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Understanding separation anxiety in dogs

Written by Napo HQ
Reviewed by Hanne Grice
12th Sep 2022
9 mins read
Separation anxiety and separation-related issues in dogs are surprisingly common. However, it is possible to teach your dog to deal with being alone without worry. 
Gradually and slowly introduce time alone into your dog’s routine. Be patient and consistent and always reward calm behaviour. If you need help overcoming existing separation-related issues, get in touch with a clinical animal behaviourist.
Separation anxiety in dogs seems to be a growing concern amongst dog owners, especially since the pandemic.
A staggering 75% of dog owners say their dog exhibits negative behaviours when home alone, however this is still higher at 91% amongst first time owners (Many of whom got their dogs during the pandemic). So if your dog gets stressed about being on their own, you’re not the only one.
It is possible to help your pup overcome their anxiety, reducing their distress at being alone and giving you the freedom and peace of mind to be able to leave the dog at home when you need to.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through what separation anxiety is, how to spot it, and ways you can help to prevent and treat it.

What is separation anxiety?

According to clinical animal behaviourist and trainer Hanne Grice, separation anxiety has become a bit of an “umbrella term to describe a range of separation-related behaviours when a dog is left alone.” 
As Hanne explains in our podcast, "separation anxiety is specifically when a dog shows signs of distress when their special person (usually their owner,) has left, and they’re not calmed down by the presence of another person or dog. So their distress comes from being separated from their special person." Listen to the full episode of the podcast.
Meanwhile, many dogs can show signs of distress when their owner leaves, but get better when another dog or a person is with them. This is known as “isolation distress”, where a dog is only anxious when they’re left entirely alone.

Are some dogs at more risk of separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can affect any dog. However, as Hanne explains, the dogs most at risk of developing separation related issues are those that have “never experienced being alone, or where being alone has never been normalised.”
In addition, research has shown that dogs with “hyper-attachment” are more likely to develop separation anxiety. 
As Hanne explains in our podcast, this could even be due to genetics. “It suggests hyper-social dogs carry gene variants that where deleted in humans, this is linked to Williams syndrome. Now Williams syndrome is characterised by various features, including the tendency to love everyone.”
Speaking of genetics, a dog’s breed might make them more likely to become super social, and less likely to tolerate time alone. A study from Furbo found some breeds, like Labradors, are more likely to suffer from separation-related issues, and research already suggests that genes and breed play a part in canine anxiety.
However, hyper-attachment can also be caused by how a dog has been brought up. If a young dog has been allowed to be with their owner all the time and go everywhere with them, and time alone was never normalised. These dogs are more likely to develop hyper-attachment to their owner and later suffer with separation-related issues.

How to tell if your dog has separation anxiety

It can also be difficult to tell if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety because the symptoms happen when you’re not home to see them. So how can you tell if your dog is struggling with being alone?
Firstly, you can talk to your neighbours. If your dog has been distressed, they might have heard your dog barking or howling. 
Secondly, you could find a way to video your dog when you’re not home. You can leave an old phone powered on and recording, or buy a pet monitoring camera. 
However you do it, having a video you can watch when you’re home means you can see exactly how your dog behaves when you’re not there. And if you ask a vet or behaviourist for advice, they could review this video too to better understand the situation.

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs

Some of the signs of separation anxiety or separation-related issues in dogs include:
  • Signs of anxiety before you leave:
    e.g. whining, pacing, panting, tucked tail, ears back, lip licking, yawning
  • Excessive vocalisations: howling, barking, whining
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Toileting in the house
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Excessive licking
  • Excessive drooling
  • Self-mutilation
  • Digging
  • Escape attempts
  • Excessive excitement when you come home
It’s important to remember that some of these symptoms aren’t always caused by separation anxiety.
For example, your dog might bark a lot if they see people walking past the house. In this case, excessive vocalisations can come from frustration, or boredom, rather than separation-related issues.

How to prevent separation anxiety in dogs

To help prevent separation-related issues in your dog, you should try and teach them that being on their own isn’t scary, and prepare them to deal with time alone.
To do this, introduce periods of alone time into your dog’s day.
At first, this time alone may be for just a few seconds while you go into another room. Then a minute. The aim is to gradually and slowly introduce longer periods where your dog is on their own, until they’re happy to spend an hour or two on their own.
As your dog becomes more comfortable with time apart from you, you can also go further away. Rather than just moving into another room, you can go upstairs or in the garden. Eventually, you want to start trying to go out the front door and spend time outside the house without your dog.

When should you start doing separation anxiety training for dogs?

