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Separation anxiety in dogs is fairly common, but if it’s severe enough, it can really disrupt your life as well as your dog’s. In this article, we’ll cover how to recognize separation anxiety and what to do about it.
Symptoms of separation anxiety
A dog with separation anxiety will exhibit symptoms of stress when they’re left alone. Some of the most common symptoms of separation anxiety are:
- Scratching at doors
- Destructive chewing
- Whining, howling or barking
- Urinating or defecating indoors (in dogs that are otherwise house-trained)
- Escaping or attempts to escape
- Pacing back and forth
Behavior that is not separation anxiety
Some symptoms of separation anxiety overlap with other behavior issues. Keep in mind that the symptoms of separation anxiety are specific to being left alone, so if your dog is exhibiting any of the behaviors listed below while you’re home, the problem isn’t separation anxiety.
- Boredom: A dog who is bored may exhibit destructive chewing, whining or other symptoms that may look similar to separation anxiety. But a dog who is bored will likely do this while you are home (although they might also do it when you’re gone). If you suspect your dog might be bored, try increasing the amount of exercise they get each day, and give them toys that promote mental stimulation, like food puzzles.
- Potty training: A puppy or dog who is not fully potty trained may have accidents in the house. Although indoor urination or defecation can be a symptom of separation anxiety, that is only true if the dog is otherwise fully house-trained. It’s common for a puppy or a dog who is new to your household to have accidents, and it does not indicate separation anxiety, but the need for more training.
- Other puppy behavior: Puppies may exhibit myriad other behaviors that don’t necessarily indicate separation anxiety, but may be indicative of the need for more training (e.g. scratching at doors or chewing on things that aren’t toys).
Why do dogs get separation anxiety?
We don’t have any conclusive evidence that tells us why some dogs get separation anxiety, while others don’t. It does not appear to be related to breed. However, dogs who are adopted from shelters suffer from separation anxiety more than dogs who have been kept by the same family since puppyhood. For this reason, we think separation anxiety may be tied to the dog losing an important person, or group of people, earlier in their life. (However, it could also be that people relinquish dogs with severe separation anxiety to shelters more often, and that is why the behavior appears more common in shelter dogs.)
There are also other, more minor triggers that can cause separation anxiety. These include a change in schedule, a change of residence, or the sudden absence of a household member (such as a family member who died or moved away).
How to help with separation anxiety
- Thundershirts or other “anxiety wraps”: Some dogs find these soothing for various types of anxiety. Although they are used more for situational anxiety (like fireworks or thunderstorms), they are sometimes used for separation anxiety as well.Thundershirts (and other anxiety wraps) apply a constant, mild pressure to the dog’s torso, similar to swaddling a baby. Some dogs are soothed by these, while others aren’t. It’s difficult to know ahead of time whether it will be effective for your dog, but you can always make a DIY anxiety wrap first to see how your dog responds.
- Anti-anxiety dog beds: It’s tough to definitively say whether these beds will help with separation anxiety, as no studies have looked into the question, but they may prove useful for dogs who sleep in a different room than you and experience separation anxiety overnight. These are also a low-risk purchase (besides the cost) since they are not going to have an adverse affect on your dog’s anxiety or health.There are several types of dog beds that might help dogs with separation anxiety by providing them with comfort:
- Bolsters, which are raised edges that run along the side of a bed (these are ideal for dogs who like to rest their head on raised surfaces when they are laying down)
- Burrow beds, also called “cave-style” beds, which are similar to a sleeping bag and are ideal for dogs who feel safest under blankets
- Donut-shaped fuzzy beds that are soft, fluffy and cozy and ideal for dogs who love soft surfaces.
- Dog calming sprays: Calming sprays use calming pheromones to help soothe stressed out dogs (or cats). You just spray (or use a diffuser) in the room that your dog is in. But do they work? It’s tough to say. Most of the published research has been done on Feliway (cat pheromones) and D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone). In several studies, both of these products appeared to help soothe stressed pets, at least under some circumstances. But it’s important to know that most of these studies were funded by the products’ maker.
- Calming treats for dogs: Many different “calming treats” are available these days. Calming treats may contain many different ingredients, from herbs to melatonin to CBD. (Note: CBD treats are becoming increasingly popular, and some dog parents report that they find them effective. However, at this time, there are no FDA-approved CBD products for pets. Keep this in mind and exercise caution when purchasing CBD products.) Calming treats are another product whose efficacy is not very well proven. If they do work for your dog, bear in mind that you will still need to use them in combination with behavior modification training.
- Dog separation anxiety training: Ultimately, you will want to help your dog feel better about the act of you leaving. This is done using counterconditioning, which means changing the dog’s association with an event (or object, person etc). The process will look different depending how severe your dog’s separation anxiety is. The ASPCA has a helpful article that outlines counterconditioning for separation anxiety. In moderate to severe cases, you will want to find a trainer to help you. The AKC has a helpful guide to finding a qualified trainer.
- Anti-anxiety medication for dogs: Prescription medication can be an effective avenue for dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety. (Over-the-counter medication will not be enough for dogs with separation anxiety of this magnitude.) It’s important to talk to your vet about it first, and to keep in mind that medication must be used in combination with behavior modification training. If used correctly, medication can greatly help your dog to feel less stressed, and therefore be able to undergo behavior modification training. For more in-depth information, check out our article When And How to Think About Medication for Anxious Dogs.
What not to do for separation anxiety
- Punishment: Never punish your dog for separation anxiety. Your dog is not acting anxious out of “disobedience,” but out of distress. If your dog has separation anxiety, they are in a state of stress. Punishment will only upset them further and can make the problem worse.
- Getting another dog: This may sound like a good idea, but getting another dog usually doesn’t work, because your dog’s separation anxiety is related to being separated from you specifically (not being alone in general).
- Crating (in most cases): In most cases of moderate to severe separation anxiety, a crate is not advisable. Malena DeMartini-Price, a leading expert on separation anxiety in dogs, told Sniffspot that too often, a crate solves the problem for the human, but not for the dog: “What I often see is when the dog is stressed and destroying or escaping the crate, people just get a stronger crate…now the dog can’t escape and the people don’t see any damage, but the dog is still stressed and the problem is absolutely still there for the dog.”
Separation anxiety can be frustrating, but with training and a dose of patience, you can help your dog manage their separation anxiety and live a happier life.
Trainer Review of this Article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Owner – Dog’s Day Out, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Licensed AKC CGC Evaluator
NW Coordinator, Doggone Safe