Afraid your dog is stressing out when you're not home? Here’s how to recognize the signs of separation anxiety in dogs, what you need to know about this condition, and what you can do to help your dog.

By Debra Steilen
August 24, 2020
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Does your dog get anxious when he hears you grab your car keys? When you return home, do you discover he has peed or pooped in the house or scratched gouges in the door? Have your neighbors ever told you your dog barked the entire time you were gone? Your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety, which is a severe anxiety disorder. Learn more about this condition and what you can do to help reduce your dog’s suffering.

Signs of Dog Separation Anxiety

According to the American Kennel Club, if your dog exhibits these behaviors—but only when you’re away—he may be suffering from separation anxiety.

  •       Constant barking or howling
  •       Destructive acts—like chewing pillows or clawing windowsills
  •       Indoor accidents—peeing or pooping in the house
  •       Excessive drooling or panting
  •       Intense pacing
  •       Attempts to get out of his crate

Dogs pay close attention to what you do, so you may notice a dog’s signs of stress beginning while you’re still at home. That’s because he recognizes the actions you take when you’re getting ready to leave the house. He knows he’s going to be left alone, so he may show his unease by whining, pacing, refusing to eat or drink, gluing himself to your side, or seeking your attention.

Why Do Some Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), separation anxiety is usually triggered when dogs are separated from a person whom they love or when the following situations come into play:

  • A Change of Ownership. When a dog is abandoned by the side of the road, surrendered to a shelter, or transferred to a new owner, he may end up developing separation anxiety.
  • The Loss of a Family Member. Divorce. Death. College. The sudden absence of a favorite human in the household can trigger separation anxiety in a dog.
  • A New Schedule. A change in your work or volunteer schedule may alter the length of time your dog is left alone at home. He may end up developing separation anxiety.
  • A Change of Residence. Moving to a different home with new smells and a different neighborhood with new sounds can cause a dog who is left alone to develop separation anxiety.
  • Advanced Age and Cognitive Decline. Is your dog old enough to sport a grizzled muzzle and cloudy eyes? Does he have a harder time hearing than he did as a pup? He also may be going through cognitive changes that trigger separation anxiety.

Some breeds are more prone to experience separation anxiety than others. “In my experience, the four most common breeds of dogs that exhibit signs of separation anxiety are typically Labrador retrievers, Chihuahuas (both mixed breeds and standards), German shepherds and cocker spaniels," Dr. Butch Mitchell, a private practice veterinarian at the Davie Veterinary Clinic in Davie, Florida, told Mizner Bioscience. What these four breeds have in common is that they are recognized as loving companions and/or people pleasers. So it’s not a surprise the loss of a favorite human can trigger separation anxiety.

When Should I Worry About My Dog’s Signs of Separation Anxiety?

If your dog barks, howls, eliminates inside the house, or destroys doors and other things when you’re home as well as when you’re away, it’s probably not a sign of separation anxiety, says Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, a certified veterinary behaviorist in St. Louis. That’s because these behaviors may be linked to a fear of fireworks or other loud noises, for example. Elimination inside the house may be due to your dog not being fully house-trained. But if these behaviors happen only when you’re gone, your dog may be trying to communicate his distress.

“The best way to know for sure is to get a video of your dog after you leave,” Horwitz says. “You may see that 10 to 20 minutes after you depart, your dog starts pacing, panting, whining, and tearing up the door. Dogs tearing up things for fun looks different than dogs tearing up things because they’re distressed.”

Treatment and Prevention for Mild Separation Anxiety

There are a variety of steps you can take to treat and prevent your dog’s signs of separation anxiety.

Consult Your Vet to Rule Out Medical Problems. With a physical exam and lab work, your vet can discover possible health problems that could cause signs of distress—meaning your dog may not suffer from separation anxiety. Arthritis, Cushing’s disease, dental disease, diabetes, an ear infection, gastrointestinal distress, or a urinary tract infection are conditions that might cause symptoms similar to separation anxiety.

Tire Your Dog Out with Exercise. Make sure your anxious dog gets plenty of physical and mental exercise. A tired, content dog who has had a brisk walk and a game of fetch with you is more likely to settle down when you leave, according to the American Kennel Club.

Keep Your Dog Occupied While You’re Gone. Provide your dog with interactive toys or a food-dispensing toy to keep him busy while you are out of the house. Leaving the television or radio on may distract him from your absence.

Teach Your Dog to Relax. If you have a dog who can’t be calm when you’re gone, teach him how to relax while you’re both at home. “Pick a spot—such as a dog bed or rug—that’s about three feet from you,” Horwitz says. “Help your dog learn to settle and relax in that place.” Once your dog learns to relax when you’re home, it will be easier for him to relax when and after you step out the door, she says.

