Separation anxiety in dogs occurs in about 14% of the canine population. Dog anxiety can cause massive disruption in the home as a dog might destroy property and be a nuisance to neighbors while being in severe distress. Having a dog with separation anxiety can be unbearable to watch, so it is vital to understand the causes, what you can give your dog for anxiety, and how to help a dog with separation anxiety.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
At its most basic level, separation anxiety in dogs is caused by a dog’s natural genetic make-up and understanding of the world.
To most dogs, being alone is an unnatural state. In the wild, a wolf is always with its family or pack, which is the same thing. They sleep, eat, and play with their pack all day.
In fact, if a dog chooses to be alone by taking itself to a hidden area and refusing to come out or interact, it is a sign that something is seriously wrong.
Aside from genetics, environmental factors also play a considerable role in separation anxiety. Lack of socialization early in life can contribute to anxiety and fear of isolation; however, in one study, the two most significant causes of separation anxiety in dogs were insufficient exercise and hyper attachment to their owner.
How Do You Know If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety?
A dog with genuine separation anxiety will only exhibit signs and symptoms when the owner is preparing to leave the house or within 30 minutes after leaving. The symptoms should stop after the owner has returned.
While your dog may have comorbidities, such as noise phobia, it is important to be sure that your dog’s behavior is symptomatic of separation anxiety before you begin treatment.
This starts by understanding a dog’s body language. It’s often easy for us to mistake dog body language for human body language and misread our dog. For instance, a yawn can be a sign of anxiety or stress in canines rather than tiredness.
Signs That Your Dog Is Anxious Include:
- Excessive panting
- Sweaty paws
- Digging or scratching—usually at escape points like windows, doors, and gates
- Destructive chewing
- Pooping or peeing in the house
- Excessive licking or chewing on their own body
- Whining, whimpering, barking or howling—especially if the owner is not home
Less obvious signs may include lip-licking, avoiding eye contact, or showing the whites of their eyes.
These symptoms can appear for any kind of anxiety that your dog may suffer. It is important to be sure that they only occur around, and during the time you are leaving the dog alone to know if you are dealing with separation anxiety.
Behaviors To Rule Out
Before dealing with dog separation anxiety, it is essential to rule out other causes of the behavior.
Other causes may include:
A bored or under-stimulated dog will exhibit many of the symptoms of anxiety, including excessive vocalizing, destructive chewing and digging, or compulsions like obsessively chasing their tail.
Underlying medical issues
A dog with a urinary tract infection may pee inside the house, which can be mistaken for a behavioral problem. Likewise, hypothyroidism and other endocrine issues are linked to aggression, fearful and anxious behaviors. Thus, it’s best first to see your veterinarian and rule out possible medical problems.
Since collars sometimes cause hypothyroidism, it’s best to invest in a good no-pull harness.
Other reasons for urinating in the house
Incomplete house-training, being left inside too long, or scent-marking may occur without the dog experiencing anxiety. This type of behavior is often best handled with the help of an experienced behaviorist or by restarting the potty-training process.
Juvenile destructive behavior
Young dogs will often display behavior such as destructive chewing as part of their road to adulthood. It does not necessarily mean the dog is struggling with anxiety. Only that early training and socialization is necessary, as well as firm boundaries and rules.
How do you calm a dog with separation anxiety?
Learning how to calm and help a dog with separation anxiety is essential to reducing stress for everyone in the household.
Any measures taken need to address the root of the problem at a behavioral level with counter-conditioning and obedience training. To fix the issue, here is a list of dos and don’ts to help your dog learn to be okay without you.
Socialize your dog from an early age as a preventative precaution, not only with people and other animals outside of the home but also with people within the family.
Often a dog with separation anxiety has become hyper-attached to just one person in the household. Building a bond with other family members can help your dog feel less like you are all it has and reduce its anxiety.
Leave toys out to keep it amused, especially ones that are fun to play solo. Treats left hidden in a snuffle matt will keep your dogs mind active by promoting their natural foraging instincts.
Do not make a fuss about leaving or coming home. High-pitched, excited greetings raise your dog’s excitement levels and drawn out good-byes with lengthy explanations about how you’ll be back soon only become part of the trigger.
When leaving and coming home, don’t longer acknowledge your dog at all.
Stay calm and confident, and walk in and out the door with no eye-contact. Likewise, ignore any over-the-top greeting from your dog. Only reward calm, polite behavior with your attention.
Count how often your dog follows you around the house during a single day. Hyper-attached dogs who typically show separation anxiety usually can’t let one person out of their sight for a moment.
They will follow you to the bedroom, the living room, and the bathroom, often preferring to be as close as possible. However much your dog follows you, aim to halve it with “place” and crate training—more on that below.
Do not accidentally reward a dog for being anxious. Seeing our dogs in distress can be torture, and most of the time all we want to do is cuddle them and tell them it’s okay.
