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How to Help a Dog With Separation Anxiety

It’s a heartbreaking scene; after a short time away from your house, you return to a dog that’s wet from drool, trembling and wide-eyed with fear. There’s a mess by the door, and the TV remote and couch cushions are chewed to bits.

It’s clear that you’re dealing with more than just canine mischief. This is a case of a dog with separation anxiety, which can cause stress for your pup and for you.

Here’s how to help your dog with separation anxiety to ensure their safety and well-being.

What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a stress response that a dog exhibits when the person (or people) that the dog is bonded to is away from home.

Tina Flores, KPA-CTP, CSAT, certified separation anxiety trainer (CSAT) explains, “When a dog is experiencing separation anxiety, it is quite similar to a panic attack in a human. A human, for example, with a fear of heights who is placed on top of a tall building might exhibit sweaty palms, dry mouth and fast heart rate. In the same way, every time a dog who has separation anxiety is left alone, their bodies are flooded with the same stress hormones.”

The dog’s reactions can range from mild distress, like pacing and whining, to extreme anxiety, resulting in dogs that injure themselves when attempting to escape confinement.

While there is no single reason why some dogs develop this challenging response to being left alone, for many dogs, it’s related to a traumatic event or an environmental change that they found upsetting. Examples include:

  • Changes in the family dynamic (death of a family member or divorce)

  • Changes in lifestyle (rehoming or moving from the country to the city)

  • Changes in routine (pet owner transitioning from a part-time to a full-time position)

Does My Dog Have Separation Anxiety?

Many of the behaviors that are attributed to separation anxiety can have alternate diagnoses that are medical or behavioral.

For example, excessive drooling might be caused by a fractured tooth or nausea; barking could be a response to a territorial threat; and accidents might mean that the dog isn’t fully house-trained.

In order to determine how to treat separation anxiety in dogs, pet parents should first schedule a veterinary exam to rule out illness or behavioral reasons for the responses.

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety might learn their person’s predeparture cues—like putting on a certain uniform, making lunch or organizing a briefcase—and begin to exhibit stress responses before their person even leaves.

Once the dog is alone, they might exhibit any or all of the following hallmarks of separation anxiety:

  • Pacing: Dogs that are panicked by their person’s departure might be unable to settle down and might resort to walking back and forth repeatedly.

  • Vocalization: Barking and howling are common canine responses to isolation, but dogs with separation anxiety might continue vocalizing the entire time they’re alone.

  • Loss of appetite: Separation anxiety can cause even the most food-motivated dog to ignore treats and bones.

  • Destruction: Many dogs suffering from separation anxiety destroy small household items—like the remote control or pillows—or resort to large-scale destruction, like tearing through furniture, walls, doors or windows.

  • Elimination: Dogs that are house-trained might have accidents while alone, including diarrhea.

  • Drooling: Some stressed dogs drool excessively and wind up with a soaked chin and chest.

  • Escape: Dogs with severe separation anxiety might be able to escape confinement, which can result in injuries.

How to Help a Dog With Separation Anxiety

The goal in treating separation anxiety in dogs is twofold: to help your dog feel less reliant on you, and to encourage your dog’s ability to relax when you are away from home.

Helping a dog get past separation anxiety takes time and patience—unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a quick fix for stress-based behaviors.

Because treating separation anxiety is a complex process, pet parents should look for a trainer or behaviorist with a background in treating the behavior, like a certified separation anxiety trainer (CSAT) or a veterinary behaviorist that can dispense medication if the case calls for it.

Behavior Modification

The best way to help your dog deal with separation anxiety is to permanently change his perception of what being alone means—one second at a time. A dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist will be your best resource in creating a behavior modification program that suits your dog’s needs.

“The way we help the dogs understand, and gain that confidence to remain calm until their human returns, is through a systematic desensitization,” Flores says. “In the beginning, we are often working with very small increments because we want to be sure that we are building a strong foundation of the dog being comfortable.”

