Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Causes, Signs, and Solutions

Little dog with separation anxiety staying close to a person

Separation anxiety in dogs is anxiety that manifests itself as visible stress in the dog when they are left alone. It’s not uncommon for a dog to display anxiety when in a new situation; often those dogs will eventually settle into their new home/environment and that anxiety will subside. True separation anxiety is severe, and your dog will exhibit one or more of the signs listed below without stopping until you return.

Fortunately, there are methods to stop separation anxiety in dogs and even to help prevent it altogether.

What causes dog separation anxiety?

Some dogs may be innately anxious, have previously gone through a stressful situation or experience, or maybe have never lived in a home.  

Here are some circumstances that can result in separation anxiety:

  • A move to a new home with a new family
  • A move to a different house with the same family
  • A change in the amount of time you are absent
  • The death of a family member (human or otherwise)
  • A new baby
  • Time spent away from you (e.g., in a boarding kennel)
  • Time spent at the veterinary clinic

What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?

There are several common signs of separation anxiety in dogs. If you are preparing to leave, the dog might follow you from room to room. Other signs are pacing, excessive salivating, vomiting, barking, howling, or whining.  

During your absence, your dog might engage in destructive behavior, often directed at the exits (windows and doors) or clothing or other items that have your scent. An otherwise house-trained dog might eliminate inappropriately. They may bark without stopping, howl, or scream on end. They may also salivate heavily and leave a large puddle of drool.

In severe cases, dogs might have a panic attack and hurt themselves by breaking through windows or attempting to get out of crates. Crating dogs with separation anxiety is not recommended because they often become even more stressed. However, you can contain them in a large x-pen, so they are not able to be destructive but they aren’t as closed in as they would be in a crate.

Could these symptoms mean something else?

A visit to the veterinarian to check your dog’s health is always recommended if your dog’s behavior changes suddenly. Your vet can help diagnose whether your dog’s problem is truly separation anxiety. Signs of separation anxiety can also be symptoms of a medical problem, such as seizures, diabetes, Cushing’s disease, renal disease, cystitis, or gastrointestinal distress. Dogs who are unable to control their bladder and bowel functions might become destructive trying to get outside to eliminate.

Behavioral or training issues should also be ruled out. The common signs of separation anxiety can also be signs of the following:

  • A need for house-training
  • A marking habit
  • Submissive or excitement urination
  • Teething
  • Boredom chewing or digging
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • A phobia about thunderstorms or other sounds

How do I stop separation anxiety in my dog?

If you have been told that your dog has mild to moderate separation anxiety, there are some strategies you can try to break the cycle of escalating anxiety. First, practice leaving without opening the door. Put on your shoes, pick up your keys, walk to the door, but don’t leave. You might need to do this 10 times per day for weeks or months to quell your dog’s anxiety.

Another strategy is to walk into closets and close the door behind you. Wait one minute, and then reappear. You can also exit via an outside door that you normally don’t leave through. Wait one minute, and then walk back in. If your dog doesn’t appear anxious, try two minutes and add time if the dog continues to be comfortable with it. Back off on your time, however, if the dog becomes stressed.

Once your dog is comfortable with you leaving through the back door, you can start working on walking out the main door and returning after a short period of time. Again, gradually increase the time according to how your dog handles it. Practice as many absences as possible that last less than 10 minutes.

Here are some additional tips to improve your chances of success:

  • Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise. Being physically tired helps everyone to relax.
  • Offer the dog a Kong toy stuffed with treats before practicing the leaving-and-returning exercises.
  • Ignore the dog before and during the exercises.
  • Provide background noise (the radio or television) during the exercises. The background sounds can help soothe or help the dog feel that they are not completely alone.
  • Keep your arrivals and departures as quiet and calm as possible. Don’t indulge in long goodbyes or excited greetings.

Depending on how severe your dog’s case is, you might not be able to leave the dog alone at all during this process. If you do have to leave, minimize the time that the dog is alone. Use a dog sitter, dog walker, or doggy day care. Or have the dog stay with a friend or family member at their home.  

If your dog is suffering from severe separation anxiety, an individual evaluation with a canine behavior specialist is recommended. Together, you can create a plan to relieve your dog’s anxiety and keep them safe. Resolving separation anxiety can require months of work from you, but don’t give up. If your dog continues to struggle, you can also speak with your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medications to help alleviate the stress.

How can I prevent it in the first place?

After you bring your dog home for the first time, acclimate them to periods of time away from you by practicing departures and brief absences. If you get in the habit of providing your dog with a loaded Kong, your dog might even look forward to you leaving. Only give treats as you leave and not upon your arrival home.

Make sure your dog gets plenty of physical exercise and mental stimulation. To help your dog learn to relax after playing, give them gentle massages. You should also challenge your dog mentally by working on obedience training and problem-solving (such as a game of hide-and-seek). These activities, both physical and mental, help to build the dog’s confidence and make them less anxious in general.