Is your dog freaking out every time you leave and return back home? Perhaps you come home to overturned furniture, scratch marks on the doors, and a note from your neighbor that your dog has been barking for hours? When this happens, it can be heartbreaking. You may be wondering if your dog has separation anxiety.
Many dogs experience anxiety in one form or another. The best solution for separation anxiety depends largely on your dog’s specific situation and triggers. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and triggers of separation anxiety may help you come up with a solution.
Info For Pet Parents: What Is Separation Anxiety In Dogs And What Are Some Potential Signs?
Separation anxiety goes beyond the occasional whimper or misadventure when you are away from the home. It’s an affliction that can be severely stressful for your dog when they are left alone.
If your dog exhibits some of these behavior problems when you are away, they may be suffering from separation anxiety:
- Excessive barking or howling when left alone
- Destructive behavior, like chewing clothing, furniture, or other items around the house
- Frantic scratching on the doors or windows in an apparent attempt to escape
- Pet ‘accidents’– urinating or defecating inside your home when the dog is otherwise potty-trained
- Noticeably increased salivation, drooling, or panting (this may be a sign of stress)
- Intense pacing
- Anxiously following a pet parent from room to room when they’re preparing to leave
- Hectic over-excitement when the pet parent comes home1,2
In dogs with separation anxiety, these symptoms will occur every time the owner leaves them alone. They may even begin when you start your typical “leaving routine” like grabbing your purse, your keys, and putting shoes on.
What Might Cause Separation Anxiety?
Experts don’t fully understand why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety while others don’t. Certain scenarios may trigger separation anxiety, including:
- Being left alone for the first time
- A change in family dynamics or moving in with a new family
- Moving from a shelter to a home
- A change in routine or schedule
- Loss of a close family member3
Watch Out: These Things May Look Like Separation Anxiety But They May Be Something Different
Solving an issue like separation anxiety requires that you understand what problem you are trying to solve. It is entirely possible for a dog’s behavior to look like separation anxiety, but to actually be something else.
Here are some common symptoms that may be caused by other issues. When in doubt, speak with your veterinarian, a professional dog trainer, or an animal behaviorist.
- Soiling the house may be separation anxiety. It may also happen when a dog isn’t fully potty trained or they are left alone to “hold it” for too long. It may also be caused by fear, excitement, marking, submissive elimination, or physical incontinence (in senior dogs).
- Destructive behavior may be separation anxiety, or it may be normal untrained puppy activity, play, and/or an outlet for excess energy. It may also be associated with noise anxiety if there are loud noises like fireworks, construction, or thunderstorms.
- Excessive barking and howling may be separation anxiety. It may also be a reaction to noises outside, a noise phobia, play, aggression, fear, or a reaction to something that is bothering or hurting the dog. Older dogs may also bark when they feel disoriented.
- Heavy breathing and panting may be separation anxiety or it may be caused by hormones, heat, or other external stimuli.4,5
How Can You Help A Dog Who Suffers From Separation Anxiety?
When dealing with a dog who has separation anxiety issues, it’s helpful to remember that your dog’s behaviors are part of a panic response. By chewing up your house, your dog isn’t trying to punish you or teach you a lesson. They are being driven by fear, stress, and anxiety, and they want you to come home.6
With that in mind, try to be patient and avoid yelling or punishing a dog who is already under stress. It is more kind and effective to treat the underlying problem than to punish the symptoms of the problem. Here are some things you can try:
If you have a “velcro dog” who follows you from room to room while you are home, you may have to start asking for some personal space. You love your dog, of course, but you need them to be independent for their own mental health. Try this:
- Ask your dog to lie down and “stay.”
- If their stay is not strong yet, start with only a couple of seconds, and slowly work your way up to a minute or more.
- Once their stay is strong, practice leaving the room while your dog is in a “stay.” Come back and reward your dog with treats and praise before they get up.
- Practice asking your dog to “stay” and leaving the room often and for varying amounts of time while you are home.7
- Reward your dog when they make themselves comfortable in a different room. Calmly and quietly place a treat like a bully stick or a peanut butter-filled Kong next to your dog and walk away.
If your dog is not solid on basic obedience training, go back and make sure your pup knows sit, down, stay, come, and leave it. Training will help your dog build confidence, which will help them overcome dog anxiety.8
If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, they may be conditioned to go into stress-mode as soon as you leave them alone. To counter this, you may be able to condition your dog to believe that separation has its rewards. This involves helping your dog make positive associations with things that typically stress them out. Try:
- Leaving them a special treat that they only get when they are alone.
- Leaving small treats around the house for them to discover while you are gone.
- For puppies, start crate training early, and use plenty of rewards so your pup learns to be alone.9
Try to notice any actions that trigger your pup’s anxiety, like picking up your keys or closing your front door. Practice doing these small actions over and over, but give your dog a treat each time instead of leaving the house. You’ll want to practice this when you aren’t in a rush or heading out the door. A professional dog trainer can help you with conditioning.
Change Your Routine
Help your pup break their stress response by changing up your “leaving routine.” Practice picking up your purse or backpack, keys, and phone, and then sit back down on the couch. Eventually, your dog will learn to disassociate these behaviors with your departure.
It may also help your dog if you remain calm when you leave and when you arrive back home. When you’re getting ready to leave, ignore your dog and quietly walk out the door. When you return, ignore your dog for up to 15 minutes and then calmly pet them after they’ve settled down.10
There are plenty of natural, safe anxiety remedies you can try. These should be tried in conjunction with training efforts as they mostly treat the symptoms, not the underlying problem. Always consult your vet before you start any new remedy for your dog, natural or not. Here are a few ideas:
- Probiotics may support the balance of bacteria in your dog’s gut as well as their mood.11
- Herbs like chamomile, valerian, and St. John’s Wort can act as mild sedatives that might help to relax your dog.12
- Essential oils like lavender, cedarwood, and frankincense may help dogs calm down.13
- Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is a synthetic chemical that mimics the hormone produced by female lactating dogs. You can put this in a diffuser to help your pup relax.14
There Is Hope For Your Dog
Bottom line: if your dog freaks out when you leave, they may be suffering from separation anxiety. You can help your dog overcome this. As soon as you notice worrisome symptoms, try conditioning training or call an experienced trainer to help. This can be an emotional experience for your pup, so remember to guide them with love and respect as you get through this together.
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