Updated November 29, 2020
‘At A Glance (Details Below)’ Essential Facts
How To Treat Separation Anxiety
- Separation anxiety causes severe physical and mental trauma
- Consult a force-free professional ASAP to avoid worsening
- Gradual desensitisation is used for departures and brief separations
- Don’t write off medication- it can relieve suffering and improve results
Now dive deeper.
You probably already know a dog with Separation Anxiety. After all, it’s one of the most common mental illnesses of dogs. Here’s how to recognise and treat separation anxiety and how to help avoid your puppy from ever suffering its effects. At the end we also talk about how to help a dog with bereavement when their companion dies.
What Is Canine Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety refers to displays of anxiety or distress caused by the absence of a particular person or persons. Dogs are social animals; is it a surprise that not all of them cope with being alone?
The signs can vary from mild to severe but you should see at least one of the following behaviours. For true separation anxiety, these are usually at their worst just after you leave your pet.
Destruction is usually not random but focuses on digging and chewing at entry and exit points to the house and yard. Some dogs in their distress are capable of chewing through doors or removing wooden window frames. I have even seen galvanised iron fences torn open and holes chewed right through hollow walls. Obviously they can get badly injured in the process.
Crying, Howling, Whining and Barking also occur. Vocalisation may go almost continuously throughout the day but you may not even know until your neighbours alert you.
Pacing is usually obvious from a worn track in your grass or blood marks on paved areas where your dog’s nails and feet have been bleeding.
Escape attempts can be frequent and determined, often causing injury.
Abnormal toileting such as faeces smeared and trodden around the yard or house suggest extreme distress.
More subtle signs can just be trembling, shaking, hypersalivation, depression or not eating, especially as you prepare to leave.
Dogs prone to separation anxiety often ‘shadow’ their owners when they are at home.
If you aren’t certain what is happening, how about pretending to leave just like you always do, parking the car and sneaking back? Or set up a camera to record video during the day.
What Else Could Be The Cause?
- Boredom and ‘normal’ puppy behaviour can both involve vocalisation, digging and chewing.
- Barking can be ‘normal’ if there is a stimulus such as a cat or possum, or a busy footpath. Read about the causes of barking here.
- Escape is always tempting for a male dog still in possession of his testicles.
- Incontinence is complex. Peeing inside is more often a medical disorder.
- Other anxiety disorders such as noise phobias or canine OCD can mimic separation anxiety.
- Health problems such as liver disease or chronic pain and neurological disorders are easily confused with behaviour disorders. A good clue is that most behaviour problems start before a dog turns 3 years old. If the problem has a later age of onset, be suspicious of something else.
Always see a vet to confirm the diagnosis.
Which Dogs Are More At Risk Of Separation Anxiety?
These dogs will benefit from extra early help.
Dogs with single adult owners and those from rescue shelters or pet shops are at a higher risk of separation-related distress (McGreevy & Masters, 2015).
How To Prevent Separation Anxiety
By teaching puppies to be strong and resilient, they are more likely to thrive later as adults. However, these tips are only for prevention, never for treatment.
Puppy preschool gives you and your puppy an advanced puppy toolkit to prevent behaviour problems from starting. We only use positive, Delta Society-approved methods.
Crate training is an excellent strategy to teach independence and settling. Read our guide to crate training!
Controlled separation to teach your puppy to also enjoy their own company, as well as the company of not just one owner. To do this, gently introduce time apart to teach your puppy they can be happy away from you.
Dog training run by Delta-accredited instructors to give you skills to enhance your dog’s confidence.
Other good advice includes teaching puppies to sleep separately from their owners. This will be easy if you have already completed crate training.
Finally, an excellent tool for teaching puppies to be independent is ‘Nothing in life is for free’. All this means is that for any positive reward, attention or cuddles, ask your puppy to do something first, like ‘sit’ and then reward. This small act subtly reinforces the bond between you and your puppy and appears to make them more relaxed and confident.
How To Treat Separation Anxiety
The sooner you recognise and treat separation anxiety, the easier it will be to help. It’s not going to go away by itself. Young dogs who haven’t been allowed to develop longstanding habits have the best prognosis for recovery.
See your vet as soon as possible. We will be able to make sure it’s really separation anxiety, quickly see what we can do to help, and see whether we need to bring in a dog behaviour expert or specialist. We have several excellent recommendations we can make.
Safety first. Many dogs get seriously hurt so make the environment in which you leave your dog as safe as possible.
Reduce your dog’s attachment by teaching them to be apart from you while you are at home. Do this slowly and patiently, building up from very short periods apart without your dog becoming distressed. Use rewards and distractions as much as needed until your dog can be comfortable in a different room, or happily be outside while you are indoors.
