How to Help a Dog with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is fairly common and can result in destructive behavior. In this guide, we share how to break a dog’s separation anxiety based on our personal experiences.

How do I know my dog has separation anxiety?

Have you come home one day to find that your dog has scratched all the paintwork off a door, or maybe they have chewed the corner of your favorite rug or the leg of your dining room table.  Perhaps your neighbors have posted you a note to let you know they have been disturbed by your dog howling for long periods of time.

Whilst this is not ideal and a cause for concern, it is important not to get angry with your dog.  If they have been showing these behaviors, there is a reason behind it. It could just be that they are bored and you will need to work on giving them more to keep their minds busy and stimulated.  

Ask yourself the following:

  • Could they benefit from a longer walk before you leave them on their own?
  • Are you leaving them frequently for prolonged periods?
  • Would they benefit from a dog walker visiting them during the day?
  • Would they enjoy the challenge of a safe toy, perhaps a filled Kong or some other treat dispensing option, that can keep them occupied whilst you are out?
  • Do you have a puppy that could still be in the chewy/teething phase?
  • Does your dog bark a lot, even when you are in the house?  Could it be alert/attention barking more than as a result of distress?

If the answer is yes to any or all of the above, then perhaps your dog is just lacking in stimulation and their destruction or barking may lessen if you work on alleviating their boredom and ensuring that they are getting adequate exercise and stimulation.

Puppies do need support to get them through the chewy phase.  Keep them occupied with appropriate and safe chew toys

If you are doing all the above and still finding that your dog is showing these behaviors then it could be a sign that your dog is not bored but, instead, that they are distressed at being left on their own.

Perhaps these behaviors are accompanied by heavy panting, drooling, urination or pacing.

Maybe your dog is normally extremely foody, but when you are giving them food or treat toys when left on their own they don’t touch them until you return to the house.

If you are seeing these signs, then it is likely that you are dealing with a case of separation anxiety and that your dog becomes distressed when being left on their own.  

If you are finding that your dog is suddenly urinating in the house or drooling a lot, we would always recommend seeking veterinary advice to rule out any medical issue.

You may also wish to consider installing a doggy monitor to allow you to observe their behavior when you are out.

You may wish to install a remote monitor to allow you to observe your dog when you are out

What can cause separation anxiety?

There are a whole host of things that can contribute to this issue, often it relates to a sudden change in routine or circumstance.  Some of the common reasons include:

  • A dog has been abandoned in a shelter (please note, this does not mean all rescue dogs will have separation issues).
  • If an owner or doggy companion has passed away
  • If you have gone from always being around for your dog, to having to work longer hours
  • Moving home can be unsettling for a dog
  • Some breeds are more predisposed to enjoying the company of others

Tips for dealing with a mild case

If your dog is only mildly anxious when you leave them, it can be relatively easy to overcome this with a little patience and planning.

Keeping your dog occupied and also having them associate your leaving with something they really love can work wonders.  This process is called counter conditioning. So, if every time you are leaving your dog you leave them with something super tasty, with a bit of repetition, this can result in your dog starting to become excited when you leave, rather than frightened.

We would always recommend something safe and long lasting, a quick treat is not usually enough.  Our go-to suggestion is to provide them with a stuffed Kong, or another safe treat dispensing toy, with their favorite stuffing.

Along with stuffed Kongs, Sam loved his “babies”.  He had lots of soft toys that he found comforting that he always had access to when left on this own (don’t leave your dog unsupervised with plush toys if they are destructive chewers to minimize the choking risk)

If you are using this technique, consistency is key.  Make sure they get this super tasty treat every time you leave them and only give them this when you go out, not at other times.

It is important to remember that this tip will only work if your dog is just a little worried when you leave them.  For dogs that are extremely anxious, they will be too stressed to eat when on their own.

You may also want to consider the use of a product like ADAPTIL.  This comes as a plug-in,collar or spray.  It emits pheromones which are meant to aid keeping your dog relaxed and calm.  There are mixed reviews on the efficacy of these types of products, and if your dog is extremely stressed they are not likely to be effective, but they usually can’t do any harm and may be worth a shot.

Some people advocate leaving the TV or radio on for your dog.  If you normally have one of them on when you are there, or there is usually a lot of hubbub in the house, this can be helpful rather than your dog being left in a silent environment.  It will not be a solution on its own though.

If you do tend to spend most of your time with your dog, perhaps you work from home or they accompany you to work, it can be a good idea to introduce regular short trips out without your dog.  This means that if there are times when you have to leave your dog this is less likely to be a shock to their system and can help to ensure they do not develop separation anxiety.

If you work from home, don’t forget to try to give your dog some occasional alone time so they don’t become too dependant on you being around all the time

What should I do if my dog has extreme separation anxiety?

