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Treating Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is an enormous problem for pets. The National Institutes of Health reported that pre-pandemic, about 20 percent of dogs experienced separation anxiety — and that incidence is likely higher now that pet parents have returned to in-person jobs.

What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?

Pets with separation anxiety typically exhibit distress and behavioral problems when they’re left alone. Ironically, it is a major reason that dogs end up in animal shelters.

Separation anxiety may manifest itself in:

If most, or all, of the following statements, are true about your dog, they may have a separation anxiety problem:

  • The behavior occurs primarily when your dog is left alone — for both short or long periods — and typically begins soon after you leave.
  • Your dog follows you from room to room whenever you’re home.
  • Your dog displays effusive, frantic greeting behaviors.
  • Your dog reacts with excitement, depression, or anxiety to your preparations to leave the house.

What triggers separation anxiety?

Triggers for separation anxiety may include:

  • When a pet who previously received constant human companionship is left alone for the first time.
  • When there is a change in the family’s routine.
  • Traumatic events that affect humans, such as the loss of a family member or another pet.
  • Other events, such as time at a shelter or kennel, or even a visit to the vet’s office.

How to treat the problem

When treating separation anxiety in dogs, the goal is to resolve your pup’s underlying anxiety by teaching them to not fear, or at least to tolerate, being left alone. The whole family needs to be involved in treatment because there will be a lot of training involved and each member of the family needs to be on the same page. Remember, your dog is truly panicking and not being spiteful or mean. Revenge isn’t on your pet’s agenda!

Treating separation anxiety can be a very difficult and time-consuming. Here are some steps to help you along:

Check with your vet

The first step is to discuss the situation with your veterinarian and have your pet undergo a complete physical examination. It is important to rule out any underlying physical problems that may be causing this behavior.

Keep your dog company

Avoid leaving your dog home alone. Make use of a dog daycare, a boarding facility, or a pet sitter. Leave your dog with a friend, family member, or neighbor when you’re away. Take your dog to work with you, if possible.

Offer a special treat

Every time you leave the house, offer your dog a favorite chew, treat, or toy. Be sure to remove these special toys as soon as you return home so that your dog only has access to them when they are alone. They will soon learn to associate your absence with a good thing.

Spice up your dog’s environment

Try leaving a radio or television on, as soothing music or talk can be quite comforting to dogs. Some pets may be less anxious with another animal in the house, so consider adopting a playmate.

Increase playtime

Exercising your pet’s mind and body can greatly enrich their life, decrease stress and provide appropriate outlets for normal behavior. Additionally, a physically and mentally tired dog doesn’t have much excess energy to expend when left alone. Take your dog outside for a long walk or to play a rowdy game of fetch before you go!

Teach independence

Teach your dog how to stay on their bed or a special rug and practice in-home separations. The goal is for your dog to stay a few inches away from you and gradually work up to several feet. The “stay” command should only last a few seconds at first but you can work up to several minutes before releasing your dog and giving them a special treat. This is something you can practice while you’re getting ready for work in the morning.

Reinforce good behavior

Don’t make a big deal about your departure or arrival. As tough as it may be when your pet begs for attention, ignore them for 15 minutes before leaving and after arriving home. Not comforting your pet until they have calmed down will help reinforce good behavior and teach them that your coming and going is no big deal.

Help your pet get used to your departing behaviors

On days you do not go to work, go through the normal workday routines of getting ready, but don’t leave the house. This will help your dog learn not to react to the behavior. Try rattling your keys but don’t get up to leave. And when your dog stops reacting to this behavior, try rattling your keys and walking to the door, but don’t leave the house. Work up to being able to do all these behaviors without your dog reacting.

Plan gradual departures

Do not try this on a work day but rather on a weekend. Pretend you are getting ready for work (go through your normal routine) and leave for a few seconds. When your dog doesn’t react, increase the time you’re away to one minute, then two minutes, then three minutes, etc. Work your way up to leaving your dog for longer periods of time, but go very slowly.

Consider medications

There are over-the-counter calming products that may reduce fearfulness in pets, but dogs that are severely distraught by any separation from their pet parents may require prescription anti-anxiety medication. Speak with your veterinarian about this option. A good anti-anxiety drug shouldn’t sedate your pet, but simply reduce their overall anxiety.

Call in the professionals

Tried it all and still come home to shredded curtains? It’s time to consult a behavioral specialist or trainer for assistance in resolving your dog’s issues.

What won’t help separation anxiety

Remember that the destruction of your home that often occurs with separation anxiety isn’t your pet’s way of seeking revenge for being left alone; it’s part of a panicked response. Therefore, punishment isn’t effective for treating separation anxiety and can even make the situation worse.

If your dog becomes anxious inside a crate, they may urinate, defecate, howl, or even injure themself in an attempt to escape. If you must confine your dog, consider a “safe place” — a dog room with a window and distractions — instead of a crate.

While obedience training is always a good idea, separation anxiety in dogs is not the result of disobedience or lack of training, so it probably won’t help this particular problem.

Note that treatment of separation anxiety is a highly individualized process because each animal has a different level of anxiety and unique coping mechanisms. For most dogs, separation anxiety gets worse as time goes on, so if you have started to see the telltale signs, begin treating them as soon as possible. It will be better for everyone in the long run!


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