Written by Ella White
Medically approved by Cathy Piche BA, RVT, CCRP
Written by Ella White
Medically approved by Cathy Piche BA, RVT, CCRP
When training your dog to be well behaved at home, it’s likely that they’ll whine and howl, bark, chew, and possibly defecate. These disruptive behaviours are designed to get our attention and can be caused by their distress at being left alone for the first few times. But if these common destructive traits don’t fade out over time, it could be a sign your dog is struggling with anxiety rather than just struggling with training.
Separation anxiety is usually displayed as the dog’s humans are getting ready to leave the house. So it’s not the case the dog simply cries until their owners arrive home and therefore they won’t know there’s an issue. More commonly, anxiety presents itself as the aforementioned signs of distress accompanied by drooling, pacing, and other extreme, stress-related behaviours.
Separation anxiety is triggered when a dog’s owner leaves their pet alone for any amount of time. It doesn’t have to be full days home alone – for some dogs, a simple trip to the shop or even into another room can result in stress. The attachment to their owners can lead to potentially dangerous escape attempts, agitation, and loud disruptive behaviour. This usually begins within minutes of their guardian leaving and can last for the full period of their absence.
This is distressing for the dog, for the owner who knows their furry friend is suffering, and for anyone else who can hear or see the dog’s anxiety and is unable to help. By training your dog out of their separation anxiety, the goal is to help them enjoy being alone and to limit any experiences that might exacerbate their stress.
There are both common and less common symptoms that your dog will display if they’re suffering with separation anxiety. Often, these symptoms might be combined. Here are some of the top indicators of separation anxiety to look out for:
When left alone or separated from their owners some dogs urinate or defecate where they shouldn’t. If a toilet trained dog urinates or defecates in the house when they know not to it could be a sign they’ve lost control or are acting out to get the attention of their owners. However, if they defecate in the wrong place when their owner is around it’s likely that the issue is caused by something other than separation anxiety.
Coprophagia, when a dog consumes their own excrement, is also an extreme and distressing symptom of separation anxiety.
Persistent howling and barking is a common sign of separation anxiety. In extreme cases it can start while the dog’s owner is getting ready to leave and can continue until they return. If your dog often barks and howls when they aren’t left alone, different kinds of stress, anxiety, or pain should be investigated.
Separation anxiety can cause some dogs to excessively chew on objects like door frames, dig at doors and openings, and destroy household objects whenever they’re left alone or if their owner leaves the room. Not only are these behaviours annoying for owners, but they can result in injury for the dog too. Broken teeth, damaged claws, and scraped paws can all be caused by destructive behaviour.
If a dog with separation anxiety is confined to a room or crate, their distress might lead to them trying to escape to find their owner. This can present as digging and chewing and can result in the same injuries as the aforementioned destructive behaviours.
Pacing is a sign of distress, so if your dog follows a specific path or pattern, turns in circles, or walks back and forward in straight lines when separated from their guardian it could be their way of dealing with the stress of separation anxiety. However, if this happens when you’re around it could be their anxiety is caused by a different trigger.
There are no definitive reasons for a dog developing separation anxiety. However, it’s more likely to occur in rescue dogs or those adopted from shelters. This is because they’ve often come from distressing backgrounds and had traumatising experiences.
Similarly, some dogs that were born during Covid-19 lockdowns developed separation anxiety due to the extended periods their owners spent at home during their development. Though it’s less likely in dogs that have been with their families since puppyhood, some drastic changes can also cause stress that leads to separation anxiety.
If a dog is abandoned or given to a shelter or new home, the shock and stress can trigger separation anxiety. Similarly, a member of the household suddenly leaving due to death or moving can have the same effect.
If the length of time your dog is left alone suddenly changes, this can trigger separation anxiety, even in dogs that were otherwise well house trained. Covid-19 lockdown dogs are an example of this kind of trigger. Their owners worked from home or stayed in the house for months and then suddenly were out for long periods throughout the day when their offices reopened. This caused separation anxiety in both new pets and older dogs that had grown happily accustomed to their humans being at home more.
Moving to a new home or temporarily being in a new location can cause separation anxiety in dogs that were otherwise used to being left alone. Hopefully, this can be cured as they grow used to their new surroundings and begin to feel safer there.
Though separation anxiety might seem like an obvious answer to your dog’s distress, there are some other medical and environmental problems that might result in the same symptoms. These are some of the issues to consider that can present in similar ways to separation anxiety
In mild cases, dogs with separation anxiety can benefit from counter-conditioning training that reverses its fearful or anxious reactions into a more relaxed response. This can be done through positive reinforcements and associations that will help your dog feel calmer when they’re left alone.