Reduce departure anxiety. Most dogs ‘wind up’ their distress as they see you preparing to leave. If your dog can keep calm up to the first 30 minutes after you go they will probably be OK for the whole day or night.
- Always take your dogs for a walk or run before you leave. This establishes a healthy pre-departure routine and reduces some of their excitability.
- Be calm, confident and don’t make a fuss as you leave. However, we no longer recommend that you ignore your dog for 15 minutes before departure.
- Provide activity such as treat dispensers, food puzzles, food scattered in the yard, buried objects to keep your dog busy as you leave.
- Make it hard for your dog to tell when you will leave by frequently doing the things you normally do when you leave. Pick up keys, turn off the lights, put things away etc and repeat these several times each day until your dog doesn’t react.
- Practise ‘dummy departures’ where you leave as per the usual routine, but come back within minutes. Do these several times each day, keeping the absence short enough that your dog does not get visibly anxious. Slowly increase the time away if your dog remains calm without every provoking anxiety.
Avoid exaggerated welcomes. When you come home, greet them without making a fuss, and only play with them when they have calmed down. You don’t have to ignore them but also don’t make your homecoming the highlight of their day.
Don’t punish. These dogs are already anxious and distressed. Punishment will always make it worse. Using an anti-bark collar is also a form of punishment and should not be tried. See the ‘joke’? This dog isn’t guilty, she’s scared of her owner’s reaction.
Getting a second dog won’t help. A dog with separation anxiety caused by the lack of a person is not helped by another dog. In fact, the second dog may even learn to do the same thing.
Be flexible. If all your dog wants to do is get to a safe zone such as the couch or your bed, why not just let them do that? As long as they’ve been for a walk before you leave and toileted, they can usually sleep all day without needing to go out until you get home.
Use dog training. Just like for prevention, dog training adds confidence and security to most dogs who attend regularly.
Create predictable routines. Dogs are always happier if they can predict their day, and even more so with anxiety. Try to provide meals, walks, training, day care, play, bones, treat dispensers in as structured a way as possible.
Reward calm behaviour. Don’t forget to notice when your dog is coping well! But at the same time don’t listen to people who say you will ‘reward’ bad behaviour if you comfort your dog when they are showing signs of anxiety. They aren’t doing it for your benefit!
Leave an audiobook on when you go out. A study by Brayley & Montrose (2016) has shown audiobooks are superior to classical music in increasing resting behaviour and reducing barking & vocalisation in shelter dogs.
Get expert assistance. There are excellent and caring dog behaviourists who would love to help you and your dog. Just a warning though: you should get your dog a checkup with a vet to rule out other health problems first, and many behaviourists will insist upon it. Ask us for our recommendations!
DAP is a pheromone which can create a calming sensation in affected dogs. We sell it as sprays suitable to use on a bandanna, plug in diffusers or impregnated in collars which last one month.
Thundershirts are tight fitting jackets modelled on the concept of swaddling an infant. They do seem to help some dogs.
Medication can really make a difference. We want you to do other things as well, but we find the careful use of short-term medication can dramatically improve response rates. Read more about anxiety medication for dogs here.
And finally, it’s OK to Give up! If it works, there’s nothing wrong with taking the path of using doggy day care or dropping your dog off at a friend or relative’s place while you’re out. Many older people would benefit from the companionship; why not ask around?
Related: Storm and Firework Anxiety in Dogs
What if your dog is grieving the loss of a partner when his companion dies?
- Be patient. Most mourning dogs adapt, but it can be slow, just like for us.
- Give your dog more of your time for walks, play and attention; even go back to dog training classes!
- Keep up the consistent routine that your dog expects.
- Allow special treats and access to favourite places.
- Use doggy day care or borrow a friend’s dog if it helps
- Consult your vet to confirm the diagnosis, referral advice, medication and pheromone therapy
When should you get a new dog?
Firstly, make sure you’re ready, but then how do you know when your dog is ready for a new buddy? Some dogs’ symptoms of grieving go away as soon as another dog is on the scene, whereas other dogs will need time just like humans. Probably the only way to know when your dog’s ready is to stage trial introductions. Many shelters will allow you to take dogs on trial; don’t feel bad if you have to take the dog back the first or second time you try. You’re looking for behaviour like tail wagging, play bows, following around whereas aggresssion or just ignoring and avoiding the dog suggest more time is needed.
Brayley, C., & Montrose, V. T. (2016). The effects of audiobooks on the behaviour of dogs at a rehoming kennels. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 174, 111-115.
Flannigan, G., & Dodman, N. H. (2001). Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219(4), 460-466.
McGreevy, P. D., & Masters, A. M. (2008). Risk factors for separation-related distress and feed-related aggression in dogs: additional findings from a survey of Australian dog owners. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 109(2), 320-328.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.