Separation anxiety in dogs: Three strategies to help ease the stress
Most dogs are comfortable on their own, but some become distressed in their owner's absence, a condition known as separation anxiety.
Signs of dog separation anxiety
Signs of separation anxiety in dogs when they are alone range from the obvious to the less apparent.
- Having accidents indoors
- Destructive behaviour: chewing on furniture, frantic scratching on doors or walls
- Self-harm: pulling out fur, scratching skin
- Drooling or excessive panting
- Barking for prolonged periods of time
Ask your neighbours if they hear barking or other signs of distress coming from your dog. This may prove timely in averting any complaints from them. Assure your neighbours you are taking steps to alleviate your dog’s anxiety (and theirs!).
Signs of separation anxiety can even be evident when you are at home, for example following you around from room to room, seeking lots of physical contact and attention and becoming quiet and withdrawn as you prepare to leave.
How to help your dog cope with separation anxiety
If your dog displays signs of separation anxiety, you need to deal with the problem before it becomes chronic. These strategies will help ease your dog’s fears.
Strategy 1: Build your dog’s tolerance for ‘alone time’
The simplest approach to tackling dog separation anxiety is to gradually increase the time your dog is left alone, simply by moving to another room and closing or partially closing the door.
First, relax your dog by petting them and speaking soothingly, but never expressly tell them “I’m going now”. Leave for a short period of time. If possible, wait until your dog is silent before you return to the room. Do not fuss over them when returning, however reward your dog with gentle praise and perhaps a treat – but only after they have quietened down.
This will show your dog that being alone is not unpleasant. Make your dog’s alone time as positive as possible – leave them a favourite toy or a long-lasting treat in a space they feel comfortable in.
Gradually increase the amount of time you’re separated from your dog. It’s best to do this training once a day, rather than several times a day, to minimise stress on your dog.
Good to know: This process may take a few weeks before you see an effect. Patience and consistency are key!
Strategy 2: Foster your dog’s independence
If your dog becomes anxious when you prepare to leave home – as you pick up your keys or put on your coat – you will need to encourage your dog to be more independent. Here are some tips:
- Don’t let your dog follow you around constantly.
- Demonstrate you’re focused on other tasks, and don’t react when your dog brings toys or attempts to gain your attention.
- If your dog begins to naturally seek out alone time, reward that behaviour with a treat* and some praise.
- *Treats are not for every dog. Some of the intelligent, working dog breeds can deliberately misbehave in order to gain a treat. Let your kind voice be the reward.
Try this: Don’t make a big fuss of departures and returns. While it’s tempting to laud your dog with tons of praise, hugs and sloppy kisses upon your return, doing so will hinder the progress you’ve made toward a more independent dog.
Strategy 3: Use a crate
Crate training can also be useful for preventing separation anxiety. Dogs are den animals, and teaching them that their crate is a safe place to retreat to when alone can help keep them calm – and prevent them from destroying your house!
The key to crate training is to make the crate a wholly positive experience. Your dog should come to think of their crate as their own little haven. Furnish the crate with beloved toys and cosy bedding. You could even put an old piece of your clothing in the crate so your dog has your comforting smell nearby.
Leave the crate door open the first few times so your dog doesn’t become anxious and learns to associate the crate with positive feelings. And of course, there’s nothing most dogs find more positive than food, so give them treats inside their crate whenever they lie inside quietly. You can even give them dinner inside their crate.
Slowly build up time with the door closed (again using treats as positive reinforcement) until your dog is happy spending time there.
Make sure you encourage your dog to use the crate when you are in the house, too – it should not only be associated with alone time. When your dog is alone in the house, leave the door of the crate open so they can wander inside as they please.
Set up for success: Ensure your dog is well exercised, goes outside and has something to eat before you leave the house.
Remember that a dog that makes excessive noise when you’re leaving is not being naughty or trying to manipulate you – they’re genuinely upset. Any form of punishment will only reinforce the problem. If, when you return home, you see your dog has had an accident inside or caused damage, don’t punish them or this will exacerbate their anxiety.
You’ll need plenty of patience to tackle separation anxiety. However, if you’re not seeing progress within a few months, you may need to seek help from a qualified animal behaviourist. These experts can assess your dog’s personality, breed traits and lifestyle, and can offer additional help and advice.