What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?
Yes, it’s common for dogs to whine or fuss a little bit when you’re leaving the house without them—they don’t want to be left out! But a true anxious episode will persist the entire time you’re gone, and may have harmful physical and mental effects on your dog.
What Causes Dog Separation Anxiety?
Dogs can develop separation anxiety for a number of reasons, and many of them are related to changes in the dog’s life. These include:
Family changes: For example, when a member of the dog’s family moves out of the home
Home changes: For example, when a dog is rehomed, or moves with their family to a new house
Routine changes: For example, when a pet parent starts a new job with longer hours
Some dogs respond to changes like these with relatively little anxiety; for others, separation anxiety rears its stressed-out head. No one knows for sure why some dogs are more susceptible to separation anxiety than others. Even dogs who’ve been raised in supportive homes with plenty of attention and positive reinforcement can be affected—so don’t blame yourself!
Some experts believe that a dog’s genetics could play a role. Certain dog breeds appear to be more prone to separation anxiety than others, including:
But your dog’s breed isn’t the only factor; it's also not unusual for an individual dog from a "low risk" breed to develop separation anxiety.
Separation Anxiety and COVID: Why Dogs Are Susceptible Right Now
If there’s one silver lining to the “new normal” we’ve been living through in the past year, it’s that many of us have gotten to spend a lot more time with our favorite furry friends. They’ve warmed our laps while we typed, stolen the show in our Zoom calls and gotten us out of the house (even if it’s just for your puppy’s potty break).
Now, as more workplaces and schools across the country are reopening, our lives are starting to look a little bit more like they did back before the pandemic—and for many dogs, that means adjusting to you being out of the house more often. Many dogs are creatures of habit; they like the consistency of a daily routine. When that routine is upended—like, for example, when the pet parent they’ve spent every day with on the couch for the past year suddenly goes to work in an office for 8 hours each day—it can create feelings of anxiety for your dog.
Don’t worry—you’re not a bad dog parent just because you have to return to the office. There are plenty of ways to help your dog adjust. Click the links below to find out more.
Dog Separation Anxiety Symptoms
Destructive behaviors, like chewing or clawing at doors or walls
Potty accidents, especially ones that happen only when you’re away
Vocalization, such as whining and barking
Drooling, especially when it only happens when you’re gone
Pacing, aka walking back and forth restlessly, especially when you’re preparing to leave the house
Dog Separation Anxiety Training
When it comes to separation anxiety, most dogs respond best to a combination of treatments—and that combination often includes training techniques to help your pup overcome their anxiety. But before you start training, schedule a check-in with your vet. They can confirm that the symptoms you’ve noticed are really caused by separation anxiety, not a different health issue that needs medical attention. Plus, they’ll be able to make specific treatment recommendations for your unique dog, and help guide you when it comes to fitting training into your lifestyle.
Ready to get started? Follow these dog separation anxiety training steps to help your pup overcome their stress:
1Set up a Safe Zone
Dogs with anxiety need a safe zone—a happy place that is both relaxing and distracting. This could be a bathroom or, if your dog is already crate trained, their crate. (Do not start crate training if your dog isn’t happy spending time there. This could actually worsen your dog’s anxiety; plus, they could injure themselves if they attempt to escape it.)
Make sure their safe zone has:
a comfortable bed
a selection of distracting, food-dispensing toys, like the KONG Classic
Rather than closing the door to the room, which can increase your dog’s feelings of confinement, use pet gates, one stacked above another if necessary, to keep them inside.
2 Identify Your Dog’s Triggers
Sure, your dog’s anxiety is triggered by your absence—but at what point of your departure does their anxiety start? Many dogs with separation anxiety start becoming anxious when they pick up clues that their human is preparing to leave. Common triggers include departure cues like the sounds of keys, picking up your bag and putting on a jacket.
Start by going through the motions you’d normally take when you’re headed out, keeping an eye on your dog at each step. If your dog’s starts to show their symptoms of anxiety when you pick up your keys, for instance, you’ll know that’s a trigger for them.
3Separate Your Dog’s Triggers From Your Absence
When you know what triggers your dog’s anxiety, start exposing your dog to that trigger regularly—without ever leaving home. If your dog starts to pace and whine when you pick up your keys, for instance, walk around the house holding and jingling your keys for about a minute. Repeat this session a couple times per day.
