Separation Anxiety in Dogs: A Comprehensive Guide

Grey haired dog sitting and looking out the window for its owner

Separation anxiety in dogs is a relatively common condition. Between 20 and 40 percent of dogs suffer from the disorder. If you’re living with one of these pups, you know all too well the stress it causes dogs and pet parents alike. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many vets expect an increase in pets’ separation anxiety as pet parents return to work and leave pets alone at home again. Now more than ever, it’s essential to understand what separation anxiety looks like and how you can help your pup if they fear being left alone. Below, we discuss what symptoms you should watch for and how to ease some of their anxiety.

How to Recognize Separation Anxiety in Your Dog

When your pup is having a bout of separation anxiety, they experience what humans know as a panic attack. The symptoms you may see your dog exhibit include:

Excessive Barking or Howling

When you leave the house, you might hear your dog barking or howling anxiously. Dogs that experience separation anxiety will bark incessantly, seemingly at nothing in particular. In extreme cases, this barking might persist from the time you leave until you come back home.

Destructive Behaviors

If you often come home to find household objects, shoes, or even your baseboards chewed, scratched, or otherwise damaged after leaving your pup alone, this could be a symptom of separation anxiety. It’s important to curb these behaviors as quickly as possible, as they can lead to injuries such as damaged claws, broken teeth, or even cuts and scrapes.

Releasing the Bladder or Bowels

If you have a dog that’s fully house trained but tends to urinate or defecate on your floors or furniture while you’re out of the house, chances are they’re doing it because of separation anxiety. Sometimes, these pups might also eat their excrement because of their anxiety. It’s important to note that if your dog engages in this behavior in front of you, it’s likely not related to separation anxiety.

Pacing or Circling

Dogs that are under stress pace back and forth or walk in circles. It’s difficult to catch this behavior in your dog when you’re not around unless you have cameras in the home, but if you do, there’s a good chance that your absence is stressing your dog out.

Escape Attempts

Many pet parents try to curb their dog’s barking or destructive behaviors by leaving them in a confined space. If you do this and come home to find that your dog has tried to escape by chewing through doors or windows, scratching incessantly, or tunneling, it could be a sign that they’re experiencing separation anxiety.

Trembling and Panting

If your dog senses that you’re about to leave the house, you might notice them panting excessively or shaking while you prepare to leave.

Ignoring the Food Dish

Many pet parents leave food out for their pups to snack on during the day. If you’re coming home to find that the food you’ve left out is untouched, it could be a sign of stress.

Other Potential Health Problems

While separation anxiety might seem like an obvious diagnosis if your dog is displaying the symptoms listed above, other medical problems could cause these issues. It’s important to rule out other health concerns that could cause them.

Side Effects of Medications

If your dog is on any prescriptions for other health conditions, speak with your veterinarian about potential side effects and the symptoms your dog is experiencing.

Incontinence

If your dog is voiding their bladder or emptying their bowel throughout your house, it might be caused by incontinence — an inability to control their bladder and bowel movements. Incontinence can occur on its own or may be a symptom of different medical problems, such as kidney disease or bladder stones.

Other Potential Causes of Destructive Behavior and Barking

If you’ve ruled out potential medical conditions and your dog is still exhibiting destructive behaviors or incessantly barking while you’re away, consider other behavioral issues. Bored dogs can be disruptive while left alone, while others might be barking at creaks in the house or the sound of a neighbor coming home. Ensuring your dog is entertained with toys and leaving a radio on when you leave the house can usually curb these behaviors if separation anxiety isn’t the issue.

The Risks of Untreated Separation Anxiety

Untreated separation anxiety can present several risks to your pet. The risk for self-harm is severe when your dog is displaying destructive behaviors. Still, various other issues can arise if separation anxiety is left untreated. That includes:

  • An increase in severity of separation anxiety.
  • A manifestation of other health conditions.
  • Aggressive behaviors.
  • Depression.

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

While no conclusive research has been conducted on the cause of separation anxiety in dogs, there are many theories on the subject. It’s thought that situational change and changes in family situations can lead to nervous behaviors.

The Loss of a Family Member

The death of a family member, divorce, or even an older child leaving the nest may cause your pup to experience anxiety and other nervous behaviors, leading to separation anxiety.

Moving

Moving to a new home can cause temporary or long-term separation anxiety in your dog.

Change in Ownership

Dogs who are surrendered to rescues or sent to live with a new pet parent often develop separation anxiety.

Breeds That Are Prone to Separation Anxiety

In some cases, separation anxiety may be a genetic trait. While the condition isn’t exclusive to specific breeds, some are more susceptible to this condition than others. The breeds that seem to be most prone to separation anxiety include:

  • French Bulldog
  • Dachshund
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • German Shepherd
  • Border Collie
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Chihuahua
  • Havanese
  • German Shorthaired Pointer

Helping your dog overcome their separation anxiety might not be easy, but in the end, it’ll be worth it for both of you.

Counterconditioning

In mild to moderate cases, you might be able to help them feel calmer with some basic counterconditioning. This treatment process teaches your dog to turn their fear and anxiety into feelings of calm and relaxation. To begin this process, you can provide your dog with something fun that will keep them busy when you leave the house. For example, a favorite toy stuffed with treats or a Kong toy full of peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese. These toys should be taken away when you return to ensure they only associate them with your leaving.

Crate Training

Your dog might feel overwhelmed by being alone in a wide-open, quiet space. For some dogs, crate training can help them feel less anxious. Additionally, it ensures they cannot engage in destructive, potentially dangerous behaviors when you’re not there.

Leaving the Radio On

If your dog’s separation anxiety is relatively mild, leaving on the radio might be all they need to overcome their fear. The sound of music and voices can help them to feel less alone and might be what they need to relax while you’re away.

Comprehensive Desensitization and Counterconditioning

If your dog is struggling with severe separation anxiety, they might need a more aggressive treatment approach. A desensitization and counterconditioning program can help. It’s important to understand that this type of treatment takes time and needs to be carried out in small steps. This program involves exposing your dog to the behavior that causes their anxiety — in this case; you leave the house.

The first step to take in this approach is to teach your dog that the cues they recognize and associate with you leaving the house don’t always mean you will leave by giving these cues randomly throughout the day. For example, grab your keys and move them to another spot in the house or put on your shoes and take them off again. Once your dog adjusts to this behavior and it stops causing anxiety, you can move to the next step.

The second step in this program is to teach your dog to adjust to your absence by leaving their sight for short periods. Begin your training by going into another room with the door closed for short periods or stepping out onto the front step. When you do this, tell your dog to stay, grab your keys or purse and head out of their sight. As your dog’s anxiety decreases throughout these exercises, you can begin extending the amount of time that you’re away from your pup. Eventually, you’ll be able to leave the house for extended absences. When you do these training exercises with your dog, be sure to give them time to calm down between your trips, or the training may have the opposite effect.

Desensitization and counterconditioning can be most effective when undertaken with the help of a professional. Your vet can help you find a qualified behavioral trainer with experience in this type of treatment or can provide medications to reduce the anxiety your pet is feeling.