There is no one “separation anxiety training for dogs”, there is what’s called departure training, which is where you teach your dog to be independent and cope with being on their own.
It’s much easier (and quicker) to teach a puppy or young dog how to deal with being home alone than it is to change an established behaviour. That’s why if you’re preparing to bring a pooch home, you should start teaching them to be alone from day one.
However, you can help any dog of any age to cope better with their separation-related issues. But like any behavioural change, it requires patience, persistence, and consistency.
If you’re not sure how to train your dog to deal with being home alone, get in touch with your vet. They can refer you to a clinical animal behaviourist who will be able to help you identify and treat the issue. 

Preparing to leave your dog alone at home

When preparing to leave your pooch on their own, you can do a few things to make them more comfortable and safe while you’re gone.
You can prepare a safe area in a puppy pen, or behind a baby gate, or in a crate. Make sure you’ve trained your dog to be comfortable in this area whilst you’re at home first, so your dog sees this as a safe space.
Make sure your pup always has access to fresh water to prevent dehydration, and some bedding to keep them comfy.
Prepare a safe and long-lasting chew for them to enjoy while they’re gone, like a stuffed and frozen Kong. This will help to prevent boredom and to distract your dog while you’re away.
You can also try leaving the tv or the radio on with some quiet, relaxing music. Sometimes the background noise helps keep dogs calm.
Another trick worth trying is to use a plug-in pheromone spray. Research suggests that these can help to keep dogs calm.
Another tip is to try leaving behind one of your old shirts which will have your scent on and could help to soothe your dog.
Finally, make sure your dog has had a walk and the opportunity to go to the toilet before you leave. Just remember to keep the walk calm and don’t do anything too energetic, as this can make your dog excitable and full of adrenaline which can turn to frustration or anxiety when you’re gone.

Desensitising your dog to you leaving

Sometimes your dog might start showing signs of stress before you’ve even left the house. Cues like picking up your keys, grabbing a bag, or putting your shoes on could all indicate to your dog that you’re getting ready to go, and start them worrying about being alone.
If this is the case, you’ll need to work on desensitising your dog to these cues so they become everyday, ignorable activities.
To do this, you’ll need to identify what cues are causing your dog to worry. For example, grabbing your keys.
Then you need to start picking your keys up at random times, when you aren’t leaving the house. Simply pick them up and put them back at first. If your dog stays calm or ignores you, reward them.
Next, try picking your keys up and walking around with them for a while. Again, reward your dog if they stay calm.
Eventually, you want to be able to start grabbing your keys and your dog ignoring you, or expecting something good to happen.

What to do if your dog already has separation anxiety

Managing their separation anxiety

You will also need to manage your dog’s separation anxiety while you’re teaching them. This might mean limiting their time alone by enrolling them in a doggy daycare, kennels, or employing a petsitter or dogwalker. 
You should also follow the tips listed above to help make your dog comfortable when you’re not there. This can include:
  • Pheromone diffusers
  • Long-lasting chews
  • Leaving an old shirts that smells of you
  • Having soft, calming background noise
It’s a good idea to have a consultation with your vet before you start working on your dog’s separation-related issues. Your vet can rule out any underlying issues, and put you in touch with a clinical animal behaviourist. (You usually need a vet referral to be able to see a behaviourist!)
Your vet might be able to advise you on anti-anxiety medications that may help to settle your dog when they’re alone. This can be really useful for reducing stress before you start to see the results of your behavioural training with a behaviourist.

Separation anxiety training for dogs

Even if your dog already has separation anxiety, it’s not too late to start teaching them how to handle being on their own. 
A clinical animal behaviourist will be able to help identify and understand the cause of your dog’s behaviour. They will also be able to come up with a behaviour modification plan and help you teach your dog to deal with being without you. You can find Clinical Animal Behaviourists and Veterinary Behaviourists that can support them via the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors website.
Helping your dog overcome separation anxiety is a combination of desensitising them to your leaving, and teaching them to be comfortable alone, in a similar way to how you would teach a dog to tolerate time on their own in the first place.

Final thoughts

Preparing your pup to handle being home alone takes time and patience. However if you put the work in, it’s perfectly possible to have a dog that can handle being home alone without getting worried. In fact, many dogs can become content at home alone and use the time to nap, or amuse themselves playing with their favourite toys. 
Teaching your dog to deal with being alone is a key part of preventing and managing separation anxiety. And allows you as an owner to have the freedom to be able to leave your dog behind from time to time and spend a few hours without them.
And remember if you ever need extra help, your vet and a clinical animal behaviourist can provide it. Check out the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or the Canine and Feline Behaviour Association to find a behaviourist near you.

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