For dogs suffering with a more severe case, we would always recommend seeking the help of a recommended and qualified dog behaviorist (often your Vet can point you in the right direction). The Association of Professional Dog Trainers provide a useful checklist for helping you find a reputable behaviorist.

Usually a more rigorous and detailed programme of counterconditioning and desensitisation will be required.

If your dog has very extreme anxiety, sometimes medications can possibly be prescribed to try to help aid the success of the other plans you are putting in place.   This option could be discussed in conjunction with your Vet and Behaviourist.

Some of these techniques can be applied without the help of a behaviorist, but they will be able to keep you on track and offer alternatives and corrections if the techniques are not working as you expect.

If you are working on treating a severe case, please remember it is a process that requires patience and time.  You will not see results overnight but it is certainly something that can be overcome.

The key to a more detailed desensitisation plan is to work in baby steps, building up the time you are leaving your dog very, very, very gradually.  For this to work you don’t want your dog to get upset at any point when you are gone.

So, to start with you just want to get them used to you leaving the room without them.  This may just need to be for a few seconds to start with, with you on the other side of a door/wall.  You can use treats to keep them occupied. You want to ensure that you can reliably leave the room for the few seconds every time without any anxiety before moving onto, say ten seconds, and so on.  When you have built up to five or ten minutes and they are still relaxed, you may want to start introducing a stuffed treat toy at this point. It will keep them occupied and it is also a positive marker for your departure.

Once you have built up to them being in another room to you for a decent period of time, you can progress onto introducing going out of the front door.  Again, start with just a few seconds.

It is very important that when leaving and returning to the room you don’t make a big fuss and get your dog all excited.  

If you move from five minutes to ten and this step is just too much, then move back to five minutes for a while longer and then build up the increments a minute at a time.  You have maybe just moved onto the next step too quickly.

Don’t forget, don’t scold your dog if they do start exhibiting stress behaviors.  This will only confuse them and possibly heighten their anxiety further. The goal is to have them calm and relaxed and having only positive associations with you leaving.

Most importantly, take it slow and be patient.  Don’t try to rush things and don’t try to do too many sessions at once.  It is all about building things up gradually and setting your dog up for success.

It is all about patience, baby steps and calmness when working on separation anxiety

If I get another dog, surely this will solve the problem?

We often hear people saying that they are thinking about getting another dog as they think the extra company will help.  In some cases this may help but generally it is not a solution and we would certainly not recommend this as a solution. One of my dogs Daisy suffered from mild separation anxiety and the addition of another dog did not make any difference to her case.  We had to work on this using some of the techniques mentioned above.

Introducing Sam to the family didn’t help resolve Daisy’s mild separation anxiety.  We had to work through the steps above

Will using a crate help with Separation anxiety?

Some people will crate their dog if they are being destructive or urinating in the house.  Please be aware that in some cases this can make the situation worse.

If you have already worked on crate training and you know that your dog associates the crate with it being a safe space for them then it can be a good addition to your training arsenal. We would suggest that shutting the crate would not be a good idea though unless you know the are super settled and relaxed.  

The most important thing is to ensure you are not using a crate just to prevent any damage to the house.  In the long run, shutting a stressed out dog in a crate that they are not used to can heighten the problems.

A dog crate can be a safe space for your dog if introduced correctly but, if not, they can create more problems.  Consider carefully before introducing.

What else can I do whilst we are working on the problem?

We do appreciate that it can be a long process and, in the meantime, it can make it difficult for you to get out and about while you are working on the issue.

It may be worth considering a pet sitter or doggy day care and calling in some favors from family and friends in the meantime.

Hopefully these tips will help you have a dog that is pleased you have returned home but is not stressed by you leaving

5 thoughts on “How to Help a Dog with Separation Anxiety”

  1. Can anyone help please? We looked after a 3 year old miniature yorkie while his owner was ill. When we gave him back he did not settle and we took him back. He is absolutely besotted by my husband. When he goes out the dog sits at the front door just staring at it till he returns. We were going out for the day and his owner came to look after him. Again he sat for the whole day staring at the front door and he wouldn’t eat. We are having to go away for 2 weeks at the end of the year. Does anyone have any suggestions please?
    Frances on behalf of Coco

    • Hi, not sure where you plan to leave him for the two weeks but I’d suggest trying to build up to it by doing several individual overnight stays under the care of the same place/person. Start with a one-night stay then try another maybe a couple weeks later, then another, then maybe a two-nighter two or three times so he gets used to it and learns that you are coming back? Two weeks is a long time for a dog.

    • Hi Frances,

      How lovely that you have taken on little Coco, it certainly sounds like he has formed quite a bond with you and, particularly, your husband. While this is lovely, as you say, if the bond is too dependant then it can be stressful for Coco when he can not be with your husband.

      Without being able to speak with you both in person and observe Coco around you both and when you leave, it is difficult to give specific advice (for this I would recommend consulting with a local qualified and accredited behaviorist who promotes force-free training techniques).

