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. 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-

  2. 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.

  3. 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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