Separation Anxiety – Why It Happens and How to Help Your Dog

What is Dog Separation Anxiety?

In some ways, dogs are like humans.

Like us, dogs like routine and often get stressed over large changes in their schedule. This is especially true for negative changes that they do not expect, and do not understand.

Dog separation anxiety usually occurs when our own schedule shifts, thereby disrupting the amount of time we are able to spend with our dogs. When faced with such disruptions, dogs may get stressed and become destructive.

A dog with separation anxiety may chew up household items, and urinate or defecate in the house.

Note that these are displacement behaviors, that occur as a result of stress. They are NOT the result of dominance, vengeance, or maliciousness.

To fix separation anxiety issues, we want to target and reduce our dog’s stress, and not punish him with physical corrections. Pain or dominance based punishment, will often increase stress, and thereby worsen our dog’s anxiety problems.

Dealing With Dog Separation Anxiety

Sadly, we will sometimes get busy, need to travel, or work long hours to meet a deadline. After all, we must go out in the wild world, so that we may put kibble on the table.

Therefore, how do we deal with separation anxiety, and make things better for our dogs?

Dog Separation Anxiety 1 – Daycare

One of the best ways to deal with schedule changes, is to put our dog in daycare. In this way, he gets the company of humans and dogs, while we are away. He also gets to brush up on his dog-to-dog, and dog-to-human socialization skills.

Before committing to a daycare center, it is important to drop by for a tour of the facilities. Ensure that the place is clean, well supervised, and suited to our dog’s temperament. However, even a well-run daycare center may sometimes fail to detect dogs that carry common ailments, such as kennel cough, puppy warts, demodectic mange, and fleas.

Therefore, make sure that our dog is up to date on his vaccinations, before putting him in daycare or boarding.

A dog who is up to date on shots, may still catch something from playing all day long with so many different dogs. This is especially true for puppies and younger dogs, who still have developing immune systems. Unfortunately, this is a risk we must accept, if we decide to put our dog in daycare.

Dog Separation Anxiety 2 – Pet sitter

If we are uncomfortable with sending our dog to a public daycare, we can also hire a pet sitter to keep his separation anxiety issues at bay. The sitter can walk him, and keep him company at home.

Make sure our pet sitter is insured, qualified, has good references, and most importantly, gets along well with our dog.

Although they may be more expensive, I try to find sitters who are also dog trainers. This means they have more experience with dog behavioral issues, and can better deal with a misbehaving, stressed, or fearful canine.

Make sure to give the pet sitter our cellphone number, the location of our vet, as well as special instructions for our dog, including allergies and important house rules.

Dog Separation Anxiety 3 – Try to keep to a schedule

Another way to alleviate separation anxiety issues, is to try and keep to a fixed schedule.

During holidays, go out and visit some friends, so that our dog has his usual alone time. If we have to be away unexpectedly, have a familiar friend come over to fill in for us.

If the change in routine is temporary, we can also have our dog stay over at a friend’s house. First, try bringing our dog over for several short visits. In this way, we are around to make introductions, and help him with the transition to a new environment.

If all goes well, do short stay-overs, then slowly lengthen the time.

Dog Separation Anxiety 4 – Exercise our dog

I take my dog out for a long walk before leaving. This will give him an opportunity to fully relieve himself outside, and also put him in a more restful state of mind.

I take my dog out for another walk, after I get home. Exercise helps to relieve stress, and gives our dog important mental and physical stimulation. Neighborhood walks also help to socialize our dog to a variety of people, objects, other dogs, and other animals.

If we had to stay cooped up in the house all day, we would get cabin fever as well.

Dog Separation Anxiety 5 – Desensitize our dog

Get our dog accustomed to us leaving the house.

First, I start with the ritual of getting my handbag and keys, as well as wearing my shoes. I walk to the door, then sit back down. I repeat this many times throughout the day, so that my dog gets comfortable with my “leaving the house” ritual.

Once this occurs, I walk to the door, leave, and come back to the room. I repeat this until he is relaxed again, then slowly lengthen the time that I am away.

When I achieve an away-time of about 15 minutes, I get in my car, circle the block, and come back.

Make leaving and coming home as low-key as possible.