This can be achieved by offering your dog something it likes, like a big treat or a toy, whenever you leave the house. Creating positive associations and distractions will help dogs with a mild case of separation anxiety – like puppies who are getting used to being left alone or dogs getting used to new settings – feel more relaxed and happy.
Supplements like Front of the Pack’s Harmony can also help dogs with mild to moderate separation anxiety overcome their fears. It’s made with ashwagandha that regulates cortisol and supports healthy stress responses, L-theanine that balances the brain chemicals for a state of calm, and Relora that cuts off anxiety at the source and relieves nerves. The results of one pouch of Harmony can be seen within 90 minutes.
As well as counter-conditioning, desensitisation training can be effective for dogs with moderate cases of separation anxiety. The dog will need to be gradually accustomed to being left alone for a short time. This will help them get used to the experience, and the separations can become longer over a number of weeks.
This kind of training is complex and will vary from one dog to the next. Fear can cause all your hard work to backfire so it’s important that your training is reactive based on your dog’s responses. In this situation, it’s advised that a professional trainer is hired to help your dog work through their separation anxiety.
Severe separation anxiety can be upsetting for both owners and dogs. So it’s crucial that your dog is gradually accustomed to being left alone for very short periods of time. Through daily sessions you should be able to eventually increase the time they’re left alone. If you want to try training your dog yourself before calling in the help of an expert, here are some steps that could help a very anxious dog feel more calm during separation from their owner.
As some dogs begin to feel anxious when they know their owner is getting ready to leave, it can help to teach them that every time you pick up your bag, coat or keys, for example, does not mean you're leaving. Helping them disassociate the link between your leaving ritual and their anxiety is a first step to helping them feel calmer when you eventually do leave the house. If your dog is very used to your departure cues meaning you leave the house for varied lengths of time, this training can take weeks but it’s worth it for their sense of calm.
Once your dog stops displaying symptoms of separation anxiety when you start to get ready, you can begin leaving them alone for very short periods. At first these absences must be shorter than the amount of time it takes for your dog to become distressed. So you might need to start in the home, for example while you use the bathroom and close the door encouraging them to stay on the other side.
Eventually you can increase the length of time that you’re on the other side of the door. Then move to the exit door to practise this same cue. Begin with absences that are only a few seconds long. As the time increases, introduce a counterconditioning toy or treat to distract them and let them know they’re safe.
It’s important to make sure your dog is relaxed when you reach the point of leaving. So if your dog becomes very distressed after just a few seconds of absence you will need to wait until they’re totally calm before practising again. Be calm and quiet yourself so they don’t pick up on your excitement and feel encouraged by it.
Subjecting your dog to absences that are too long can make the problem worse. So it’s important to start small and graduate very slowly so as not to reverse the process. Spend weeks building up to absences of around 40 minutes. It’s within this time that they will display anxious responses. When they can be alone comfortably for 90 minutes, they can probably handle between 4 and 6 hours.
For best results, conduct this kind of training several times a day on the weekends and twice a day during the work week, ideally before leaving for work and in the evenings.
Your greetings when saying goodbye and hello to your dog should always be calm and low-key. A simple pat on the head will do the job, and when you return home say hello but don’t make attempts to play with your dog or shower them with attention. Wait until they’re calm, then resume your normal interactions. It could help to distract them with other behavioural cues like ‘sit’ or ‘lie down’.
One of the most important factors in anxiety training is not to expose your dog to whatever causes them fear. But when their fear is your leaving, it can be near impossible not to expose them to this stress. If for whatever reason you aren’t able to carry out your full training, or need to leave your dog before training is complete, it can put the progress back a few steps.
But since life can’t stop because your dog has separation anxiety, there are some options that might help them deal better with the circumstance:
Crate training can be a useful starting point for anxious dogs, as it gives them a safe space to spend time in when you’re out. Similarly, ensuring that your dog is mentally and physically stimulated reduces all kinds of stress and means your dog is less likely to have excess energy to burn being destructive while you’re gone – they might even sleep!
Puzzle toys can also help give your dog something to do while you’re out, and distract them for a while. But if the issue persists, seeing a therapist or vet about further training and medication could be the best option. Anti-anxiety medication can help your dog tolerate being left alone for short times and could help progress your training more quickly.
Behavioural training and therapy with a professional can help tackle physical and mental issues the average dog owner might be ill-equipped to help their pet overcome. There’s no shame in seeking external support when it comes to helping your dog move past their fears.
Never punish your dog or tell them off for their separation anxiety. They aren’t being disobedient, they’re distressed. So distressing them further will only exacerbate the issue.
With emotional support, supplements, training, and professional training, even the most anxious dogs have been known to overcome the fear of separation. So good luck, and don’t give up!