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Does Your Dog Have Separation Anxiety? Experts Share How to Tell if Your Pup Is Suffering and How to Help

Plus, where to turn for professional help

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Whether it’s part of their breed temperament or due to stressful experiences, some dogs are more anxious than others. If your dog tends to whine or bark specifically when you leave the room or house, they might be suffering from some level of separation anxiety. While it’s flattering that your precious pup loves you so much, they don’t want to part with you, it’s not physically or emotionally healthy for them to be upset or scared every time they’re alone. Thankfully, there are things you can do to help ease some of their distress. Here are some of the top tips from veterinarians and canine behavior experts for how to help a dog with separation anxiety.  

What is separation anxiety? 

It might seem like an obvious definition, but there are plenty of behaviors and habits that are often mistaken for separation anxiety. Experts say separation anxiety is defined as a fear of being alone, which occurs when a dog is too attached to their family or a family member and becomes distressed when that person leaves their presence.  

“My theory is that the behavior results from a dog’s natural pack instincts being thwarted by being unable to see, access, or follow their guardian or other attachment figure somewhere,” says Alexandra Bassett, Lead Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant at Dog Savvy. “Pack instincts dictate that a pack animal will naturally feel the urge to keep an eye on, stay close to, and follow their fellow pack members wherever they go. That’s why all dogs follow their guardians from room to room at home and, if given the chance, will follow them when allowed off-leash outdoors, too.”  

This is why Bassett finds that separation anxiety is a stress response in dogs that stems from the inability to fulfill their instinct to stay with their pack, which triggers a primal panic response.  

How to know if your dog has separation anxiety 

In dogs, separation anxiety can manifest in many ways, and many times the dog will begin to exhibit these behaviors both while left alone when they anticipate that they will soon be left alone because their human is getting ready to leave the house.

Inappropriate soiling

A fully house-trained dog loses bladder and bowel control, resulting in defecation or urinating in the house while alone might suffer from separation anxiety.

Destructive behavior

A dog who is chewing or scratching on furniture, their pen or crate, floors, walls or other household items despite being otherwise trained to understand which items are theirs to play with might suffer from separation anxiety. This can also be part of attempted or successful escape maneuvers, which are common in dogs with separation anxiety. 

Vocalizations 

Excessive barking, crying, whining and howling are also potential signs of distress. 

Physical symptoms 

A dog who pants or drools rapidly even though they haven’t recently been physically active or exposed to heat, often accompanied by bulging eyes, is likely anxious. An anxious dog might also shake and tremble, or pace back and forth in a specific pattern and be unable to settle down and relax. Excessive shedding and unusually sweaty paws that leave wet paw prints are also signs of anxiety. Destructive behavior or attempted escapes can also result in self-trauma including broken teeth, nails or even bones. 

Signs of depression and lack of appetite 

An anxious dog also might refuse to eat their food, treats or engage with their favorite toys while suffering from anxiety. 

Are these symptoms always due to separation anxiety?

In most cases, if your dog does any of these things while in your presence, there are likely other causes unrelated to separation anxiety and due more to a lack of house manners. For example, if they’re urinating or defecating in the same room as you, they’re probably not fully potty-trained, and if they are, you might need to look into potential incontinence issues. Additionally, a naturally rambunctious and curious puppy might be destructive in the early stages of being in a new environment. If your dog is barking or howling while you’re around, they might be reacting to unfamiliar or triggering sounds or sights. There are also a variety of instinctual reasons a dog might be digging inside

Why do dogs develop separation anxiety? 

Dog in crate
Oscar Wong/Getty

“Separation anxiety happens when a dog is too attached to the family or family member and becomes distressed when they leave,” explains Nell Ostermeier, DVM, CVA, FAAVA, and veterinary advisor at Figo Pet Insurance.  “It can happen when a puppy is not properly socialized with other dogs or people, or if they do not get used to ‘alone time’ during their development. Separation anxiety can develop in adult dogs if they get used to having us home and then our schedule changes. Some senior dogs become more nervous or less confident with age and may develop separation anxiety.”

Bassett notes that separation anxiety can also occur after a dog suffers a traumatic event such as abandonment, change in ownership, or too much time spent in isolation; following the sudden loss of a beloved family member (a human or another dog) due to breakups, divorce, or death; or when being dropped off at a daycare, boarding, or grooming facility for the first time. 

“Many dogs who are adopted from the shelter or found on the streets have separation anxiety, so it begs the question: did the dog have separation anxiety before being abandoned or did the abandonment cause the separation anxiety?” adds Bassett. “In this case, it could be speculated that the trauma from being abandoned might have caused the condition since many dogs who have been abandoned don’t want to take their eyes off their new guardians or be separated from them for a single moment. I refer to this as ‘abandonment trauma.’” 

While the exact reasons a dog suffers may be unclear, experts are certain that the dog parent is usually not at fault, notes Nicole Kohanski, CTC, CDBC, CBCC-KA and Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) with training service Wiggle Butt Academy. Of course, this excludes cases of neglect. 

“Loving a dog too much or spending a lot of time with a dog does not cause separation anxiety,” reaffirms Kohanski. 

How to help a dog with separation anxiety

Early intervention

To have the best chance of preventing separation anxiety in your dog, experts recommend proper socialization and training of young puppies to help build up their tolerance for spending time alone. Crate and pen training can help reduce anxiety and provide the dog with a safe and comfortable retreat, while also getting them used to being left alone. Older dogs can be harder to treat, but if you welcome home an older dog, it’s still beneficial to start this training right away. 

Desensitization 

“A Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer will use a desensitization protocol to help your dog feel better about departure cues such as grabbing your shoes, bag and keys,” says Kohanski. “We will practice absences in short increments of time that your dog can handle without feeling fear or anxiety. Over time, these time increments grow as your dog understands that your absence is safe and you will return.”

Kohanski adds that fear, anxiety and stress will not be treated with punishment, which only creates added anxiety and fear. Kindness and humane training is the best approach to helping your dog.

Related: When Dog Training, Use Positive Reinforcement (Versus Punishment) — Here’s Why

Keep your dog active 

Especially for adult dogs, Dr. Ostemeir emphasizes the importance of adequate exercise. For most dogs, she says, a half hour of exercise twice per day will help to prevent nervous energy. The ideal type and length of each exercise will depend on your dog, but walks, free play, jogs or hikes can all suffice.

Try complementary medicine 

A dog with separation anxiety may also benefit from natural or pharmaceutical medications in addition to training, says Dr. Ostemeir. Integrative medicine and holistic treatment options such as acupuncture and herbs alongside conventional treatments or medications, she says, has been shown to reduce anxiety in humans and dogs.

How to tell when to get professional help

A large breed black and brown dog lays down on an exam table while on a visit to the veterinarian
FatCamera/Getty

Separation anxiety will only worsen over time if left untreated, so if you find that you can’t manage the issue on your own or that your dog is experiencing serious physical or physiological impacts, it might be time to hire a professional dog trainer or take your dog to see the vet so they can rule out underlying health issues and help you decide on the best course of treatment.

“There is no quick fix for separation anxiety,” Kohanski says. “Progress is not linear, and a professional can help you navigate the bumpy road to success.”


Read on for more dog training solutions!

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