When I return home, I ignore my dog until he is calm and resting. In this way, he does not spend all day anticipating my return. I also leave him with many interactive, chew-safe food toys, so that he has something interesting to do when home alone.

Dog Separation Anxiety 6 – Dog Medication

There are a variety of medications available, to help treat dog separation anxiety symptoms. However, to be effective, these medications must be used together with a behavior modification program, which includes a rigorous exercise and desensitization routine.

The medication alone will not solve our dog’s anxiety issues. However, it can help mute the symptoms, so that our dog can benefit from the accompanying retraining process.

Dog medication should only be used under the direction of a vet, and only for the short-term.

Dog Separation Anxiety

Dealing with dog separation anxiety will take time, and a lot of patience.

In general, prevention is better than cure. Therefore, we want to start desensitization exercises as early as possible, before any anxiety problems develop.

If we have a very busy lifestyle, consider volunteering at our local shelter or SPCA instead of buying a puppy.

Only get a dog when our schedule becomes more regular, so that there is less danger of separation anxiety, and other behavioral issues.

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  1. Ashley says

    I recently had to give my dog to a neighbor due to an unforeseen move & my landlord wanting her house back. My chocolate lab was fine the first 2 weeks with our neighbor, now she has pee’d on their bed twice. She got out of the house & ran over to our old house. I know she’s def having some sort of anxiety since she us 4 & we’ve had her since she was 6 weeks old! We will be getting her back on April 3rd. Should I go see her so she knows I still love her! I’m afraid if I do she will mess in their house more than she already has. I don’t want to harm her anymore mentally than she already has been. Is it a good idea to go see her & leave knowing we can’t take her for another month?

    • shibashake says

      Dog behavior is very context dependent, so it will depend on the temperament of the dog, past experiences, environment, routine, and more. Moving to a new place, with new people, is going to be very stressful for a dog. If possible, get the neighbor to try and keep to the same routine, use the same food, etc.

      When we moved, I set up a fixed routine right away, that is similar to my dog’s previous routine. In general, I try to create as much certainty as possible. Certainty helps to reduce my dog’s stress and anxiety.

      If I had to be separated from my dog, I would probably try to visit and see how it goes. If it goes well, I would want to see him as often as possible, but also keep to a fixed routine (e.g. see him at around the same time every day).

  2. Lynn Ostrom says

    We have brought a rescue dachshund into our home and he is house trained. He does, however, have major separation anxiety. I, for the most part, take him to work with me but when my husband is on days off (he is a shift worker) Gaston is at home. Our problem is whenever my husband leaves the house the dog leave him a big mess to clean up. He has also peed in his truck twice even right after going before getting into the truck. He has never peed in my vehicle nor has he pooped in the house when I’ve left him alone. Is there a reason you are aware of as to why he only does this to my husband. We both love him equally and play with him equally when home.

    • J McDonald says

      I also have a dachshund rescue dog , he is gentle and loves me but he also peed in our bed , on the mat so now I keep the door shut , but he also has separation anxiety and is destroying things by chewing when we go out. Today he wrecked the screen door.I walk him every morning .I have only had him 3weeks.

    • shibashake says

      My shy Husky is usually more careful around men. Men are usually larger and have deeper voices, so they may seem more threatening, especially to a shy dog. We have this great neighbor who is super nice and funny, but he is tall and has a deep booming voice. Therefore, Shania may sometimes stay back, or if she goes to meet him, she lies down on her back. This is an appeasement gesture, and her way of saying that she is not a threat.

      A dog’s behavior is also dependent on past experiences, so if past experiences with men have not been wholly positive, that could be another contributing factor.

      The “leaving the house” ritual is also important, so differences in that may also cause differences in behavior.

      What helped with my dog’s separation is to do careful desensitization exercises, which I talk more about above. This article from the ASPCA has more on separation anxiety and how to help a dog with this issue-

      As you have observed, dog behavior is very context dependent. Therefore, a dog’s behavior may be quite different between different people, even though it seems to us that everything is the same. Things that seem small to us like eye-contact, tone of voice, and more, may mean a lot more to a dog, especially a shy and sensitive dog. Surrounding context and details are very important in dog behavior, which is why in many cases, consulting with a professional trainer can be quite helpful.

