What is Separation Anxiety?
In Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Dr. Karen Overall defines dog separation anxiety as, “A condition in which animals exhibit symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone.” You might recognize the symptoms as any of these:
- Drool, pant, or salivate way more than usual
- Barking, whining, or howling
- Pace, often in an obsessive pattern
- Attempting to escape from the crate or room
- Destroying items in the home
- Scratching at walls, doors, windows or floors
- Chewing up household items
- Urinating and Defecating
Sounds like your pup huh? Don’t worry, we’ve got you, keep reading 🙂
20 years ago, no one had ever heard of separation anxiety in dogs. Today, it is widely known as one of the most common problems we experience with our beloved canines. And sadly, one of the main reasons that end-of-the-rope owners feel forced to give a dog up for adoption. But as the intelligent beings who’ve brought dogs in our homes, it is our responsibility to fix it (and we can!).
Our mission? Put you in touch with the solution: understand how your dog is trying to communicate with you and how to permanently rewire unwanted behavior patterns.
How to Distinguish Between Separation Anxiety and Bad Behavior:
Dogs are really smart. They live in our entirely human worlds, and by necessity have become so finely attuned to our schedules and patterns. So it’s really easy for our dogs to tell when we’re about to shut their world down, separate them from their pack, remove all sources of love. Humans call this leaving the house.
Knowing they’re about to be alone and dreading it, many dogs will do ANYTHING to get your attention. And that includes bad behavior. Because even being reprimanded for it becomes a reward in which they’ve got your attention.
In these cases, the canine behavior has a quality that we in the professional world call “naughtiness”. Just kidding. But you do know it when you see it; they won’t come when you call, they grab your shoe and run into the kitchen, maybe start digging in the yard.
There is not fear behind this behavior, that is the distinction. The remedy here is more training and careful discipline, and it is fairly easy to overcome.
But what if there is fear behind the misbehavior? Your dog might just have a full-blown case of separation anxiety. But that’s ok too, because we’re about to pinpoint the problem.
Other Potential Problems to Rule Out:
Puppies chew things up. Their teeth are coming in and it’s so exciting and delicious to test them on your shoes! This behavior is almost always just age-related and not separation anxiety. Nothing to worry about.
Canines need stimulations like all mammals. If you’ve left them with nothing to do, they’ll find something to do and you probably won’t like their choice nearly as much. If this dog doesn’t seem anxious, it’s probably just boredom/lack of exercise.
Dogs get really excited to greet us, some get too excited and lose control of their bladders. Or maybe pee when you discipline them. To identify if this just excitement/submissive urination, watch for submissive behavior: tucked tail between the legs, flattened ears and lowered head, hunching down low or displaying the belly. In all cases, this behavior is NOT anxiety-related.
Poor House Training
If your dog repeated urinates or defecates in the house, but shows no other signs of anxiety, his symptoms probably indicate an unfinished house training education.
This almost falls under the category of unfinished house training, but I thought I’d give its own to distinguish a dog that’s deliberately urinating because of the need to mark its territory. It’s a slightly different behavior problem, but once again, unlikely related to a fear of being left alone.
Why Do Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?
Dogs are pack animals. In their wild settings––evolutionarily where they’ve spent most of their lives––they are never alone and always stimulated and engaged. Now imagine that creature, living your high-rise apartment and surrounded by none of those natural stimuli? (And in fact, immersed in only the confusing ones of honks and beeps and rings they can’t understand). Their perfect, immediately-adapted behavior to this strange world is a lot for us to ask of them. So it’s up to us, their intelligent, loving guardians, to make that situation as calm and happy as possible.
- Notice: there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that dogs adopted from a shelter are far more prone to separation anxiety than a puppy reared with the same family. It’s believed instability and/or the loss of a significant family member can cause this fear.
So how can we remedy this? Pay the most attention to any changes you make in your life (because your dog is certainly paying attention!). Transitions, schedule changes, any shifts in your normal routine are some of the most common triggers for separation anxiety. Have any of these happened in your household recently?
- Change of Owner:
- Have you just brought a new pup home? From the shelter or breeder? A change in environment or family is a HUGE shift for a dog. Leaving everything they’ve known? It’s no wonder such a radical change can trigger separation anxiety.
- Change of Household
- Moving houses is another common reason. Or perhaps they’ve started going to a boarding facility? Pay attention to any potential change in environment.
- Change in Family Membership
- Did someone new just join the family? A baby or perhaps an elderly relative? Suddenly there’s someone new and they’re taking all the attention away from your dog!
- Change in Routine
- The above are some common examples, but you know your household best. Has there been another change in schedule or structure, such as the loss of a family member or other pet that might cause this new anxiety?
- Boredom and a lack of exercise
- Sometimes it can simply be boredom. Dogs need stimulation and excitement just like we do. Imagine how you’d feel left in a house with nothing to do for 8 hours. You might be tempted to start some trouble too!
