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How to deal with separation anxiety in dogs

  • 18, May 2021
  • Read time: 11 mins

Like humans, dogs are social creatures and love bonding with people. When they're left alone, they may find it distressing. Separation related behaviour can occur for many reasons. According to MORE THAN’s research, over a fifth (23%) of owners are unable to confidently spot the tell-tale signs their dog is anxious*. And, it's important that you get to the root of the issue for your dog’s wellbeing.

Luckily, you're in the right place. This guide will teach you the signs of separation anxiety, the triggers and how to help your dog feel calm alone.

A picture of an unhappy dog looking out the window missing its owners.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a condition that causes dogs to feel stressed when they are left alone. It’s a condition that can affect dogs of all ages and breeds.

Why do some dogs develop separation anxiety?

Dog separation anxiety can be a stressful experience for both you and your dog. So, what are the most common reasons that cause dogs to develop separation anxiety?

  • Lack of training
  • Lack of socialisation
  • Fear of something inside the house
  • Fear of something outside the house
  • Big changes such as a new home, new routine or new housemate.

Common symptoms of dog separation anxiety

Panting, pacing, attempts to escape the house, damaging furniture, relieving themselves, barking, excitement and excessive salivation are all signs that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety.

Panting: if your dog is panting even though they aren't hot or exercised, they may be feeling stressed.

Pacing: some dogs will pace in a circle or back and forth when stressed. If your dog does this when you're present, then it may not be separation anxiety related.

Attempts to escape the house: this is an extreme symptom of separation anxiety. Trying to escape can result in injury to your dog as they cause destruction around windows and doors.

Damaging furniture: this can be misunderstood as bad manners. But, if your dog chews furniture when you leave, it is probably not related to training. It's more likely that they are experiencing stress.

Relieving themselves: again, this can be misunderstood as not house trained or bad doggy manners. Rather, your dog could be showing stress, if accompanied with other anxiety behaviours.

Barking, whining or howling: a dog who is experiencing stress when left alone may bark or howl. This barking is persistent and isn't triggered by anything except them being alone.

Extreme excitement when you come home: it's common for your dog to be happy when they see you. But, if they are too excited and aroused after being home alone, this can be a sign of separation anxiety.

Excessive salivation: dogs can drool for many reasons such as excitement or heat. If they don't usually drool excessively when you're at home, they could be showing stress to you leaving.

Is it really separation anxiety?

Figuring out if your dog has separation anxiety can be difficult. The behaviour happens when you're not home, which makes it harder to identify and resolve. A good solution to this problem is a camera. By setting up a camera, you'll have footage of your dog's behaviour and what triggers it when they're alone.

When you're watching the footage, look out for signs of separation anxiety. Are they pacing, barking, becoming destructive? Once your dog does an unusual behaviour, rewind to see if there's anything that could be a trigger. Did a person pass the house? Was there a loud, unusual noise?

Once you have a greater understanding of what is causing your dog's stress, it will be easier to find a solution. Some behaviours could be a result of boredom, frustration or even a medical problem, rather than anxiety.

Medical problems to rule out first

Before you start separation anxiety training or treatment, rule out any health issues.

A common health condition to check for is Incontinence Caused by Medical Problems. If your dog urinates in the house when you leave, it may not be separation related.

They may have incontinence caused by:

  • Hormone problems
  • A urinary tract infection
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Neurological issues.

If you need some expert advice, MORE THAN dog insurance customers have access to vetfone, a freephone advice line available 24/7. Expert help from qualified veterinary nurses is only a phone call away. We also recommend that you book an appointment with your vet to check your dog isn't suffering from a health condition.

Top tips from animal behaviourist Karen Wild for easing dog anxiety

How to prevent dog separation anxiety

Before you try these preventative tips, we do recommend seeking professional help. Separation anxiety is as unique as your dog. No two cases are the same. These tips may support your dog, but, for more personal advice, please speak to your vet for help.

Setting your dog up for success is important when trying to relieve their stress of being alone. Early training is essential, but we understand that isn't always possible.

Here are a few things you can do to help your dog’s separation anxiety no matter their breed or age.

Prepare a safe space

Start by teaching your dog that it's ok to be alone while you are still at home. Create a safe, confined area for them to relax while you go about your day. This could be an exercise pen or a safe room with gates rather than the doors shut. Make sure they have access to water, safe treats and toys to help them associate the area as a safe place.

When they're comfortable, you can start leaving them in their confined area when you go out.

