Dog separation anxiety is one of the biggest behavioral problems some pet parents encounter. It can be difficult to manage depending on the severity, but it can be done. Separation anxiety is also an occurrence in children, and like with children, it manifests in dogs due to circumstances and many other factors. The key to treating dog separation anxiety is to diagnose the problem.
Maybe your dog gets a little anxious from time to time, but does it qualify as separation anxiety? Is there a measurable threshold for the condition? We’ll answer these questions and more by exploring the basics and more advanced details of canine separation anxiety.
The first step is to understand your foe. In this case, it’s separation anxiety. This is a “monster” that’s standing between you and a calm and well-behaved dog. In short, separation anxiety in a dog or a human is an onset of mild to extreme stress in the absence of a caretaker, parent, etc., whoever the sufferer has attached to. It can be likened to a panic attack.
The stress one feels from separation anxiety is on a sliding scale, and the behaviors they exhibit will often reflect that. Just to give you an idea, mild separation anxiety could mean some whining, crying, and pacing, but your dog quickly settles down after a while. Serious separation anxiety could result in problematic behaviors that could require professional dog training to curb.
Examples of severe separation anxiety symptoms can include destructive behavior and even accidental self-injury. Experts and professionals in the canine field stress healthy and adequate socialization at a young age for your pup, crate training, and teaching your dog about “alone time”. We’ll cover all of this in a bit, but let’s first explore the “why” aspect of separation anxiety.
Why does dog separation anxiety occur? There are many reasons and sometimes there is no clear indicator. There are innate reasons such as who your dog is, to external happenstance. Some believe that even the dog breed can be a reason why a dog is more prone to separation anxiety. Working dogs could be more anxious when separated from their owners because these dogs have a long lineage of ancestors working closely with humans and have become dependent on us.
Your dog’s personality is another aspect that can play a role in separation anxiety. Some dogs are naturally more independent than others, while some need more attention. As for external influences that may prompt separation anxiety on all levels, here are some top examples.
Poor socialization as a young puppy
The dog was never left alone during its formative years.
There is a history of actual abandonment (perhaps from previous owners)
A traumatic event that happened (a break-in, a move, a big change)
Changes in family members (death, new birth, etc)
How do you know if your dog is just scared and anxious because of a one-off event, or if it’s a chronic condition? Let’s take a look at the top signs of separation anxiety in canines. If your dog constantly displays these behaviors as a response to consistent triggers, then your dog may very likely have separation anxiety.
Vocalization is something most dogs do when they are feeling anxious. If you notice your dog crying, whining, howling, or barking in a very frantic way when you leave the house, then you know you have a dog with SA (separation anxiety). Your dog will do this persistently and there doesn’t seem to be a reason or a change to have triggered it except for your absence.
Sometimes separation anxiety can be so severe that your dog loses bowel and bladder control. Humans can also feel the need to go to the bathroom when they’re nervous, and the same goes for dogs, except they will actually do it.
You know the urination and defecation are the results of SA if your dog is fully potty trained and it only happens when they are frantic after you have left the house.
Yes, this can happen too. Coprophagia is more common than you think in dogs, and quite a few pups do this during their younger years. You will know if coprophagia is due to separation anxiety if it only happens then.
This is one of the most problematic results of SA. Dogs can turn their anxiety into destructive behavior and tear at walls and furniture, dig at the carpet, ground, or furniture, and become a force of devastation in their distress. A lot of the time, your dog gets injured during the process but because he is under overwhelming stress, he may not notice or even care.
Destructive behavior can result in broken teeth, lacerations, and injured nails. The aftermath of destructive behavior caused by SA can often cost you a lot of money to fix, especially if your dog is hurt.
An escape artist is also a big headache and a very problematic one. Your dog could not only injure himself, but he could get lost if he manages to run off the property, or worse. You will be surprised at how masterful dogs can be and how determined they are to get to you.
We have seen dogs dig under fences, and have the owner place obstacles to prevent it, only to have the dog figure out another way to escape or scale the fence. The result of escape attempts can be very similar to destructive behavior.
Frantic pacing and trembling can accompany any of the above symptoms. Your dog will usually pace and sometimes tremble while vocalizing his distress.