During dog separation anxiety training, you leave the room for a moment and return before your dog has a chance to become anxious. As with all behavior modification training, the dog must remain “sub-threshold” during the process, which means that your dog hasn’t begun to exhibit stress responses in response to the work.

This incremental process must happen at your dog’s pace.

Flores also stresses the importance of desensitizing predeparture cues that are involved in the leaving routine, such as picking up your keys, putting on shoes, grabbing your bag and opening the garage door.

“Dogs pick up on all of these cues, so we want to build them into the training sessions in a way that shows the dog that it means the person is leaving, but they are also returning before they start to panic,” Flores says. 

Don’t leave your dog home alone during these training stages.

One of the primary challenges in dealing with separation anxiety is that once the training process begins, your dog should never be left alone. Flores notes that even if you can’t be home with your dog, you can enlist a neighbor, friend, family member, dog walker or daycare to help during the training process.

“Managing absences is extremely important to protect the progress we are making during training. If for example, we get the dog to a point where he is comfortable for 30 mins, but the next day he’s left alone for two hours, we’ve potentially undone all the work we’ve put in. He’s no longer able to trust that his guardian will return before he starts to panic,” explains Flores.

Engage in appropriate exercise routines before you leave.

Most dogs can benefit from increased exercise, particularly dogs suffering from a milder form of separation anxiety called separation intolerance.

Working out your dog’s brain and body prior to leaving him alone might help him settle during your absence. 

Dogs dealing with mild separation intolerance can benefit from playing challenging games that stimulate their minds prior to being left alone. Finding treats that are hidden in a puzzle toy or playing a scenting game like "find the toy" can help your dog get ready to settle once you leave for the day.

Easy trick training also helps to mentally exhaust dogs. Working on something like "spin" or "high five" is more than just cute and fun; the mental stimulation will leave your dog ready for a rest.

Provide interactive toys for your dog to play with while you’re gone.

Dogs with mild separation intolerance can also learn to enjoy the ritual of getting a treat-stuffed goody when their person leaves the house for the day. However, Flores cautions against leaving interactive food toys with dogs that are suffering from full-blown separation anxiety.

“Sometimes, because the food toy has been given so often before departure, the food becomes a cue that something bad is about to happen,” she explains. “Once the food has been consumed, the dog will realize their person is still gone and panic.” 

Pet Prescription Medication

Dr. Arielle Schoenlein, DVM, who practices at Quakertown Veterinary Clinic, says that medication can be used to help dogs with separation anxiety in cases where:

  • A dog is injuring themselves due to their anxiety

  • A dog is harming other animals in the house

  • A dog’s quality of life or potential to remain in the home is compromised

Dr. Schoenlein says, “Medication is used as an adjunctive to training in all cases by decreasing their overall anxiety, enabling training to be more successful.”

Typically, there are two treatment options for anti-anxiety medications for dogs. The first is anxiolytic drugs (anxiety-reducing drugs), which are usually used long-term. This type of medication takes four to eight weeks to take effect and requires you to take your dog for blood work yearly.

The second option involves event-specific medications that can be used when a known trigger is going to occur. These medications are used in conjunction with training to minimize anxiety and enable positive experiences when you leave the house.

“Many dogs that we work with are on some type of anti-anxiety medication, and in my experience, they do often help to lower the threshold and help learning occur within the separation anxiety protocol,” Flores says.

Fixing Separation Anxiety One Step at a Time

Effective treatment of separation anxiety can feel overwhelming. It’s a slow process made more difficult by the fact that sometimes progress comes at a literal pace of one second at a time.

“Guiding your dog through a separation anxiety protocol might not be easy, but having not only gone through this process with many clients but also with my own beloved dog, I can honestly say there is hope and recovery is completely possible!” Flores says.

By: Victoria Schade

Featured Image: iStock.com/Photoboyko