Separation Anxiety in Dogs


I get a tremendous number of calls about separation anxiety. The panic in an owner’s voice is clear. “My dog has separation anxiety!” It’s something that both saddens and frustrates us. We want our dogs to be able to go with us but at times we need them to stay home. Obviously, we need them to stay home without barking incessantly, howling, or tearing up our homes. But there are things you can do to help with separation anxiety in dogs.

Understanding it’s a serious problem


Separation anxiety is one of the major reasons people give up their dogs. It’s a serious condition that occurs when a dog that’s hyper-attached to its owner becomes extremely stressed when the owner leaves.

In addition to the barking, howling, and destructive behaviors that can be caused by separation anxiety there are physical injuries that can occur. Some dogs bite or lick their paws or other body parts until those areas are raw and can become infected. This biting and/or licking can become a neurotic behavior that is another entire behavior issue you will have to address.

Causes and signs of separation anxiety in dogs

You can probably figure out the cause of your dog’s separation anxiety. But if you're unsure here are some typical reasons.

Reasons for separation anxiety

  • Being left alone for the first time when he’s used to being with people
  • Being rehomed/Being moved from a shelter to a home
  • Abrupt change in family schedules that cause him to be alone more
  • Loss of a family member

Signs of separation anxiety

Your dog will show definite signs of separation anxiety. It’s a very stressful condition for the dog and not hard to recognize.

  • Barking, howling, or whining excessively.
  • Panting and/or drooling excessively.
  • Pacing constantly whether free in home or crated.
  • Destructive behavior such as chewing up furniture, clawing at windows and/or doors.
  • Attempts to escape the crate, room, or home.
  • Suddenly having potty accidents although previously housetrained.
  • So what do you do about separation anxiety in dogs?

    Ignore the dog

    We tend to baby our dogs when we’re with them. Then, when we leave, we’re surprised they become anxious. Ignoring your dog teaches him that he can be happy, safe, and secure even without your constant reassurance.

    Allow the dog to experience some anxious moments

    Because we hate to see our dogs suffering in any way, we often prevent them from feeling anxiousness. While it’s not good for a dog to become overanxious it’s perfectly acceptable and even good for the dog to learn to deal with a little anxiety.

    Don’t coddle anxiety

I see this especially with tiny dogs very frequently. The dog is walking along or being pushed in a stroller. Something (another dog, strange person, or child) that makes the dog nervous comes along. Instantly the owner picks the dog up and begins to “comfort” it by stroking it and saying something like “It’s okay. Mama/Daddy has you!” The dog learns that the ONLY source of comfort and security is you.

Come and go the correct way

When you leave and when you return are momentous events for your dog, especially for a dog with separation anxiety.

You should ignore the dog for about 10 minutes before you go. It’s best if the dog can be crated with a long-lasting treat like a Kong stuffed with peanut butter or a favorite toy. At first the dog will likely not be interested in these things but he may decide to try it.

Your dog will want to jump up and show you how happy he is when you return. Don’t allow it. Just as you did when you were leaving, you should ignore the dog until he is calm. That’s another reason a crate is a great place for him to spend your away time.

The Crate is Great!

We are very strong advocates of crate training at Joyful Dogs of Michigan. Crates provide a safe, secure, cozy place for your dog if he’s been trained to it. Crate training a new puppy is the best thing you can do!

You didn’t train your dog to a crate? No problem. You can still get him used to having his own little den. And it will certainly help in working on his separation anxiety. The link above for puppy crate training works equally as well with adult dogs.

Fake it ‘til you make it

You can also help your dog by pretending to leave but not going anywhere. Put on your coat but don’t do out. Just sit down. Jingle your keys but put them in your pocket and don’t leave. Practice all the things you do just before you go out but stay home. Your dog will stop associating you putting your shoes on if you do it all the time and don’t leave him. Then you’ll be ready for the next step.

Stepping out


Start leaving but for very short periods. Go out the door and out of sight of your dog. Only stay out for a minute. I mean a literal minute. Before your dog can get into a full-blown panic attack you will return. This will likely confuse the dog and, at this point, that’s good. He was expecting you to be gone a long time and was ready to freak out.

You need to practice leaving for very short periods over and over. Start with one minute then build to two. When your dog is not reacting to your two-minute absence try for 3, 4, then 5 minutes. He will begin to anticipate your return and be less focused on your absence.

Time and patience

Even if your dog showed signs of separation anxiety right from the day your brought him home you must be patient. It will take time for him to adjust to you leaving him. Because you are the central focus of your dog’s life, being without you is stressful. You must be patient with him and give him time to relearn how to handle you being away.

If you need help

Consider using the services of a professional, balanced trainer like Joyful Dogs of Michigan!