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Dog Parent's Guide to Separation Anxiety

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David Adams

March 07, 2024

Dog Training

Dog Parent's Guide to Separation Anxiety thumbnail

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Separation anxiety is a pretty common behavioral problem in pet dogs, especially since the rise of work-from-home opportunities. Our dogs are social animals who bond deeply with their people. It’s completely normal for them to prefer to be with us rather than alone!

But even though it’s natural to a degree, canine separation anxiety can really disrupt your life — and your dog’s health — especially if it’s severe. No one wants to worry that they’ll return to an injured or otherwise overwhelmed dog when they have to leave for work or to run an errand.

Let’s take a look at what exactly separation anxiety is and what you can do to help your four-legged best friend feel more independent!

What exactly is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety dogs experience when they’re overly attached to family members. In short: They’re unable to handle being without their owners.

While it’s normal for your pet to love you — and for both of you to be a little sad when you have to leave each other — dogs with separation anxiety become extremely distressed. The reach a level of anxiety where they essentially have a panic attack. They might vocalize, escape confinement, destroy household objects, and use the bathroom indoors when they're without their key attachment figure. (None of those things are fun for them or for you.)

Many dogs suffering from separation anxiety will want to stay as close to their guardians as possible. They might follow family members from room to room and likely struggle to spend time alone, either outside or in other areas of the house, even when everyone is physically present.

It’s common for these dogs to show anxious behavior as soon as their people engage in rituals that might indicate a departure, like reaching for a set of keys or putting on a jacket.

Separation anxiety behaviors usually occur every time a dog is separated from their owner. There are some cases, however, where only certain absences trigger the experience.

How does canine separation anxiety differ from isolation anxiety?

The terms are often used interchangeably (separation anxiety is by far the most common) but technically speaking, separation anxiety arises when a dog is uncomfortable being left by a specific caretaker (or handful of caretakers) while isolation anxiety is when a dog simply can’t handle being by themselves.

Dogs with isolation anxiety can often be left with other pets or people, while dogs with separation anxiety will struggle to be anywhere without their owners.

Common symptoms of separation anxiety

Some of the most common separation-related behaviors and signs of anxiety include:

  • Scratching and pawing at doors, windows, or other thresholds
  • Trying to escape confinement (like chewing out of a plastic crate or bending a wire one)
  • Destroying household objects
  • Chewing on their own body parts if nothing else is available to access
  • Vocalizing (barking, whining, and howling are more common)
  • Urinating or defecating indoors (in dogs that are already completely house trained — this is normal behavior for a young puppy still learning to control their bladder and bowels)
  • Pacing back and forth or otherwise showing an inability to settle

A dog unhappily barking in a kennel, which is a symptom of separation anxiety

Unwanted behavior that is not separation anxiety

Many canine separation anxiety symptoms overlap with other behavior issues. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell exactly what’s going on with our dogs!

Keep in mind that separation anxiety is specific to being left alone. If your dog exhibits any of the below behaviors while key caretakers are still present, those specific instances wouldn’t be classified as separation anxiety. 

Boredom can look like separation anxiety on the outside

A dog who is bored may exhibit destructive behaviors like chewing and shredding, vocalizations like barking and whining, or other symptoms that may look similar to separation anxiety. The key difference here is in emotional state: A bored dog is unfulfilled and needs more outlets for their energy. They likely show signs of boredom even when the entire family is home.

A dog with separation anxiety, on the other hand, is experiencing an intense, uncontrollable response when left by themselves.

If you suspect your dog might be bored, try increasing the amount of exercise they get each day, and give them toys that promote mental stimulation, like food puzzles. Providing additional enrichment should help take care of the problem!

Related links:

Potty training struggles

It’s normal for young puppies, or even recently adopted adult dogs, to have accidents in the house if they aren’t already house trained. Potty training can be a long process that isn’t always linear! (More on that in the links below.)

While indoor urination and defecation are symptoms of separation anxiety, keep in mind that’s only the case if the behavior is directly linked to being left alone. If your house trained dog soils the carpet only when you leave the house? That sounds like a contender for a separation anxiety response. If your puppy keeps going where they aren't supposed to even when you’re home? That simply indicates the need to return to potty training basics.

Related links:

Typical puppy or adolescent dog behavior

Ah, puppies and adolescence. The teenage years are notoriously difficult in dogs just like in humans! It’s common for puppies to exhibit a range of behavioral concerns that can in some cases look like separation anxiety but might simply be due to their age and current level of training. This includes distress behaviors like scratching at doors when they’re excited to go through, chewing on objects that aren’t toys, and so on.

If your teenage dog destroys your couch cushions and shoes while you’re still home? Separation anxiety isn’t the issue you need to resolve.

Related links:

Rule out medical concerns before assuming your dog has separation anxiety

Before deciding that your dog has separation anxiety, it’s important to rule out medical issues that might be contributing to their behavior. This is a good idea before embarking on any behavioral modification training plan! It’s hard for our dogs to function at their best emotionally and mentally if they aren’t feeling quite right physically.

In particular, peeing and pooping in the house might be caused by a range of conditions. Incontinence is a broad category where a dog leaks their bladder without realizing it. (This often happens in their sleep.) Many medical problems, like urinary tract infections, hormone imbalances, kidney disease, and neurological conditions can contribute to urinary incontinence.

Some dogs also have anxiety reactions to different types of medication.

Sniffspot Dog running on field

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Why do dogs get separation anxiety?

We don’t have any conclusive evidence that tells us why some dogs get separation anxiety while others don’t. It does not appear to be related to breed, and dogs from just about any background can end up struggling to be left alone.

That said: Dogs who are adopted from shelters seem to suffer with canine separation anxiety more than dogs who have been kept by the same family since puppyhood. This could be for two main reasons.

  1. It’s possible that separation anxiety is tied to a dog losing an important person (or group of people) earlier in their life. We have evidence that dogs can experience single-event or one-trial learning — being abandoned or displaced can be a traumatic event with a lasting impact. Many dogs who come from shelter environments never show signs of separation anxiety, though, so there are definitely more factors at play.
  2. Second, it’s possible that people are more likely to relinquish or rehome dogs with severe separation anxiety, since it’s a difficult behavioral problem to manage especially if the family has to work outside of the home. That could also explain why separation anxiety symptoms appear more commonly in shelter dogs.

There are also other, more minor triggers that might contribute to separation anxiety in dogs who are already prone to it. These include a change in schedule, a change of residence, or the sudden absence of part of the household (like if a family member passes away or moves to another place).

Upsets in routine might lead to separation anxiety

A change in schedule — especially if it happens quickly without being able to ease your dog into it — can trigger the development of separation anxiety symptoms. This is especially true when it affects the amount of time your dog is left alone.

One of the most common examples is a dog owner working remotely and spending all day with their four legged best friend, only to suddenly get a new job that requires them to be away from home and in an office all day long.

Environmental changes might contribute to separation anxiety

In some cases, moving into a new house or apartment can trigger the development of separation anxiety in pet dogs. This seems to be more common if the change in environment extends to other areas of your dog’s life, too — like going from the city to the country or vice versa (which can be stressful even for the most stable of companions).

Family changes are also linked to some separation anxiety cases

As mentioned above, it’s possible that being surrendered to a shelter or given to another family can make it more likely for a dog to develop separation anxiety. This is not a guarantee — and sometimes rehoming is the best option for everyone involved in a situation! — but it’s important to be aware of.

Likewise, the sudden disappearance of a beloved family member (due to death, a move, or other life circumstances) can also trigger separation anxiety.

Is your dog’s separation anxiety your fault?

Many factors might contribute to canine separation anxiety — but it can also develop in perfectly sound, healthy animals who have had stable upbringings. If your dog struggles to be left alone? Don’t blame yourself!

Some old-school dog trainers will try to act like all instances of separation anxiety are the family’s fault, but that’s simply not the case. Emotions and behavior are too complex to have one single cause.

So say it with us: Your dog does not have separation anxiety because you’ve given them too much affection. They do not have separation anxiety because you aren’t a good enough owner. They have separation anxiety likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

And you can help them feel better about being on their own!

A dog and owner snuggle together

Short-term separation anxiety management

Thundershirts or other anti-anxiety wraps

Thundershirts and similar wraps apply a constant, mild pressure to your dog’s torso. This is meant to be soothing, similar to how we humans swaddle babies or use weighted blankets to alleviate stress.

Some dogs take very well to these wraps, while others don’t. It’s difficult to know ahead of time whether an anti-anxiety shirt or wrap will be effective for your dog, but you can always consider crafting a DIY version to see how your dog responds. 

Anti anxiety dog beds

There are a few types of dog beds that may help with separation anxiety.

Bolsters

Bolsters are raised edges that run along the side of a bed (ideal for curling against or leaning on).

Burrow beds

Burrow beds or “cave-style” beds are kind of like a sleeping bag. They’re ideal for dogs who feel safest under blankets.

Donut shaped beds

Donut-shaped fuzzy beds are soft, fluffy, and (in theory) comforting.

Do anti anxiety dog beds actually work?

It’s tough to say how effective the different types of dog beds are, especially when it comes to separation anxiety (which is usually a pretty intense emotional experience).

While there is very little risk associated with them (they’re not going to make your dog’s anxiety worse, so feel free to give them a try!) it’s also important to know that there is no definitive data on their effectiveness. And keep in mind that many high end pet products can get expensive. You might consider allocating your resources to professional training instead.

Dog calming sprays

Pet calming sprays use calming pheromones to help soothe stressed out dogs or cats. You simply need to spray (or use a diffuser) in the room that your dog is in. Like most products marketed for our pets' fears and anxieties, the jury is still out on whether or not they actually work.

Most of the published research has been done on Feliway (cat pheromones) and D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone). In several studies, both of these products seemed to help soothe stressed pets under some circumstances. (However, most of these studies were funded by the products' maker — so take them with a grain of salt.)

Calming treats for dogs

A variety of “calming treats” are widely available these days. These treats may contain anything from chamomile to melatonin to CBD or a combination.

CBD calming treats

CBD treats are becoming increasingly popular, and some dog parents report that they find them effective, but keep in mind that at this time, there are no FDA-approved CBD products for pets.)

Other calming treats

There is some data that Anxitane, Zylkene, Soliquin, and similar veterinary over-the-counter calming non-CBD products can help alleviate anxiety in our pets. Many of these options include L-Theanine, milk products such as casein, and herbal ingredients.

Always talk with your veterinarian before giving your dog any new drug or medication, even if it’s sold over the counter. Remember that even if calming treats work well for your dog — and they might! — you will still likely need to use them in combination with behavior modification training. We wish there was an “easy cure” but the truth is that canine separation anxiety takes time and well-rounded effort to work through.

High anxiety dog crates

Dogs with separation anxiety might benefit from certain types of dog crates. Dog trainers generally recommend choosing a crate that is not too big (some anxious dogs like a smaller crate for coziness), cave-like (rather than cage-like), secure, and contains nothing that can be chewed.

Keep in mind that simply putting your anxious dog into a crate will not automatically calm them down — and in some cases, being confined can make things worse. You should always take care to properly condition your dog to any tool you use and work with a professional trainer to ensure a positive experience if at all in doubt.

Learn about crate training:

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How to develop a long-term separation anxiety training plan

Short-term management through the above products and solutions can absolutely be part of addressing your dog’s separation anxiety. Above all, though? You want to help your dog truly feel better about being without you.

This is typically done through a combination of counterconditioning (which means changing your dog’s emotional association with a certain thing), desensitization, and other behavioral modification techniques. The specifics of your training plan will vary depending on how severe your dog’s separation anxiety is.

Separation anxiety treatment plans typically involve:

Many things go in to the proper treatment of separation anxiety.

Preventing full-blown fear episodes

When trying to counter condition or desensitize your dog to something they’re afraid of (in this case, being left alone) it’s important to prevent them from experiencing their fear in its full intensity.

In practice, this means most dogs going through separation anxiety training can’t be left by themselves except during specific training sessions. We know this is incredibly hard to achieve, especially depending on your work schedule and location! We recommend calling on a professional trainer, friend, neighbor, or other members of your support network if possible.

Conditioning pre-departure cues

Many dogs with separation anxiety start to feel anxious even before their owners have left. Dogs are great at pattern mapping, and any signal that becomes associated with your departure — like getting ready in the bathroom, putting on your shows, grabbing a bag, and so on — can let them know that you’re about to leave. Over time, these small actions can cause an anxiety response just as intense as actually leaving your dog alone.

How can you fix this? Help change your dog’s emotional association with these pre-departure rituals.

Teach them that when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, it doesn’t always mean you’re leaving. Consider doing those things periodically throughout the day while still staying home with your dog.

Remember that your dog might have months or even years of experience learning the significance of these cues, though. It might take many repetitions of your “fake” versions to help them feel better! Bring your patience before you move on to real departures.

Graduated departures and absences

Eventually, most separation anxiety training plans start working with quick absences to gradually increase your dog’s ability to handle being on their own for longer periods of time. The main rule here: You need to be gone for less time than it takes for your dog to become upset. (In the beginning, this might only be a few seconds.)

You can get started with this by doing simple things like:

  • Training an out-of-sight sit or down stay behind an inside door in your house. (Don’t work with the front door yet, as that location is likely too charged with an intense emotional association.)
  • Bit by bit increase the length of time you wait where your dog can’t see you.
  • Consider practicing your pre-departure cues while your dog is in the stay. This is similar in some ways to Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol, a popular part of many dog trainers’ toolkits.

Consult with a professional trainer and trusted veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist

Every dog’s treatment plan will vary

A professional trainer will help you develop an effective, sustainable separation anxiety treatment plan tailored to your individual lifestyle. We recommend getting in touch with an expert when dealing with behavioral problems as severe as this.

You might consider anti anxiety medication

Prescription medication or drug therapy can also be an effective avenue for dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety. (Over-the-counter medications, like calming treats, will usually not be enough for dogs with separation anxiety of this magnitude.)

It’s important to talk to your vet about any medication first. And keep in mind that meds should be used in combination with behavior modification training! If given correctly, medication can help your dog to feel less stressed, and therefore be better able to develop new associations during training.

For more detailed information, take a look at our article on medication for anxious dogs.

What not to do for your dog’s separation anxiety

Don’t punish your dog for barking or whining

Never punish your dog for separation anxiety. Your dog is not acting anxious out of “disobedience” but out of distress. If your dog has separation anxiety, they are in a state of extreme emotion where they can’t control themselves. Punishment will only upset them further and can make the problem worse.

Don’t get another dog to “fix” the problem

This may sound like a good idea, but getting another dog usually doesn’t work, because your dog’s separation anxiety is related to being separated from you specifically (not being alone in general).

Don’t simply crate your dog without other training

Teaching your dog to feel comfortable in a crate is an incredibly valuable skill. Crate training can help some dogs with their separation anxiety if they learn that their den is a safe, secure place to go! For certain dogs, though, being confined can actually increase stress, fear, and anxiety.

Malena DeMartini-Price, a leading expert on separation anxiety in dogs, told Sniffspot that too often, a crate solves the problem for the human, but not for the dog: “What I often see is when the dog is stressed and destroying or escaping the crate, people just get a stronger crate… now the dog can't escape and the people don't see any damage, but the dog is still stressed and the problem is absolutely still there for the dog.” 

It’s a good idea to see how your dog feels about their crate when you’re home with them before trying to leave them in it while you’re gone for longer periods of time. If they show signs of distress — like lots of drooling, escape attempts, panting, or neverending crying — consider leaving them in a secure room like a bathroom or in an area sectioned off with baby gates instead.

Related links:

An Australian cattle dog happily rests in their dog crate

Sniffspot Dog running on field

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You’re not alone if your dog struggles with separation anxiety

Separation anxiety can be frustrating. No one wants to feel like a prisoner in your own home — or to watch your beloved companion struggle with big emotions you wish you could just alleviate.

With training, patience, and support, though? You can help your dog manage their separation anxiety and live a happier life by your side (and on their own).

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Marnie Montgomery
PMCT4, CPDT-KA
Tellington TTouch® Practitioner
Fear-Free Certified Professional

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Sniffspot Dog swimming in pool
David Adams photo

David Adams

March 07, 2024

Dog Training

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