Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes and How to Help

By: Wendy Bedwell WilsonPublished: Updated:


Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes and How to Help

Does your dog act out when you leave your home? Do you hear them barking and whining as you drive off for work? Your dog might be struggling with separation anxiety. But here’s the good news is that separation anxiety in dogs can be treated. Here’s everything you need to know about dog separation anxiety.

Dog Separation Anxiety Symptoms

Separation anxiety in dogs stems from the species’ unique bond with humans, says James Ha, Ph.D., certified applied animal behaviorist, professor and author of "Dog Behavior: Modern Science and Our Canine Companions."

“Dogs in particular are quite likely to develop strong personal bonds with their frequent social partners—handlers, owners, ‘parents,’ etc.,” he says. “If these bonds become too strong or unhealthy, then the dog can experience extreme anxiety when that social partner is gone or leaves the home, for instance, for work. It is anxiety created by social separation.”

Jill Goldman, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist in Los Angeles, California, agrees, noting that dog separation anxiety symptoms can range from mild to severe.

“They can range from barking and pacing to jumping out of a window,” she says. “These dogs have an extreme fear of abandonment.”

The Merck Veterinary Manual lists these physical and behavioral signs of dog separation anxiety. Often, these manifest in the first 15 to 20 minutes of the owner’s departure, Dr. Ha says.

  • Consistent, intensive destruction: Some dogs destroy things in an attempt to express their anxiety, Dr. Ha says, including trying to tear through doors and doorways. “One of my client’s dogs destroyed three leather sofas while she and her husband were out one afternoon,” he says. “He completely eviscerated them!”
  • Inappropriate elimination: Accidents happen—but when a dog urinates or defecates on the floor only after their mom or dad leaves the house, it may be a sign of dog separation anxiety, Dr. Ha says.
  • Vocalization: A dog with separation anxiety might also bark, whine and howl while their owners are away. “Often, you’ll find out about it from a neighbor, who will complain that your dog is barking incessantly while you’re gone,” Dr. Ha says.
  • Salivation: Drooling and pacing are some other symptoms of separation anxiety, Dr. Ha says. “It might even start when the owner grabs her coat or keys—the dog will start to salivate and pace around nervously.”

Why Dogs Get Separation Anxiety

Though experts can’t pinpoint exactly why dogs develop separation anxiety, they can identify triggers for the condition:

  • Changes in schedule
  • Changes in environment
  • Being left alone

When moving in with a new family, an adopted shelter dog, for example, might act out when their new owner leaves for work, Dr. Goldman says.

“We often see this in dogs who have been adopted from shelters, so we believe that the abandonment or that abrupt change of social dynamics has a significant impact on a social animal, which dogs are,” Dr. Goldman says.

Separation anxiety might also surface when a family member moves away or changes their schedule, Dr. Ha says. Even moving to a new home and being sequestered in a kennel can trigger separation anxiety in a puppy, Dr. Goldman says.

How to Help a Dog with Separation Anxiety

Successful treatment for separation anxiety in dogs is possible, but it can be a long process. There’s no shortcut or “magic pill” when it comes to how to help a dog with separation anxiety. Here are the necessary steps for treating separation anxiety in dogs.

  • Get a Veterinary Checkup
  • Set up a Safe Zone
  • Provide Toys
  • Exercise Your Pup
  • Use Stress-Relieving Products
  • Supplements and Medications
  • Identify Triggers
  • Practice Short Absences
  • Take It Slow

1. Get a Veterinary Checkup

Before you begin treating a dog with separation anxiety, you should first rule out any medical problems, like arthritis pain or endocrine (hormonal) abnormalities, Dr. Ha says. Always have your dog thoroughly evaluated by a veterinarian for medical issues first, especially if they’re in their senior years and/or if there’s a sudden onset of symptoms. Any treatment for separation anxiety is destined to fail if, in fact, a dog is suffering from an injury or illness.

Your veterinarian is also a great resource for helping you figure out the best way to treat your dog’s separation anxiety, if that does end up being the problem.

2. Set up a Safe Zone

Dogs with anxiety need a safe zone—a happy place that is both relaxing and distracting. Many pet parents set up one room in their home (bathrooms are ideal) that will calm their dogs when they have to be alone. Furnish the room with a comfortable bed, a water bowl, and a selection of toys and other products (more on that below). Use pet gates, one stacked above another if necessary, to close off the room. Compared to a closed door, pet gates can help your dog feel less confined.

A crate can work in place of a room, but only if your dog is already crate trained and happy spending time there. Now is not the time to add crate training to your dog’s to-do list because the process might worsen rather than improve their anxiety.

3. Provide Enticing (and Distracting) Toys

Next, equip your dog’s safe zone with distractions. Food-dispensing toys, such as Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound puzzle toys, KONG toys like the KONG Classic stuffed with peanut butter, and other safe chew toys will provide long-lasting entertainment, Dr. Goldman says.

Stressed dogs will sometimes ignore new toys, no matter how enticing. Start your pup off on the right foot by introducing these toys when you’re at home. Grab one and go into your dog’s safe zone with them. Show your dog how to use the toy and hang out with them while they get the hang of it. Do this once or twice a day with all your dog’s toys until your dog looks forward to spending time in the safe zone with them. Eventually, you should be able to leave the safe zone and do something in another room while your dog stays behind and continues to play.