      In the meantime, I would say that Melissa’s suggestion of finding someone that you trust or that comes recommended to look after Coco for a trial night or two initially may be a good idea.

      It may be beneficial to ask other guests to build up positive interactions with him when possible. If they can reward him with his favourite yummy treats whenever he favourably interacts with them or asks for attention this could help, ideally, your husband should not shower him with attention whenever he asks for it when there are others around. Hopefully, this will divert his focus from your husband and let him know that other people mean good things too.

      Is your husband at home with Coco all day? Perhaps he could go out with a dog walker or maybe a trusted friend could walk him, even just one or two times a week. Hopefully, this would help him to enjoy the company of other people (especially if they are rewarding him with praise and yummy treats).

      I hope this little bit of extra information helps a bit and please do let us know how little Coco is getting on.

      All the best,

      Your Dog Advisor Team

  2. I need advice so bad! My dog is just turning 4, has always had a little separation anxiety but it was never major until recently. He’s eaten all the blinds and screens in the house. He’s also eaten my car door and is able to unlock it and pull the handle and escape. Also, he’s been able to push up and climb out of the window after eating screens, luckily he sticks around when he escapes but I worry so much about his safety and his stress levels, and mine. I cannot even begin to afford to replace all the damage he’s done just since the new year. (He’s like a terrible mix of Dennis the menace and Lassie). He gets a balanced diet, plenty of walks and is smothered in love. But he always seems riddled with anxiety and some days even gets flinchy with me, which breaks my heart (I got him when he was 8 months old I don’t know if there was history of abuse before I adopted him, but he’s never even had a mild spanking since I’ve owned him). I’ve been advised to give him CBD treats or oral drops by friends (thoughts?) and am working on moving some furniture out of my tiny place to fit a kennel for when I’m gone. It feels like he’s reverting back to puppy stages, I’m so confused. Honestly I’m at my wit’s end, I want nothing more than for him to be comfortable and happy and I need my rental home and car to be intact. Any advice would be so appreciated! Please help!

    • Hi Olive,

      I am sorry to hear about your poor dog and their separation anxiety issues. As mentioned in the article it can be a complex issue and often it can take patience, time, a consistent approach and a gradual build-up to get them more relaxed. It is to your credit that you are reaching out for help!

      For more severe separation anxiety we would recommend that it is worth investing in getting some one-to-one sessions with a qualified and accredited dog behaviorist (make sure it is one that promotes positive, force-free training methods). They will be able to come and observe your dog in the home and discuss their general actions and help to formulate a detailed behavior modification plan.

      Usually, this plan will involve working, very slowly, on getting your dog to relax while you are out (as described in the What should I do if my dog has extreme separation anxiety? section of the article above

      This will start with just getting them to settle while you are out of the room, then moving onto very short sessions out of the house (1 minute, then 2 minutes, then five minutes and so on). It is not a quick fix but putting the time and effort in can reap huge rewards.

      Make sure that your dog also has a tasty filled treat toy to hand to keep them busy as their anxiety lessens (stuff it with something they adore).

      While getting a crate can help to minimise the damage that is being caused to the property it will not usually stop your dog from feeling stressed and it could actually heighten their anxiety. If you do plan to introduce a crate always make sure you to this in a positive and gradual way as per the guidance we have on crate training attached:

      If they are distressed by a crate perhaps you could consider baby gates to stop them from accessing blinds and screens while you are working on slowly building up the time they are left.

      For his fearful behavior, this is something that should be addressed separately. We have a dedicated article on this subject that would probably be a useful read for you:

      Make sure that you build your bond of trust with lots of positive reinforcement (yummy treats and praise), don’t force them into doing anything or shout at them as this can erode the bond of trust and make the fearful behavior worse. This again could be discussed with a behaviorist if you get one to help with the separation anxiety. They will also be able to help you interpret your dog’s body language and may be able to see certain triggers that you have not spotted.

      You mentioned the issues in the car. Where possible, it would be better to work on solving the issues on one area first rather than trying to work on both so, if you can minimise their time in the car, whilst you work on the issues in the house this may save both you and your dog from becoming overwhelmed.

      If you do have to take them on a car journey, if they will settle in a crate then this could be safer for them and will help to minimise any damage to the car interiors too. You may also find this article useful reading:

      You mentioned CBD Oil, anecdotally this is sometimes reported as helping to take the edge off a dog’s anxiety but these sort of herbal remedies are not usually enough to resolve a serious case of separation anxiety.

      While you are working on building up the time they are left, it may also be worth considering getting a dog walker or sitter to help out so that your dog is not left for any extended periods of time, setting your training back

      I hope you find this extra guidance useful and I hope that implementing some of these steps will help you and your dog. We would love to hear how you get in and if you need any further clarification do let us know

      Your Dog Advisor Team


Leave a Comment