- Being left alone for the first time
- If you’ve got a new dog and leave for the first time, they’re probably going to be confused and unhappy, display all the symptoms we’ve talked about. In this case, it’s important to nip this behavior in the bud before it develops into full-blown paranoia.
- Suffering a Traumatic Event
- A singular traumatic event where your dog is shocked or really afraid can also be a cause. Can you think of anything? Perhaps an unmonitored new time at a shelter or boarding kennel? This can be the trigger if you notice a radical change in behavior.
An important note: Dog separation anxiety is often unknowingly supported by owners. When we make a big show of leaving or arriving, we surround the event with a ton of charged emotion. This encourages our dog to be concerned too (since we’re clearly so excited for some reason!!!!) and thus creates stress around the whole structure of departure/arrival.
How to Treat Separation Anxiety in Dogs:
There are a lot of ways to begin working with your dog’s anxiety, ranging from easy solutions to more difficult work. We’ll begin with the easy solutions––because who doesn’t love an easy solution––try these first before moving into the more intensive ones.
Here’s an easy tip straight from our friend Cesar Milan: Stay Calm and Assertive
When it’s time to leave the house, don’t surround the event with a ton of emotion. Weeping, kissing, saying goodbye, excessive cuddles are all great things in their time and place, but not when you depart. Don’t exude guilt or sadness, instead, project the calm-assertive energy of an owner who is completely in control of the situation and has a plan of action. This reassures your dog that everything is happening as it should be and there is no reason to fear. You set the vibe, they listen.
Get ’em some exercise before work!
This is a great one for all parties actually. I won’t cite any studies for the importance of exercise because at this point we don’t need science to confirm such an integral part of mammalian happiness, but a tired dog is much likelier to avoid trouble than an energetic one. End sessions 15-20 minutes before you leave so they have time to wind down. This training creates a pattern of reward/happiness around your departure because they can recognize they get to go play before! And perhaps even, that we are paying enough attention to consider them as part of our day.
Create a space of fun and safety:
- Dedicate a room, enclosed yard spot, or perhaps a crate, to be HIS space when you’re gone. There is safety in rituals and routines for dogs; they LOVE consistency.
- Pro Tip: A laundry room is usually almost already dog-proofed and easy to convert.
- Make sure they have ample access to food and water (and ideally, access to a place to relieve themselves).
- Leave some of your clothing in the space to remind him of your presence. Our friends at Adaptil also make great calming pheromones for dogs left alone.
- Stimulate his mind! There are tons of great puzzling toys out there intended for dogs at home. We love a well-stuffed Kong.
- Shameless plug because how could I not: leave Through a Dog’s Ear music playing. It’s clinically demonstrated to relieve separation anxiety and is a beautifully calming part of your exit routine. I suggest starting the music when you’re home together––it works on humans too––then peacefully make your departure after your dog has laid down for a snooze.
Want more on crate training? Here’s our favorite YouTube on it:
Explore Creative Solutions:
Do you have a friendly elderly neighbor that could come let your pup out early? Perhaps a neighbor dog that gets along with yours could be kept in the same space. A friend who’s having the same problem could perhaps fix yours! Two dogs, one stone 😉 You’ll have to get creative here because it’s so situationally dependent, but your pup will thank you. They’re pack creatures and always have more fun with another packmate around. And of course, you can always pay to board them/find a doggie daycare.
Herbal and Homeopathic Medicine:
Drugs only ever mask the problem and not treat the solution. Plus who wants to be paying for gallons of CBD dog treats the rest of their life? Not me. That being said, many do find temporary relief with a lot of these options, and in combination with a calm training protocol, they can have a positive effect in temporarily assisting tranquility. If you think this would be a helpful part of your regimen, we recommend our friends over at Honest Paws.
I’m sure you’ve noticed already, but all of these options are about creating new patterns. Conditioning is the technical term for this work, and there are varying degrees of difficulty and strategy that may be needed, depending on the degree of canine separation anxiety. For your ease, I’ll start with the simplest before moving into our two-day intensive program.
Establish a word or action
Create a pattern that becomes their new routine and tells your dog you’ll be back. When you authoritatively create routines, your pup takes on the same confidence, such as knowing he can be left alone, because he knows you’ll come back and trusts your leadership.
- Choosing a word: Create a keyword or phrase that your pup associates with your calm, unemotional departure. Remember: dogs don’t understand language, but they do understand your energy communicated through words. Make sure your phrase conveys the tone you want. I would probably say “Goodbye Yara. I’ll be home after work.”
Mix Up Your Patterns
Dogs are smart. They are constantly studying all of our behaviors, actions, and routines. If you always put on your shoes right before you leave the house for the day, the shoes tell your pup that you are leaving. If picking up your car keys is always a precursor to leaving, your dog may start to panic just at the sight of your keys. Start mixing up your routine. Pick up your keys and start cooking dinner. Put on your shoes and walk to your computer. Do the opposite and put on your shoes, open the door, but don’t leave. The idea is to keep your pup guessing so that he starts to unscramble the patterns you’ve already set in place. This stops his anxiety from building to a fever pitch when he sees the first cue in the departure sequence. Humans are creatures of habit too, so it can be difficult, but think of it as a fun chance to try some variance in your life. Certified Professional Dog Trainer and behavior specialist Nicole Wilde calls it “The Faux Go”. In her book, Don’t Leave Me! she says, “You’ll be teaching your dog that the door opening and you walking out is nothing to worry about.”