Excessive drooling or panting are also symptoms of SA that go with any of the above. The key to knowing if any sign is a result of separation anxiety is to ask yourself, “does my dog do this under any other circumstance?”. If the answer is no, then it most likely is due to separation anxiety.
The big question is, how do we tackle separation anxiety?
Sometimes the symptoms your dog displays are triggered by a medical issue and emotions when you leave the house. For example, maybe your dog is on medication that causes frequent urination. Your dog’s emotions are heightened in your absence, which causes bladder control issues. Many of the signs of SA can be caused by medical and health issues, so there is no harm to take your dog in for a quick checkup just to make sure everything is okay.
So, you’re pretty sure your dog has separation anxiety, what can you do about it? The treatment plan will be different for every dog, depending on a variety of factors including personality, age, lifestyle, and the severity of the condition.
Mild separation anxiety could look like this: some crying, pacing, panting, but your dog settles down.
Your dog is more persistent in his behavior and maybe has fecal and urinary incontinence plus frantic behavior.
Severe separation anxiety usually involves destruction or escape, with a seemingly inconsolable pup.
Exercise is something dogs should get every day, but did you know a well-exercised and stimulated dog is one that’s better behaved? Yes! You can help get your dog’s energy out in a healthy way so when you leave the house, he won’t be as bothered because he will be tired.
Crate training is a crucial element for potty training and it helps with separation anxiety. It’s best if you start crate training at a young age. If it is introduced correctly, the crate will be a safe place, a den if you will, and a location your pup can comfortably and happily retreat to. If he enjoys the crate, and you supplement it with lots of his favorite snacks and toys (that he only gets when you’re out of the house), there is a big chance that he won’t mind you being gone.
Replace a bad impression/memory with a good one - this is counter-conditioning. Your dog is developing SA when you leave the house because he associates you leaving with abandonment and lots of bad thoughts. Your job for counter-conditioning is to teach and show your dog that separation can be a good thing!
Instead of “oh no, my human is leaving me, I don’t know if she will ever be back.” with “Oh, yes! My human left, now I can have some peace and quiet with my favorite toy”. Don’t worry, even if your dog acts like he is completely fine when you leave, rest assured that he still loves you! Don’t you be developing separation anxiety now!
What can also bring on SA is when they are rare occurrences. If they don’t happen enough, then your dog will never be used to the fact that sometimes you will need to leave the house and leave him behind. Leaving the house more often, even if it’s for short intervals, can help communicate to your dog that just because you’re leaving, it doesn’t mean you won’t come back.
Slowly over time, your dog will understand that you will come back. Start small, maybe leave for 10 minutes out to the yard, and then increase the time away by going to the corner store, then to the mall, etc., as your dog adjusts.
There may come a time when you need help. There is nothing wrong with seeking the advice and intervention of an expert if you are at a loss. Sometimes it’s as easy as dropping your dog off at daycare for him to have friends to play with. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your pup can “forget” about you with canine playmates.
You may have to enroll in puppy classes or one-on-one training with a canine behavioral specialist. The expert will tailor a suitable training plan for you and your pup that accounts for your lifestyle, habits, your dog’s personality, and more.
The thing to keep in mind is you must be patient and consistent during this time. Know that it will take time and effort to get your dog to a more stable state when you leave the house, and you have to be consistent in your training for it to work.
Professional help from a trainer or vet could result in prescriptions for calming agents or medication. Calming agents could be relaxing scents, such as chamomile or lavender, from a diffuser. Vets could also prescribe medication specifically for anxiety, but this is not recommended for younger pups. CBD oil is also something a lot of pet parents rely on to keep their pets calm. It is more natural than prescription drugs and is generally more effective than aromatherapy.
Lastly, we’re going to leave you with a very important tidbit of information, which is that separation anxiety isn’t always preventable despite every effort and precaution you take. Some dogs are just prone to suffering from it and it’s something you have to deal with. The process can be long, and SA is definitely not something easy to treat, but know that you are not alone and it can be done.
If you are struggling and don’t know how to approach the issue, a vet or animal behavior specialist will be able to help you.
Separation anxiety is so common in dogs and while sometimes it is something that can be prevented if your dog was socialized at a young age and taught that alone time is good, this isn’t always the case. Don’t try and shoulder all the blame, because this is a manageable condition that we’re sure you can handle by identifying SA, understanding what causes it, and finding the right treatment plan.