Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Symptoms, Training, & Treatment

Image of a dog laying on a floor looking anxious

Is your dog destroying everything in the house as soon as you leave? Your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety in dogs is relatively common, as many dogs do not like to be left at home alone. But most dogs can be trained that it is okay to be home alone. Some may even think it is the best part of the day.

This article will help you understand why your dog is suffering from separation anxiety and how you can help relieve that anxiety.

Causes of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

There are many reasons that your dog could have developed separation anxiety.

Many times, this starts when you first get your new dog, and with a little time and training, you can teach your dog that it is okay to be left alone.

While there is no hard evidence, it is believed that the loss of a person who was important to a dog can cause separation anxiety.

This is one of the most common reasons that your dog could be suffering from separation anxiety.

Change in Lifestyle

  • Change of owner or family: Being abandoned at a shelter and then taken to a new family can cause separation anxiety. These dogs may fear being sent back to the shelter.
  • Change in routine: If you suddenly change your schedule, and your dog is now being left alone for long periods of time or during different times of the day, it can trigger separation anxiety. This is seen when people who change jobs or go from working at home a lot to now in the office a lot.
  • Change in residence: Moving to a new house can cause your dog to have separation anxiety when you’re gone from your new home.
  • Change in people in the house: suddenly, losing a family member in the house can cause separation anxiety. This can happen if someone dies or a kid moves away to college.

Medical Problems

Separation anxiety in dogs for medical reasons treatment image
  • Urinary incontinence: Your dog may be urinating in the house because they are incontinent. This is a medical condition where your dog cannot fully control their bladder and may leak a little bit of urine. Most dogs do not know that they have leaked any urine and commonly do this when they are asleep and fully relaxed.
  • Other medical conditions: Many other medical issues can be causing your dog to pee and poop in the house. Conditions such as urinary tract infection, a weak sphincter from old age, hormone-related problems after being spayed, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, some neurological problems, and other abnormalities of the genitalia can all cause your dog to urinate in the house.
  • Medications: If your dog is taking medication, this could cause them to urinate or defecate in the house. If these accidents are being caused by medication, they will quickly resolve when your dog stops this medication.

Before starting any behavior training or medication, have your vet rule out a medical issue.

Other Behavior Problems

It may be very hard to tell if your dog has separation anxiety. Some behavioral problems will be very similar to separation anxiety.

It is important to rule out these behavioral issues first:

  • Submissive or excitement urination: Your dog may urinate when they greet you, are playing, when excited, or when being punished. These dogs will show a submissive posture, such as holding their tail very low, keeping their ear back flat against their head, crouching or rolling over and showing you their belly.
  • Not completely house trained: If your dog occasionally urinates in the house, they may not be completely house trained. Their house training may have been inconsistent, or they may have been afraid to urinate if the owner is watching.
  • Urine marking: Your dog may be urinating in the house because they are marking their territory. These dogs usually mark on vertical surfaces. This is most commonly seen in male dogs who raise their legs to urinate. Usually, neutering these dogs will help stop this unwanted behavior.
  • Juvenile destruction: If your dog is young, they may be more destructive and will chew and dig at things while their owners are home or away.
  • Boredom: If your dog is bored, they will become destructive. Most dogs need some kind of mental stimulation and will be destructive if they have nothing to do when left alone.
  • Excessive barking or howling: Your dog may be barking or howling at unfamiliar sounds. They will bark and howl when you are home or when you are away.

Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Some many signs and symptoms would indicate that your dog has separation anxiety. These include:

  • Urinating and defecating: Your dog may urinate or defecate when they are left alone or separated from you.
  • Barking and howling: If your dog has separation anxiety, they may bark or howl when you leave them alone.
  • Chewing, digging, and destruction: Your dog may be chewing on things such as the door frames or windowsills. They may be digging at the doorways or even destroy things in the house when you are gone. These behaviors can cause harm too. They can break their teeth, cut or scratch their paws and legs or break a toenail.
  • Escaping: If your dog has separation anxiety, they may try to escape when they are left alone. They will dig under fences and try to break through windows and doors. They can cause a lot of self-harm with these behaviors.
  • Pacing: Your dog may be pacing when you leave them. They will most likely move on a specific bath constantly when you leave them.
  • Coprophagy (eating poop): When your dog is left alone, they may poop in the house and then immediately eat their own poop.

All of these behaviors are only done with their owners are away. These behaviors stop when the owners are home.

