichment and physical exercise every day. This can help prevent problems from starting or getting worse.

Treatment for Mild Separation Anxiety

Dogs with mild separation anxiety can be redirected to other activities. When they get anxious or start whining, distract them by playing a game like hide-and-seek with treats, or offering chew toys or bully sticks to keep them busy until you return home. Some dogs may keep busy the entire time you're gone chewing on their new toy.

The key is to make sure your schedule is consistent. You also need to make sure your dog is getting enough stimulation each day. If you come home from a long day of work and you end up ignoring your dog, their bad behavior is more likely to escalate. If you can't provide daily exercise and enrichment - spending time with your dog - consider asking a friend, family member, or professional pet sitter to help out and come by during the day to play.

Quick Tip

Grab a basket of toys. Each day, or every other day, switch out the toy your dog plays with to prevent boredom.

What Is Severe Separation Anxiety?

Boxer dog destroys leather chair

Severe separation anxiety in dogs can be challenging to overcome. There are several options that can help your dog work through their anxiety, but it is important to find the right one for your individual dog.

The first step is to make sure that you have a diagnosis of severe separation anxiety by seeing a veterinarian. This means that your dog will show signs of extreme stress when they are left alone. The symptoms may include panting, whining and barking, pacing, destructive behavior, urination and defecation, hiding or trying to escape from the home. They may also show signs of depression when they are left alone.

Treatment for Severe Separation Anxiety

Severe separation anxiety requires a multi-faceted approach to treatment. Here are some steps you can take to help:

  • Consider medication: Anti-anxiety drugs can be used to reduce the symptoms of stress. They don't have any long-lasting effects, but they do help relieve the symptoms of anxiety during the time that your dog is taking them.
  • Provide a calm place: Create an area where your dog feels safe and comfortable when left alone at home or even just separated from you for a few minutes outside the house. Crates can worsen severe separation anxiety, especially if your dog has experienced trauma, so it's best for the safe place to be a room or a large closet where they don't feel trapped.
  • Desensitization: Practice leaving the house without your dog. Don't make a big deal out of leaving or arriving. Gradually increase the length of time that you are gone until they begin to accept it as normal. This could mean leaving for just a few minutes in the beginning.

It can take a long time for your dog to overcome severe separation anxiety. You need to build in a consistent, reliable routine to your day. This helps your dog know what to expect. And when you are home, you need to begin spending enough time and offering enough enrichment to your dog to help them chill out and feel more balanced. Start a training class with your dog, or go running. Get them out of the house. This is how you cope long-term.

When to See a Canine Behaviorist

If your dog is exhibiting signs of separation anxiety that could cause them to inflict injury on themselves or others, it's time to see a canine behaviorist. However, it's critical that your dog has been cleared before contacting one. If your dog hasn't been cleared of potential medical causes, most canine behaviorists will not take the case.

Preventing Separation Anxiety

To prevent separation anxiety, take the following steps:

  • Exercise your dog: Make sure your dog has plenty of exercise before leaving them alone at home. This will help them expend some of their energy so they won't feel so anxious while you're gone. Exercise can also tire them out so that if they do start to get anxious when you leave them alone, they will be less likely to bark or howl because they will have already worn themselves out.
  • Socialize your dog: If you have recently adopted a puppy, or have a dog already, socialization could reduce separation anxiety. Getting accustomed to a range of sounds, sights, and experiences can result in a well-rounded dog, reducing anxiety in your pooch.
  • Give plenty of attention: Your dog should feel like they have plenty of attention from you while you're home. Spending time with your dog, even if you're not exercising, is important. Quality time could be as simple as cuddling up to a movie for a couple of hours or brushing their fur for a while.
  • Consider hiring a pet sitter: If you're going to be gone for long periods of time, consider hiring a pet sitter or dog walker so they still get interaction while you're away.
Fast Fact

Exercise helps release endorphins and other hormones that help dogs relax. A dog who is very well exercised on a consistent basis is much less likely to experience strong separation anxiety.

What to Avoid

Woman and a Child arrive at a front door

When your dog has separation anxiety, there are some things you should avoid doing:

  • No punishment: Avoid punishing the dog when it comes to separation anxiety. It will do nothing to help the situation, and can make it worse. It is important to understand that dogs do not like being left alone and may exhibit negative behaviors as a result. This is not a sign of disobedience or a bad attitude; it is just an indication that your dog does not like being left alone.
  • Act normal: Avoid making a big deal out of leaving or returning home. Some dogs get overstimulated when their owners return, but this can be avoided if you do not respond strongly and stay calm. This sends a signal to your dog that they should be calm, too. Instead of greeting them enthusiastically, simply let them know that you are there and move on with your day as normal.
  • Stay calm: Avoid getting upset with your pet if they have separation anxiety issues, because this will only make the situation worse. This includes times when you return home to a wrecked house. Yes, it's unpleasant, but becoming upset at this point doesn't do you - or your dog - any good. In fact, it can make things worse, because even negative attention from you is still attention.

You need to approach the problem from a long-term, systemic point of view. Being upset in the moment won't resolve the problem. Punishing your dog is worse than doing nothing. Instead, adjust your behavior, spend as much time with your dog as possible, and if you can't be there, find someone to help, or hire a part-time pet-sitter, even if it's just for 30 minutes or an hour a day, to break up the long period while you are away.

Get Started Reducing Stress

Now you know what you need to get started. First, determine if your dog is experiencing mild or severe separation anxiety. Then, visit the veterinarian to check for any underlying ailments. And take it from there. Follow the directions provided to handle the anxiety your dog is experiencing.

Separation Anxiety and Your Dog: Positive Ways to Help Them Cope