Make Your Routine Less Predictable. Think of your morning ritual. If brushing your teeth is the last thing you do before leaving the house, your dog is conditioned to know that brushing your teeth means you’re leaving and he’s going to be alone. Maybe he hides. Maybe he has an accident. You need to replace that response with a different, more positive one. This is called counter conditioning. Start by changing the way you leave the house; for example, brush your teeth as soon as you get out of the shower. “This change won’t cure your dog’s separation anxiety,” Horwitz says. “But it may alleviate his build-up of anxiety.”

Then help your dog learn to look forward to your leaving. Give him his favorite high-value treat—cheese, lean deli meat, or a Kong toy filled with peanut butter—before you walk out the door. (Even better: Leave a trail of treats that lead to the stuffed Kong.) Your dog will be so busy chewing and swallowing that he may not mind that you have disappeared. (For dogs showing multiple signs of separation anxiety, a food reward may not be enough.)

“Do this every time, and he’ll learn that your pending departure predicts he’ll get something good to eat,” Horwitz says.

Set Up a Place Where He’ll Feel Safe. Some dogs feel safe and comfortable when they are secured in their crates. (If your dog isn’t crate trained, consider working with a positive trainer to teach your pooch the ropes.) Other dogs do everything in their power to escape a crate, possibly hurting themselves in the process. These dogs do better when an owner uses baby gates to set up a smaller enclosed area and closes off certain rooms, says Whole Dog Journal.

Get Your Dog into His Own Bed. Does your dog exhibit signs of separation anxiety at night? (This is sometimes a symptom exhibited by older dogs.) Believe it or not, it doesn’t help your dog’s distress in the long run by letting him sleep in your bed. If he can’t be physically separated from you overnight, how can he remain calm by himself during the day? Whole Dog Journal suggests you give your anxious dog a sleeping space other than your bed. Gently coax your dog back into his own bed each time he tries to climb up into yours. Be patient. Put him in his own bed every time.

Treatment and Prevention for Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety

Get Help from a Pet Professional. More severe cases of separation anxiety require a more complex treatment plan according to the ASPCA. Depending on your dog, you may need to explore a combination of medication and behavior modification. If you decide to explore this option, speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist, or a certified applied animal behaviorist who can work with your vet to help alleviate your dog’s distress.

Help Him Calm Down with Separation Anxiety Medication. Sometimes no amount of training, conditioning, and peanut butter will help a dog with separation anxiety. Your vet may prescribe a daily medication to help diminish your dog’s signs of anxiety. Reconcile, a chewable tablet approved by the FDA for separation anxiety, increases serotonin in your dog’s brain and makes him feel less anxious. FDA-approved Clomicalm tablets increase serotonin, as well as norepinephrine, to help your dog feel calmer. 

“These medicines are not tranquilizers; they’re antidepressants,” Horwitz says. “If you don’t give them every day they won’t work. It takes 2 to 5 weeks for them to have a lasting effect.”

If you need faster results for a dog who is severely distressed, a veterinarian sometimes will prescribe short-term medications that allow dogs to feel less anxious from 2 to 6 hours, Horwitz says. These medicines take 90 minutes or less to take effect—depending on the drug.

What NOT to Do if Your Dog Shows Signs of Separation Anxiety

Don’t scold or punish your dog for exhibiting signs of separation anxiety, even if those signs include destructive behaviors says the ASPCA. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses. Your dog displays anxious behaviors when he’s alone because he’s upset and trying to cope with a great deal of stress. If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.

Special Considerations If You Adopted a Dog During the Covid-19 Lockdown

Kudos to you for giving a rescue dog a forever home. And if you’re working from home due to the lockdown, even better—your dog loves having you around.

You may be surprised when you go back to work and/or you resume your pre-pandemic lifestyle of eating out, attending sporting events, and hanging out with friends. Your rescued dog may show signs of separation anxiety, according to Horwitz. “Be proactive; set up routines for your new dog,” she says. “It’s only fair. Nobody likes change unless it’s their idea.”

Horwitz suggests these steps for helping your dog cope with a post-pandemic world:

  • Teach your dog to settle down on his bed or a mat while you’re still working from home.
  • Plan a short trip in your car. Before you leave, give your dog a Kong toy filled with peanut butter to keep him busy. Return almost right away. He hears the garage door go up and down; sees you're back; and thinks, “No big deal.”
  • Repeat this maneuver, sometimes leaving for 10 minutes, sometimes for 30 minutes. Always give your dog a stuffed Kong toy. He’ll learn you always come back.
  • If needed, set up a safe place from your dog’s point of view, such as a special bedroom or his crate.

Start putting these rules for departing in place now and get your dog used to them before you’re back to your pre-Covid19 routines.