If you are training a new puppy or dog that hasn’t been left before, start practicing this method with very short departures initially. Think stepping out to get groceries. If all goes well, start increasing your time, little by little. A human minute may equal a dog hour, so take puppy steps when increasing your time away incrementally.
- Training Tip: Want a protocol that walks you through it? Separation Anxiety training protocol by famed dog trainer Victoria Stilwell can be found here.
Try House Training Your Dog
Spend time training around the house. Show your dog how to behave in simple daily routines. Little increments and minutes, anything can be an opportunity for training. Instead of just going for a walk, ask him to sit at stopwalks, lay down when you’re having a coffee outside at Starbucks, wait for your OK to greet new people and dogs. Train your dog to sit and wait to be greeted by guests, move aside when you go to the refrigerator, and go to the bathroom on cue. Establishing these routines––and of course rewarding good behavior––helps create new patterns for house behavior that gives them strong guidelines, discipline, and confidence. Dogs want to be good and please us, we just have to show them how.
Have you tried it all?? Then it’s time to dive into our reconditioning program:
9 Steps, 1 weekend
1. Dedicate two, or even three days in severe cases, to having some time you can spend uninterrupted with your dog. (I know, I know, you’re busy and who has two days for a dog?? You do. Because the reward is a lovely balanced dog that fills your house with so much love. Best investment ever).
2. Prepare their den: this looks like a crate, or outdoor pen, or a dog-proofed room like the laundry room example.
3. Give your pup a chance to take care of any bodily functions outside, and then reenter the house together for 30 minutes of calm and close supervision. Introduce him to his beautiful new den with a happy vocal tone, treats, soft Through a Dog’s Ear playing, a stuffed KONG toy, good scents, and your clothing in it. Guide him inside and stay in the room.
4. Initially, stay close and attentive, but not lasered on all his moves. Read a book, check Instagram. Ignore any whining or fussiness. When he finally falls quiet, go over and calmly say hello, give affection. Then go back to your activity. Repeat many times: reward his behavior when he’s silent and not begging for attention. You’re teaching him that whining is not a rewarded behavior, and that you leave and return according to your own timeframe. He begins to understand: if you leave, you will return. During this time, it should only be you two. He needs to learn that its ok to be alone.
5. Now, begin to step away, gradually increasing the distance between you. Leave the room and come back when he’s quiet. Go outside and return again under the same conditions (if you can fit this around your actual lived schedule and doing things, extra credit to you!). Eventually, you can wander around the house without upsetting your dog. He’s not finely tuned to your moves because he’s learning its random and not based on any behavior pattern of his. Therefore, he can’t make you react/come when he’s lonely. Every reentrance, greet him calmly and with love. Reward and tell your dog how good he is.
6. After an hour or so, take a break. Go outside for a pee and play time. Chase each other around and have some relaxed, untrained fun. Then go back inside and resume den training, following steps 4 and 5. This step is important because it clarifies the difference between training and play. He needs to know the difference between unstructured free time and disciplined work.
7. Day two. Continue to repeat steps 4 and 5 from the first day, but a little faster and with more distance this time. Follow your own intuition in determining length. Start to live your life, do chores around the house, but be sure to pop in frequently when he’s quiet and reward the good behavior. Dogs are smart and will very quickly learn they only get rewarded when they’re quiet and calm.
8. Keep increasing your distance. On day three or four, if he’s taking to the training well, try and step outside of the house. For short amounts of time initially. Return after 5 minutes and greet your dog, if he is quiet. You may lose a little momentum here as they are going to be more excited about your reentrance. But wait for quiet, then reward. It’s usually the ﬁrst 20 minutes of separation that are most difﬁcult. If it’s going well, continue varying times and distances. Remember to mix up the times so he doesn’t start anticipating your return. And of course plenty of outside breaks: young puppies will need every hour, older dogs can go for 3-4 hours, but try for more breaks during this training.
9. How’s it going? Are you stuck on some of these steps? If it’s not taking, you may have to spend longer amounts of time in each stage. Every dog is different and your own intuition will be the best guide for determining how long your dog needs in each stage. If you’re making absolutely no progress and your dog is freaking out, you just might need the personal help of a trained professional. But if it is going well, begin to live your life more normally, checking in and continuing to reward as often as possible with a modern schedule. Your dog, your family, and your clean rugs will thank you for this hard work in the long run. Cheers to you two! You just graduated separation anxiety academy!
Has your dog experienced separation anxiety? What have you found to help? Sharing your experiences in a comment below so I can improve this guide. Thanks for reading and sharing!