4. Exercise Your Pup

Along with mental stimulation, your dog separation anxiety solutions must include physical stimulation, Dr. Goldman says. She recommends hearty exercise sessions—between 40 and 60 minutes each morning for young, healthy dogs—to expend their reservoir of energy.

5. Stress-relieving Products

Engaging your pet’s senses with classical music or a calming vest like the ThunderShirt can work wonders, Dr. Goldman says. Each has been shown to reduce stress-related behavior in dogs. But just as with any wearable item for dogs, you should introduce the calming vest gradually, while you’re still at home, so they can get used to it. Find out how to introduce new clothes to your dog.

Placing a diffuser that emits dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) in your dog’s safe zone may also help. DAP is a synthetic version of the pheromone mother dogs emit that keeps puppies calm.

6. Supplements and Medications

Over-the-counter anti-anxiety supplements can promote relaxation in mildly anxious dogs or be used in combination with prescription medications for more severe cases of separation anxiety. Good options include Purina Pro Plan Calming Care (a probiotic) and the nutritional supplements Composure and Zentrol. Royal Canin even makes a dog food called Comfort Care that is specially formulated to help dogs with anxiety.

Dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety greatly benefit from taking a prescription dog separation anxiety medication like Clomicalm. Severely anxious dogs may simply not be able to relax enough to learn new behaviors without the help of an anti-anxiety medication.

But remember: supplements and prescriptions are most effective when they’re used in conjunction with a behavior therapy plan.

7. Desensitize Your Dog to Their Triggers

Dog separation anxiety training starts by identifying your dog’s anxiety triggers. Many dogs with separation anxiety start becoming anxious when they pick up clues that their social partner is preparing to leave. Common triggers include the sounds of keys, picking up your bag, and putting on a jacket.

Let’s say your dog begins to pace, drool, and whine when you grab your keys. To start the desensitization and counterconditioning process, grab your keys and walk around the house jingling them for a minute, but then put them down and go about your normal activities without ever leaving the house. Repeat this training session a few times a day, rewarding your dog with treats and praise when they remain calm.

The goal with desensitization and counterconditioning is to train your dog to stop associating their triggers with something bad (you leaving) and instead have them start associating them with something good (treats and praise).

8. Practice Short Absences

Continue your dog separation anxiety training by gradually exposing your dog to short absences that aren’t related to stress, Dr. Goldman says. Put your dog in their safe zone with one of their distracting toys and leave… but just for a few seconds. Come right back in and act as if nothing important has happened. Pay no attention to your dog when you return. Let them out of the safe zone a few minutes later as long as they’re calm.

You may have to do this many times until your dog remains relaxed when you leave and immediately come back. Once that happens, you can slowly (very slowly!) increase the amount of time you are gone. Add a few seconds more, then work up to 1 minute, then 2, then 5 and so on. A pet camera can help you make sure that your dog isn’t becoming anxious before you return home. During the training process, do not leave your dog home alone for extended periods of time. Find a dog sitter, dog daycare, or take your dog to work with you so that they don’t experience that fear or anxiety. It can be tedious, Dr. Ha says, but it works.

9. Move Forward Gradually

The key to behavior modification for separation anxiety is to take it slow. Rushing your dog to get over their anxiety will almost certainly result in your dog becoming more anxious, which means you’ll have to go back a few steps in the process and start all over again.

If, despite your best efforts, your dog’s anxiety isn’t improving, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a specialist. Your veterinarian can prescribe an anti-anxiety medication for your dog (if appropriate), put together a detailed behavior modification plan or refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or an experienced dog trainer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is there is cure for separation anxiety in dogs?

A: Yes, oftentimes there is a cure, or at least a workable solution—but there’s no magic pill or quick and easy fix. Separation anxiety can be alleviated with a solid behavioral therapy plan, conditioning, medications (in some cases) and a very patient pet parent.

Q: My dog has separation anxiety at night. Do you know why? 

A: If you’re in your house with your dog, your dog may be experiencing fear of the dark, not separation anxiety—or both simultaneously. If an already-anxious dog has a fear of the dark, that could lead to increased anxiety at night. But if this issue occurs suddenly, take your dog to the vet for a checkup. Older dogs often develop nighttime fear as the result of a medical issue like failing eyesight.

Q: What can I give my dog while he is anxious to help him calm down quickly? 

A: Your veterinarian can suggest dog separation anxiety medication to quickly reduce your pal’s separation anxiety symptoms, says Dr. Ha. “There are very quick-acting, short-term anti-anxiety medications that are very safe to use,” he says.

There are no “stupid” questions when it comes to your pet’s health. If you suspect your pet is sick, please call your vet immediately. For diet, wellness and health-related questions, always consult your regular veterinarian when possible as they can make the best recommendations for your pet. (If you need help finding a vet near you use this link.) The content on this blog is provided for informational use only and does not constitute professional veterinary advice, diagnosis or treatment.

This story includes expert input by James Ha, Ph.D., certified applied animal behaviorist, professor and author of "Dog Behavior: Modern Science and Our Canine Companions"; Jill Goldman, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist in Los Angeles, California; and Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, a veterinarian and author in Fort Collins, Colorado.



By: Wendy Bedwell WilsonPublished: Updated: