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How to Handle a Dog with Separation Anxiety

Nicole Cosgrove

July 1, 2021

When we bring a puppy home, we expect a handful of behavioral issues. Chewing up pillows, urinating inside, and barking are behaviors that most pups grow out of. They become more of an issue as they mature and continue with no end in sight. A major complaint from pet parents is that their teenage and adult dogs are destructive and disruptive when left by themselves. You stride through your front door after a stressful day of work to discover they’ve been chewing, digging, howling, urinating, defecating, and making escape attempts all day. If these problems are happening almost every time you leave the house, it could indicate that your pet has separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety isn’t uncommon in dogs and means that the dog is overly attached to you or another member of the family. They become triggered the moment they realize you’re no longer home or by their side, and sometimes their escape attempts become so extreme that they injure themselves or destroy the house and your belongings. Some dogs become more agitated when you’re away, while others act more depressed. Even after short spurts of time alone, they act like they haven’t seen you in years. In dogs with separation anxiety, it’s important to try to resolve these worries and teach them to tolerate or even enjoy some alone time.

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6 Common Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Dog on palm
Image credit: Javier Brosch, Shutterstock

Anxiety is a serious issue, and it could lead your dog to act on one or more of these devastating behaviors.

1. Using the House as a Bathroom

Peeing and pooing in the house are common symptoms of separation anxiety only if the behavior occurs while the family members are away. Dogs that are doing this in front of you likely have other behavioral issues that need resolving, and being alone probably isn’t the trigger.

2. Howling and Barking

Anxious dogs howl and bark non-stop when left alone and their noisiness never seems to let up. This causes neighbors to file noise complaints and often becomes an issue with landlords in apartment complexes. Making noise is your dog’s way of trying to get attention and let you know that you left them behind.

3. Destruction from Chewing and Digging

Highly anxious pets have been known to completely destroy a house. They chew on areas where they think they can escape, like windows and doors. Door frames are chewed into chunks and carpeting is torn into shreds. This behavior isn’t good for your home or your dog. Home destruction is dangerous for your pets and could result in broken teeth or damaged paws and nails.

4. Escaping the House

Separation anxiety is making your dog act on impulse and the last thing they want is to be trapped in a room. Dogs with anxiety issues are persistent in trying to escape by any means necessary and could put them in serious danger.

5. Pacing

Anxious dogs can’t always sit still when they’re left alone. They pace back and forth or in circular patterns waiting for their owners to come home. Pacing usually doesn’t happen in front of the family, so you might have to install a camera to confirm this behavior.

6. Coprophagia

Coprophagia is the act of defecating and then consuming some or all of the excrement. Although this is a semi-normal behavior for dogs, it could make them temporarily sick and leave you with a nauseating mess to clean up.

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Why Does Your Dog Have Separation Anxiety?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence on why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others don’t. However, this is far more common in dogs who have been adopted from shelters. Experts believe that the loss of an important person or entire family could cause this behavior, which triggers them whenever you leave the house.

There are some other possible factors that could cause your dog to develop anxiety. Significant changes like a new schedule, residence, or household member are a lot to handle for your canine and could be the root of the problem.

How to Treat Dogs with Separation Anxiety

Dogs with only mild cases of separation anxiety often benefit from counterconditioning. Counterconditioning is a form of treatment that changes an animal’s fearful reaction into a more relaxed one. This is achieved by associating their dislikes with something that they love. With some time, the dogs learn that the thing they fear is actually good for them. For example, getting your dog to associate being alone with food could be one way to accomplish counterconditioning. Every time you depart the house, offer your dog a puzzle toy that you can hide treats inside of. It takes them about 20 or 30 minutes to finish and keeps them distracted while you work your way out the door. Remove the special toy as soon as you return home, so they know they only have access to it while you’re away.

For moderate to severe cases of anxiety, you might have to take a more complex course of action by desensitizing them. This is usually achieved by taking very short separations from your dog and gradually increasing the length of time you’re gone. It could take a few trying weeks or even months of daily sessions in order for your dog to become less stressed in your absence.

These treatment strategies are complex and time-consuming, but the most important thing to remember is that you want to avoid fear at all costs. After all, that’s what started this predicament in the first place. You have to be in touch with your dog’s reactions and adjust accordingly. If your dog was doing well, but panicked when you increased your time apart, minimize the time and go at a slower pace.

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Image Credit By: torstensimon, pixabay

Should You Use Crates on Dogs with Separation Anxiety?

Many people assume that putting their dog in a crate while they’re away will help calm their dogs. Some dogs identify their crates as a safe space to go when left alone, but others become even more anxious from it. If you’re unsure about using a crate, monitor how your dog behaves during crate training. If they show any signs of distress while in the crate while you’re home, it’s a good indication that it will be worse when you leave.

Signs that your dog is in distress while crate training are heavy panting, escape attempts, howling, and excessive salivation. If crates create too much stress, you can try putting them in a small room or putting a baby gate up to keep them confined to a specific area.

Distracting the Dog

Giving your dog both physical and mental stimulation is a crucial part of treating most behavioral problems. Keeping them distracted gives them something to focus on other than your absence. Puzzles also enrich your dog’s life and could halt some of their other bad behaviors if they have them.

Give your dog at least 30 to 40 minutes of aerobic activity per day. Try to schedule their exercise right before you plan to leave the house, so they’re more relaxed. You could also play a lot of interactive games like fetch or tug-of-war.

Get your dog out of the house every once in a while. Taking them on walks outside allows them to take in the sights and smells they’re not accustomed to and keep their brains working. If your dog is friendly towards other animals, take them to the dog park and let them play off-leash with some of his or her friends.

Food puzzles and KONG toys are excellent products for mental stimulation. All you have to do is slip a little food like natural peanut butter or pieces of kibble inside them and let your dog get to work. They also encourage licking and chewing, which are calming for your pup.

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Image credit: ALPA PROD, Shutterstock

Medicating Your Pet

Medications have the potential to be helpful, especially in severe cases of separation anxiety. Some dogs get so distraught and overwhelmed by their owner’s absence that other forms of treatment won’t work. In more moderate cases, anti-anxiety medicine isn’t always necessary but can definitely help.

Your veterinarian should be the only person you consult about putting your dog on medication. They will be able to give you a diagnosis and prescribe a drug that they believe works best for them.

What Not to Do With Anxious Dogs

Keep in mind that your canine pal is stressed enough as is, and the last thing they need is a scolding or punishment. Your dog displays these behaviors when they are alone because they are trying to cope and don’t know how to handle the overwhelming amount of stress they’re feeling. If you punish them, it could make them even more upset and the problem could escalate even further.

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Final Thoughts

We all love our family pets and want them to be comfortable with or without us. Remember that their behavioral issues likely stem from trauma, and they are only acting that way because they don’t know how else to cope. Your dog loves you and wants to be by your side all day, so be patient with them and discuss some strategies with your vet that could work for them.


Featured Image credit: Bogdan Sonjachnyj, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.

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