      When I was having issues with my Shiba Inu, I consulted with several trainers. It can be a challenge to find a good trainer, because the field is not well regulated and anybody can build a website and call themselves a trainer/behaviorist/whatever. However, we found some good ones, and it was helpful to have someone there to guide me in timing, technique, reading my dog’s body language, and more.

  3. Karen says

    I have a 13 week old Jackadoodle, after having her for just three days she was taken poorly, and was in isolation at the vets for 10 days and her first week back also had to be caged. We now have a real issue every time I leave the room she constantly follows me around the house and when left crys and howls until I return.i have tried the exercise first and I’m then trying to creep out while she is asleep. I’ve now after talking to the vet tried just leaving her to cry by sitting in the other room to moneter how long she crys for as I hate the fact she gets so stressed. I also make sure not to make a big fuss when I go back into the room. I really need to sort this as I have to be able to leave the house for a couple of hours a couple of times a week to visit my elderly mum.

    • shibashake says

      I helped my Shiba Inu with his separation anxiety by *very slowly* getting him used to alone time. I would start with very short sessions (a couple of seconds) and then build up from there. I talk more about what I did in the section on desensitization, in the article above.

      With desensitization exercises, I try to help my Shiba build confidence by maximizing calm and positive experiences. The more calm experiences he has, the more confidence he builds, and the more his tolerance for alone time increases. Similarly, reactive episodes and panic attacks will undermine that confidence, significantly set back training, and worsen his anxiety. Therefore, I make sure not to expose my dog to more than he can handle.

      If I need to leave the house before Sephy is ready for it, I get a trusted friend or neighbor to house-sit for the duration.

      This article from the ASPCA has more on separation anxiety and the desensitization process-

  4. laci says

    I have a 2 year old maso mastiff,
    She is house trained and very good but my problem is, since we got her she has slept in the same room as me.
    We finally bought a big crate for her and she was fine with it, went in it and slept in it no problem. We leave the door open during the day so she has free roam and lock it at night or when we leave the house.
    We recently moved her crate to a different room and now she will poop in it.. but it’s like diarrhea. She will only do it at night time, and she will cry and dig at her cage.
    Could this be a separation anxiety too?
    Please help me break her habit of this if you know a way to stop this with out having to put her crate back in my room.
    Thank you.

    • shibashake says

      Sudden changes to my dog’s routine can cause him significant stress, especially with my Shiba Inu, who really needs consistency and routine. In general, I try to manage my dog’s environment and routine so that there are no sudden big changes, and so that I can always set him up for success.

      If there is something I need to change, then I introduce the change slowly and over a period of time, so that my dog can slowly get used to it and slowly build up confidence. For example, if I absolutely need to move my dog’s crate, then I move it a little bit at a time, towards the door. I let him get comfortable with the new position for a few nights, and if all goes well, I move it a little bit more and so on.

      In this way, I give him time to get used to each little change so it is not overly disruptive and stressful.When I move it enough outside the room, I leave the room door open so that my dog can still see and smell me. Then if necessary, I slowly close the door a little bit, then a little bit more, and so on.

      Both my Huskies prefer to sleep downstairs because it is a bigger space and they get more freedom. My Shiba Inu still prefers to sleep in the bedroom with his people. I observe each dog carefully, and I try to give them what they are most happy with, as long as it is safe.

  5. Laura says

    My dog is on clomipramine for his separation anxiety and it helped at first but now it’s back and he’s still on the meds. I did not get him behavioral training because I can not afford that. Just wondering if there is any medication that I can give to him just in the morning when I have to go to work or any time I have to leave him alone. He never had separation anxiety before. There was a change in the house, family living with me for 1 month and he developed it then. He’s 8 years old and never had a problem with being alone. The family has been gone now for 3 weeks and he seemed to get better but now it’s back again and is worse. I don’t know what to do anymore or how to help him. It’s really taking a toll on him and me as well. I hate that he has to suffer and I can’t lead a normal life. Even if he just thinks I’m going out he shakes, whimpers, paces and pants. He has also caused damage by the window. Broke the blinds and there are scratch marks on the window pane. I need to know if there is any better meds that can help this without having to get a behaviorist to work with him.

    • shibashake says

      I helped my dog cope with his separation anxiety by doing desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises. I start with very short periods of alone time (seconds) and *very slowly* build up there. I talk more about what I did in the article above.