Training

Step 1: Start by training your dog throughout the day by taking them to their safe area with a tasty treat they can enjoy. You could try a long-lasting chew. Start slow and begin by staying in sight of your dog without interacting with them so they don't get stressed or feel alone. When your dog relaxes with their treat, open the gate so that your dog can decide when they'd like to leave. This choice is important at this stage to help your dog associate the area as safe rather than a punishment.

Step 2: If your dog is progressing, increase the time you leave your dog in their safe area. Keep going with this step until you feel they will stay calm if you go out of sight.

Step 3: Keep building upon the time you can leave your dog in their safe area while you're elsewhere in the home. Aim to get to 30 minutes before moving to the next step.

Step 4: It's time to try leaving them alone while you go out. Prepare their safe area as you have been and give them a treat to enjoy as before. Keeping to this routine will help your dog stay calm. Only when your dog has settled can you get ready and leave. Try leaving for a few minutes and coming back, repeat this throughout the day.

Step 5: Begin to increase the amount of time you leave your dog alone. Aim to get to 30 minutes again.

If at any point your dog shows signs of separation anxiety, go back 1 or 2 steps. Consistency is important to help your dog overcome their fear of being without you. Be patient, some dogs will progress slower than others, but keep going.

Exercise

Exercising your dog before leaving is a great way to prevent separation anxiety. With their energy used up on a fun walk or play, they're more likely to cosy down for a nap while you head out.

Dog separation anxiety treatment

Before you try these tips, we do recommend seeking professional help. Separation anxiety looks different in every dog and there is no one way to treat it. These tips may support your dog, but, for more personal advice, please speak to your vet for help.

When you're certain that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, it's time to treat it. If your dog is experiencing mild to moderate symptoms, you can try our tips to support your dog.

Use fun distractions

An effective way to keep your dog calm while you're gone is to keep them busy. Giving your dog something positive to occupy their brain rather than their separation anxiety. Even though you aren't there to play, there are some fun dog puzzle games that can entertain them. Test a few out on your dog to see which one they engage with the most and for the longest.

Short and sweet goodbyes

It's natural to want to give your dog extra cuddles and love before you leave them at home. If you give them all that attention then suddenly walk out the front door, you could be adding to their stress. Try to ignore them as much as possible and leave in a calm manner so you don't rile your dog up.

De-sensitise them to leaving cues

Dogs are clever creatures. They will start to pick up on cues that lead up to the thing they hate most; you going out without them. If you spot that your dog gets stressed when you put your shoes on or grab your keys, do these cues more but don't leave.

Your dog will slowly become less sensitive to these actions and less stressed when you leave.

Leave the radio on

Human voices can help with your dog’s separation anxiety. When you need to leave your dog at home, tune in to a radio station with lots of talking to reassure them while you're gone.

Crate training

Crate training can give your dog a sense of security and comfort when you aren't around. Make sure you spend time crate training your dog before using it as their safe space when you leave. Otherwise, you risk increasing their stress levels and separation anxiety.

The best way to leave your dog in their crate is to help them make the choice to go in there, rather than forcing them in.

Calm reunions

Much like your short and sweet goodbye, try to keep coming home a calm event. When you first walk through the door, don't immediately greet your dog. Ignore them for a moment while you settle back in and your dog has settled.

By keeping this low key, it reduces the significance of it in your dogs mind. Making it less likely that they'll feel stressed by your comings and goings.

What NOT to do

Now we've given some advice on what you can do, it's time to outline some things NOT to do. Not only could you damage your relationship, but you could also be making your dog's anxiety worst.

Don't punish your dog. While it may feel natural to feel angry or disappointed, don't share those emotions with your dog. It's important to remember that they won't understand why you're punishing them. They don't realise that chewing the sofa or going to the toilet when stressed is undesirable. They may think you are punishing them simply because you came home, making things much worse.

Don't leave your dog for too long. Get organised and plan if you are going to be busy for longer than 6 hours. You can organise day care services or a dog sitter to help when you're away from home for a longer amount of time.

Is medication necessary?

If your dog's separation anxiety is severe and getting worse, they may need medication. Seek the help of your vet who might recommend some natural remedies or some medication to help your dog relax. MORE THAN dog insurance customers can also call vetfone for advice from qualified veterinary nurses.

Insurance cover for your dog

If the unexpected happens, MORE THAN dog insurance is here to help. Choose from our 4 cover levels to find the right cover for your dog.

* Based on March 2021 research: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from Censuswide. The total sample size was 1,000 dog owners in the UK. Fieldwork was undertaken between 14 to 18 May 2021.

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