4Reward Calm Behavior
Eventually, your dog will stop responding to their trigger with anxious behavior. The sound of your keys will no longer cause the dog in our example to pace and whine, for instance. This means that they’ve stopped associating their trigger with something bad (aka you leaving). But that doesn’t mean you should stop your training! Keep the sessions going, making sure to reward your dog with treats and praise when they remain calm. Now you’re teaching your dog to associate the sound of your keys with something good (aka treats and praise).
5Practice Short Absences
Continue your dog separation anxiety training by gradually exposing your dog to short absences—and we mean super short. Put your dog in their safe zone with one of their distracting toys and leave the room… 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, and let them out of the safe zone a few minutes later, as long as they’re calm.
You may have to repeat these training sessions 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.
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.
6Don’t Rush It
Continue working up to the amount of time you’ll spend away from your dog on a typical day. The key at this stage (and, really, at every stage of dog separation anxiety training) 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 you follow the steps above and your dog’s anxiety isn’t improving, reach out to your vet or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Experts like these can help identify where your training might need tweaking, and can suggest other methods to add to your dog’s behavior plan. (More on those in Other Ways to Help Dogs With Separation Anxiety.) You can also check out the links below to learn more about training that can help your dog's anxiety symptoms.
Other Ways to Help Dogs With Separation Anxiety
Dogs with separation anxiety tend to respond best to multimodal treatment—essentially, trying a combination of different tactics to treat their anxiety. So, if you want to give your dog the best shot at overcoming their stress, talk to your vet about these methods of treatment:
Dog Separation Anxiety Medications
Your vet can prescribe anxiety medications to help your pup calm down. Among the most common are:
Reconcile (fluoxetine) is a serotonin-reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that raises levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a hormone that promotes your dog’s feelings of well-being, in the brain.
Clomicalm (clomipramine) is a tricyclic antidepressant medication that works, in part, by increasing brain levels of serotonin and a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine that affects your dog’s stress levels.
Sprays containing dog appeasing pheromone, such as Adaptil Calming Spray, send the same messages that mother dogs use to comfort their puppies. (Imagine it comforting your dog just like your favorite homemade dish from childhood comforts you.)
Calming nutritional supplements, like Composure or Zentrol, use nutrients with soothing properties to help your pet relax. Other treats use homeopathic solutions for anti-anxiety, like Isle of Dogs Everyday Essentials 100% Natural Chillout Dog Treats which includes soothing lavender.
Dog anxiety vests, like the ThunderShirt, work by wrapping dogs in reassuring, deep pressure.
Before you leave home, make sure your dog gets a vigorous workout. A tired pup is a happy pup—or, at least, is a pup with less energy to devote to worrying about your absence. Between 40 and 60 minutes of exercise before you leave will help most young, healthy dogs chill out. For puppies, senior dogs, and dogs with medical concerns, ask your vet how much exercise is right for them.
What if I’m Anxious About Leaving My Dog?
Pet parents across the country are reporting feelings of separation anxiety as they prepare to return to in-person work commitments. Try these tips to ease your own transition back to the office:
Use a Pet Camera
Pet cameras let you check in on your furry friend when you feel anxious about leaving them alone. Some models—like the Pawbo+ Wi-Fi Interactive Pet Camera—even come with a treat dispenser, so you can show them some love even when you’re not at home.
Swipe Through Photos and Videos of Your Fur Baby
Like any good pet parent, your phone is probably full of cute pictures and videos of your fur kid. Whenever you’re feeling anxious, try swiping through your camera roll and remembering how excited you’ll both be when you get home. Think of it as bringing them with you, in a virtual sense.
Try One of These Toys for Stressed-out Humans
Some stress toys help focus your attention on something other than your anxiety, whether it’s solving a puzzle or combing a zen garden. Others release tension by squeezing a rubber ball. Either way, they’re fun! See some of our favorite stress toys for people (and their pets, too!) here.
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. Prescription medications can be safe, quick-acting, and short-term solutions for dog separation anxiety.
Separation Anxiety in Cats
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 Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, veterinarian consultant in Fort Collins, Colorado; 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 Atlanta-based dog trainer and author Victoria Schade.