How to Help Treat Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety

Depending on what is causing your dog’s separation anxiety and how severe it is, there are many different ways that you can help them.

Treatment/Training for Mild Separation Anxiety in Dogs

If your dog only has very mild separation anxiety, counter-conditioning might solve the problem. Counter-conditioning is changing your dog’s fearful, anxious, or aggressive reaction to a more pleasant, relaxed one instead.

This is done by associating the thing that they do not like with something they love. After a little while, your dog will quickly associate being alone with something good like a treat.

To use this type of association with your dog, it is best to use something like a treat. Every time you leave your house, give your dog this treat.

A good thing to try is a KONG toy stuffed with peanut butter. It will take them 20 to 30 minutes to finish this treat. You can even freeze the peanut butter inside the KONG so that it will take longer for them to get it out of the toy.

As soon as you get home, make sure to take the toy away from them so that they only associate getting this when you are gone.

Training/Treatment for Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety

If your dog has moderate or severe cases of separation anxiety, it will require a more complex training method. In these cases, you will have to get your dog used to you being gone gradually.

You will want to leave your house and only be gone for a few seconds then come back inside. Gradually leave your house for a little longer each time until your dog gets used to you being gone for long periods of time. This can take weeks or even months to be able to do fully.

These are steps that you can take to get your dog used to you leaving gradually.

Step One

Image of a Jack Russell dog waiting on a doormat looking anxious as its owners leave home

Some dogs will feel anxious when you’re about to leave. They know you’re putting on your shoes, brushing your teeth or fixing your hair means that you are about to leave. They will start doing things like pacing around the house.

You can teach your dog that when you do these things, it does not mean that you are about to leave.

Do these behaviors many times a day. Pick up the keys, put on your coat and shoes, and sit down at the table or watch TV.

After a little while, your dog will realize that these cues do not necessarily mean that you are about to leave. It may take several weeks or months for your dog to no longer become anxious when you’re getting ready to leave.

Step Two

If your dog is anxious when you’re getting ready just when you leave the house, then you need to start with short trips to help desensitize your dog.

When training your dog, plan for you to be gone shorter than the time it takes for your dog to get upset.

To start, train your dog to sit and stay while you go through a bedroom door and close the door. Teach your dog to sit or lie down on the other side of this door.

Slowly increase the amount of time you wait on the other side of the door, out of your dog’s sight. You can also put on your coat and shoes and then go into the bathroom while your dog sits on the other side of the door.

  • Once your dog is used to this on a bedroom door, switch to using an outside door. Start with the back door then transition to the front door.
  • By this time, you can spend a short time away from your door. Start with only a few seconds and then slowly increase the time that you’re gone. When you have reached a few minutes, you can start giving your dog a food stuffed toy just before you leave.
  • Once your dog has a toy, wait for 5 to 10 minutes before coming back inside. Before you leave again, make sure that your dog is completely calm and relaxed. IF you leave right away, they will still be anxious from the last time that you left and can make their anxiety even worse.
  • Remember to be very calm and quiet when you are going out and coming in. This will lower the difference from when you are there and when you are gone.
  • You will have to decide when your dog is ready for more time. Each dog is different, monitor how they are acting, and when your dog seems like they can handle you being gone for longer periods of time, extend the time that you are gone.
  • It will take a long time to build up to being gone for 40 minutes. Most dog’s anxiety due to your absence will happen during the first 40 minutes. Once your dog hits the 40-minute mark, you can increase your increments by 5 to 15 minutes each time. Once your dog can handle you being going for 90 minutes, they can tolerate 4 to 8 hours.
  • This whole treatment process can be completed in just a few weeks if you can dedicate multiple sessions each day and even the weekend. But usually, this may take a month for your dog to be okay with you being gone.

Not only should you be gradually teaching your dog that you not being home is okay, but also you need to keep all hellos and goodbyes calm. When you leave or come home, just leave your dog along until they are calm and relaxed.

A good way to help them become calm is to ask them to perform learned commands such as sit and stay.

Crate Training Can be Helpful to Reduce Separation Anxiety

Image of a beagle dog in a crate with toys getting trained to not have separation anxiety when its owners leave home

Crate training can be very beneficial for some dogs.

Your dog will learn that a crate is a great place for them to go when they are left alone.

However, crates can cause more stress and anxiety in some dogs. Monitor your dog when you put them in their crate to see if you should use the crate or not.