      This article from the ASPCA has more on how to conduct desensitization and counter-conditioning-

      Management of my dog’s environment is very important during the rehabilitation process. I need to control his environment so that I can not only maximize successes, but also prevent further panic attacks from occurring. Success helps my dog to build confidence, and the more confidence he builds, the more comfortable he is with being alone. Similarly, panic or reactive episodes will undermine that confidence, significantly set back training, and cause his anxiety to worsen.

      Therefore, during rehabilitation, I get someone to dog-sit if I cannot be home. I only leave my dog alone during controlled desensitization sessions – where I have full control of time-alone and can adjust it for success according to his current level of confidence and tolerance.

      Based on what I have read, medication can be used to mute the symptoms of anxiety. However, it does *not* address the source of the anxiety itself, nor does it help a dog build confidence or tolerance. Medication can *sometimes* help with desensitization work if properly used and under professional direction, but as you have observed, it cannot replace behavior modification exercises.

      Desensitization was a crucial and necessary part of helping my dog become more calm and relaxed when by himself.

  6. judy says

    my dog is “off the charts” anxious when I park the car. She is fine for the ride itself, but as soon as we pull into any parking lot, even our own driveway the anxiety starts. High pitch barking, tugging, in general a major panic. Also once she gets out of the car she is zig zagging on leash before I can even close the back door. I have never left her in the car for more than a couple of minutes and of course I leave a/c on if it’s hot etc. She is almost 2 & she is an English Cocker Spaniel. In general she is very clingy….follows from room to room etc. But surprisingly, she is fine when left home alone. Its parking the car that triggers her & I need ideas please!

    • shibashake says

      Does she get anxious when she first goes into the car? Does she get anxious as soon as the car stops, or only after you leave the car? Has she always shown this behavior, or did it start suddenly, or did it develop over time?

      What if you get in the car and don’t drive, what is her behavior then? What if you just drive a few feet and stop, does she show anxious behavior?

      When trying to help my dog with anxiety issues, I first try to identify the source of the anxiety. I try to be as detailed as possible, so I know exactly what triggers the behavior. For example, is it being in the car alone, is it being in the car after a trip, is it excitement or fear, is it the noise the car makes when being parked, is it a combination of multiple things, or is it something else. Once I identify exactly what the triggers are, I can slowly desensitize my dog to it.

      This ASPCA article has more on desensitizing a dog to being comfortable in a car-

  7. James says

    Hi – I recently adopted a Siberian Husky who is 4 years old and supposedly house broken. He has developed submissive / skittish behavior at the shelter before coming to me, and will now pee and poo when I leave the house not when i take him out. is this separation anxiety? i exercise him pretty well, and take him out after he eats. – thanks.

  8. Stephanie says

    Me and my family have a huskamute called Jack that we adopted about three years ago now. My boyfriend lives with me and my family (mum & dad). Jack is pretty much mine and my boyfriends dog, he usually sleeps in our room at night and we do give him alot of attention. When we go out in the day he is fine but recently we’ve been away during the night time and my parents have told me that he keeps them up pretty much all night howling and pacing up and down. Me and my boyfriend are moving out soon as we are going to university, is there anything my parents can do to calm my dog down during the night.

    • shibashake says

      Yeah, my dog Lara also gets anxious when there are changes in her regular routine.

      One thing that helps with Lara is to get everyone in the family to participate in training, feeding, playing, and walking her. This helps to build trust and establish a bond between my dog and others in the family. It is helpful when I need to go on a trip, because there are others who can take over her care, with as little disruption as possible. It becomes even more important if I am planning to be away for a long time.

      Initially, I help my dog build a bond with other family members by taking a step back, and letting others slowly take on more and more of her daily care and exercise. At the start, I am still there to lend familiarity and support, so that the transition is smoother and less stressful. As Lara becomes more accustomed to the other person, I can very slowly take a smaller and smaller role in her daily routine.

      I want to start small, with only very small changes, and slowly build up from there. In this way, I minimize stress, help my dog build confidence, and help her slowly adjust to the upcoming changes.

      During this time, I also set up a fixed routine and consistent rules. Routine and consistency helps to create certainty, which in turn helps to reduce stress.

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