By: Cate Burnette
Pet parents often complain that their dogs become anxious or stressed when they’re left alone, resulting in unacceptable behaviors. Although these problems might show that a dog needs to be taught polite house manners, they can also be symptoms of distress.
When your dog’s problems are accompanied by other nervousness and fear indicators, such as drooling and showing anxiety when you are preparing to leave the house, these signs are clear indications that your dog has separation anxiety.
What Are Some Symptoms My Dog Has Separation Anxiety?
Dogs with separation anxiety can act in a variety of destructive, disruptive ways and have a number of behaviors that work separately or together to provide a clear picture of an emotionally disturbed animal.
When left alone, some dogs will begin to persistently bark and howl, may start digging or chewing their “escape route” out of a room or crate, and will not stop these behaviors until the owner comes home and pays them attention.
Other animals, even though completely house broken when the owner is at home, will urinate or defecate in the house. Some of these dogs will eat all or part of their excrement in an emotionally driven behavior called ‘coprophagia.’
Some animals with this type of anxiety disorder have been known to leap high fences, eat through doors, or jump through glass doors to escape and get to their owners.
The less-destructive types are ‘pacers’ – they will wear a path in your carpet or yard pacing back and forth, back and forth until you come home.
Please Note: If you pet is experiencing any of these signs of separation anxiety, consult with your veterinarian or a qualified veterinary behaviorist before beginning any kind of re-training program or administering any medications.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Animal behaviorists and veterinarians draw no real conclusions as to the causes of separation anxiety in some animals.
If the dog has been particularly close to an owner or a family and is then abandoned or surrendered to a shelter, this can activate the development of this disorder. A move to a new residence, a change in the owner’s schedule, the sudden absence of a family member due to death or divorce, even something as simple as a change in the owner’s work schedule has been known to trigger episodes of separation anxiety. It seems many anxiety-ridden dogs come from multiple homes or have been transferred from shelter to shelter.
Veterinarian Ron Hines of 2nd Chance Pet Rescue believes that many dogs with this particular disorder may have been weaned too early from their mothers, or the mothers became unavailable due to illness or death. In other situations, the mother dog may have neglected or rejected the anxious puppy, or provided little physical stimulation.
Dogs need mental stimulation, and some dogs can be disruptive when left alone because they’re bored and looking for something to do. These dogs usually don’t appear anxious, hiding it well, but will act out when by themselves.
If you’ve had your veterinarian rule out any medical problems causing this particular behavior, re-training your dog to accept your goings and comings may be your only option.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety
For cases of mild separation anxiety, where complete destruction of property is not shown, but you notice signs of agitation or fearfulness, helping your dog associate being alone in the home with something good or something the dog loves may be the answer.
Perhaps your pet loves to play with a particular toy or eat a certain treat food. You can offer her a rubber Kong® toy stuffed with peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese to puzzle through when you leave the house. That should keep her occupied for 20 to 30 minutes and allow her to relax when you are gone. Make sure to pick up the toy when you return and don’t give it to her unless you are leaving the house. She needs to be able to associate you being absent with her getting her toy and her favorite food in order to become less anxiety prone.
For more moderate to severe cases of separation anxiety, you will need to desensitize your pet to whatever action initiates the agitation and recondition her to accept that being alone can bring good things instead of fear and apprehension. To do this, you must start by determining what cues are causing the behavior – her ‘trigger.’
For example, if your dog becomes anxious when you put on your coat or pick up your keys, do those things and then don’t leave the house. Put on your coat and watch television. Hold on to your keys while you have a cup of coffee.
Showing your companion that you aren’t necessarily leaving whenever you do those things can lessen her fears. Perform this triggering action consistently every day over a period of a few weeks to a month until she becomes less anxious.
Once you have established that your ‘leaving’ cues are no longer bothering your pooch, you can move on to working on her ‘out-of-sight’ stay exercises while you’re still in the house.
Place your pet inside a bathroom and ask her to ‘stay.’ Quietly move to the other side of the door where she can’t see you until you hear her becoming agitated, and reveal yourself to her. Do this several times a day gradually increasing the time you are out of sight until she no longer reacts.
Your next step is to put on your coat and pick up your keys (or those ‘triggers’ particular to your pup) and move behind the bathroom door.
Finally, as she learns not to react, move to an exit door, make her stay, and then walk out for a very short time. As in the bathroom stay, gradually increase your time away from her until she is no longer reactive.
During your sessions, be sure to wait a few minutes between absences. After each short separation, it’s important to make sure that your dog is completely relaxed before you leave again. If you leave again right away, while your dog is still excited about your return from the previous separation, she’ll already feel aroused when she experiences the next absence. This arousal might make her less able to tolerate the next separation, which could make the problem worse rather than better.
Remember to remain quiet and calm every time you leave and come back in, because your dog will pick up on your emotional cues. If she starts to overreact as you increase your time away, back up and shorten the away period until she no longer shows signs of stress. Then start again at that level and progress more slowly.
Never be afraid to start over on a training session. Pushing your anxious dog too fast can result in making things worse for her.
Remember, all training takes time and patience, so working your pup through these anxieties will take more than one or two sessions and can take as long as several months of consistent work before she is totally free of her reactive issues.
Available Medications for Separation Anxiety
According to the ASPCA, some dogs with severe symptoms benefit from taking anti-anxiety medications. These medicines can alleviate some of the emotional and psychological symptoms, but you’ll need to continue working on treating the problem with desensitization while she’s taking meds.
Most veterinarians prescribe benzodiazepines, a class of drugs used in both humans and animals primarily for treating anxiety. The medications commonly used with dogs include alprazolam (Xanax®), clonazepam (Klonopin®), and diazepam (Valium®). Used to treat anxiety, noise phobias (including thunder phobia), panic attacks, and separation anxiety, these medications should never be given to your dog without a prescription and prior consultation with your vet.
Further Issues Concerning Your Anxious Dog
Don’t punish or scold your dog whenever she has episodes. Separation anxiety is an emotional response to distress. If you punish her, she can become even more anxious and fearful and the problem could worsen.
During desensitization to any type of fear, it is essential to ensure that your dog never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes her anxiety or fear. She must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn’t frighten her. Otherwise, she won’t learn to feel calm and comfortable in situations that upset her.
This means that during treatment for separation anxiety, your dog should not be left alone except during your desensitization sessions. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative arrangements:
- If possible, take your dog to work with you.
- Arrange for a family member, friend or professional dog sitter to come to your home and stay with your dog when you’re not there. (Most dogs suffering from separation anxiety are fine as long as someone is with them. That someone doesn’t necessarily need to be you.)
- Take your dog to a sitter’s house or to a doggy daycare.
Please remember, your pup’s separation anxiety will not cure itself overnight. It will take consistency, kindness, hard work, time and patience to help your dog work through her fears and become the best kind of furry family member.
Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.