If your dog starts to show any signs of distress such as heavy panting, salivating, trying to escape, howling or barking, then crating is probably not a good fit for your particular dog. Another option is you can try to confine them to a room behind a baby gate.

Exercise to Help With Separation Anxiety

Image of a woman running with her dog, a way to improve separation anxiety in dogs

If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, it’s best to provide them a lot of physical and mental stimulation. These are vital in treating many behavior problems, especially separation anxiety.

Make sure that you exercise both your dog’s mind and body. This can greatly enrich their life and decrease stress. This can help provide an appropriate outlet for normal behavior.

All this exercise can cause your dog to be both mentally and physically tired. A tired dog does not have any extra energy to spend when they are left alone to destroy the house.

To help keep your dog busy and happy, these are some things that you can try:

  • Let your dog have about 30 minutes of exercise. Take them for a run or a swim every day. If possible, try to do these activities right before you must leave your dog alone. This will help them relax and rest when you’re gone.
  • Play fun and interactive games with your dog, such as fetch or tug-of-war. Tug-of-war is a good indoor game that you can play each morning, especially if the weather isn’t suitable for outside play.
  • Take your dog for a walk every day. Go on a different route around your neighborhood or take them a new location so that they can smell new smells and have different sights.
  • Let your dog play with other dogs or visit a dog park so your dog will have off-leash time that they can spend with some friends.
  • Give your dog a puzzle toy. Many of these toys use food or a treat as a reward. You can even give your dog their meals using these puzzle toys. You can even stuff them peanut butter, cheese, or yogurt.
  • Give your dog many different things to chew on. Puzzle toys and chew sticks encourage chewing and even licking, which has been shown to have a calming effect on many dogs. Monitor them with these things before leaving them alone to make sure that there is nothing that can hurt them.
  • Hide your dog’s food in different locations around your house or back yard. This way, they will spend time during the day hunting for food and not destroying your house.
  • Enroll your dog in training classes. This is a great way to mentally and physically stimulate your dog. You can use many of the tips and tricks to help decrease your dog separation anxiety.
  • Get your dog involved in agility, or dock diving. These are great sport to keep them physically active.

Will Medications Help My Dog’s Separation Anxiety?

Close up image of a person feeding a german shepherd dog a pill for separation anxiety

Before starting any medication or supplement, ask your veterinarian, they know your dog’s other health problems and can help you figure out which one is best for them to take.

Using medication to help your dog with separation anxiety can be very helpful, especially in severe cases. Some dogs are so upset that you have left them alone that the only way to help them cope is with medication. Medication can help make the treatment/training process quicker too.

In rare cases, some dogs with mild separation anxiety can greatly benefit from medication alone without any behavioral training or modification.

Once your dog has become used to being at home alone, you can slowly wean them off the medication. Some dogs, however, will need both medication and training.

Not Leaving Your Dog Alone

While never leaving your dog alone is not always an option, there are many things that you can do to prevent them from having separation anxiety. These are some good options that you can try to avoid leaving your dog at home alone.

  • See if you can take your dog to work with you. Some offices are fine with a dog coming to work, but more often than not, it’s not a logistical possibility.
  • Have a friend or family member come stay with your dog when you’re not there. You can even hire a dog sitter to come when you are not around. Most dogs with separation anxiety are fine if there is someone home — even if it is not you.
  • Bring your dog to a dog sitter’s house or to doggy daycare.
  • If you’re going on a quick errand, your dog may be able to just stay in the car. Only do this if the weather is nice. NEVER leave your dog alone in a hot car. A dog left in a hot car can quickly diet of heatstroke.

Many times, once you have trained your dog that it is okay to be left alone, you will no longer have to bring them with you.

What NOT to Do for Dog’s with Separation Anxiety

If your dog has separation anxiety, do not punish or scold them. These anxious behaviors are not because they are disobedient or spiteful. They are a distress response.

Your dog will display anxious behaviors when they are left alone because they are upset and trying to cope with a lot of stress. If you punish them, they may become even more upset, causing the problem to be even worse.

Final Thoughts on Separation Anxiety in Dogs

There are many reasons that your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. Figuring out what is triggering these responses and trying to fix any underlying conditions.

If the anxiety is due to behavior, your dog can easily be trained to remain calm.

It may take a lot of time and patience, but separation anxiety in dogs can be improved and if you stick with it, your dog will learn that you are going to come home and that they will be okay.