The trouble is that while this works for humans, who can understand what you’re saying, to a dog, this is reinforcement. You are essentially saying, “Good dog! You are right to be worried right now.” The same applies to giving treats while the dog is in an anxious state.
Introduce a ton of structured exercise, especially before you leave the house. Enough exercise to meet your dog’s needs is vital to address the problem of separation anxiety.
Too often, owners underestimate how much activity their dog needs and will go for a walk around the block and call it a day. But for a high-energy dog like the Alaskan Shepherd or Dalmador, a walk around the block is barely a warm-up.
Adequate structured exercise can mean anything from long-distance walking to bikejoring, weight-pulling, or running on a treadmill.
Keep your dog hydrated during heavy exercise by letting it carry water in a doggy backpack and keeping a collapsible water bowl handy.
Avoid using unstructured exercise to tire out your dog. What’s the difference? Well structured exercise, such as walking or jogging on the leash beside you or running next to your bike, requires discipline, constraint, and obedience. These are vital for an anxious dog to learn to self-regulate.
Unstructured exercise only causes more excitement and less constraint, making it that much harder for a dog to be calm when you leave. Examples of this include playing fetch or going to the dog park where the dog can run freely and excitement runs high.
Address a dog’s early triggers. If you notice your dog begins to become upset the moment you get your car keys or put on your work shoes, start jangling the keys and putting on the shoes during times when you are home and don’t have any intention of leaving the house.
Try to switch the dog’s association with the keys or the shoes by repeatedly doing something different, even positive, every time they come out.
It may take time to recondition these items from having a negative association to having a positive association, but dealing with the triggers can significantly reduce your dog’s stress.
Become upset, angry, or punish your dog. Dogs and owners often create a feedback loop of negative emotions with each. No matter what happens, stay calm, confident, and in control. You got this.
Begin place or mat training your dog as part of your daily indoor life. This means teaching your dog to go to its ‘place’ or mat multiple times a day. Have places and mats set up at different parts of the house to tell your dog to ‘place’ while you are watching TV or cooking in the kitchen.
This teaches your dog not only that it’s okay to separate from you sometimes, but that being separate is something that is expected and calmly rewarded.
An extra note:
No-bark collars can be helpful in keeping your dog quiet when you have left the house and can be used in conjunction with a crate.
If your dog’s separation anxiety is severe and you are struggling to cope, it is best to call in a qualified behaviorist in your area to help your deal with the problem.
Is it okay to crate a dog with separation anxiety?
In cases where dogs have severe separation anxiety, crate-training can quite literally be a lifesaver. Dogs in the grip of a separation frenzy can not only be dangerous to your property but also to themselves.
Crate-training should form part of a dog’s “place” training, and the amount of crate time should be built up gradually over time.
Make sure the crate is durable and impossible for your dog to escape. For most dogs, this means an airline-approved pet crate. For a few genuine renegades, an extra-strong aluminum crate may be needed.
Other methods that can help stop separation anxiety in dogs
While counterconditioning is the most effective way of helping a dog with separation anxiety, other methods can maximize your chances of success.
Remember, these products should be used in conjunction with exercise and addressing hyper-attachment; otherwise, they are at best only masking the problem.
A veterinarian might prescribe anti-anxiety medications or even anti-depressants for dogs with severe cases of anxiety. Many of these medications overlap with human ones, such as fluoxetine or benzodiazepine, and so any use of these drugs needs to be closely monitored for side effects.
Communicate frequently and often with a veterinarian you trust if you choose to make use of prescribed medications.
There is a variety of dog calming supplements on the market. Some come in the form of treats, and others as powders or pills. It’s important to remember that most of the pet supplement industry is not regulated, and many of their claims can be overstated.
For example, products pushing herbal remedies such as lavender, ginger, or chamomile have very little scientific data supporting any significant calming effect on the dog.
On the other hand, there is some data that ingredients such as L-Theanine may be helpful.
A relatively new product on the market aimed at dogs, CBD oil, is currently being pushed as a cure for separation anxiety in dogs. However, the science on this is lacking, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence.
Studies have shown that pheromone releasing products, such as the Adaptil Diffuser, can help pets with certain kinds of anxiety and other behavioral issues. Although, as with any other drug or product, they should only be used in conjunction with behavioral modification techniques or veterinary help.
Another relatively new product on the market aimed at owners desperate to help their anxious dogs is the calming vest or coat. The idea behind this is that the dog is swaddled like an infant and that this reduces their stress levels.
There is no official data backing this claim, although there are owners who swear by their calming vest. However, it isn’t clear why dogs may stay still with the vest on, and some behaviorists are concerned that it may be because the dogs feel too inhibited or even stressed by the vest to move.
A well-balanced diet with enough essential nutrients can help your dog’s mental well-being, and so may indirectly help your dog with separation anxiety.
Some foods, such as blueberries and turkey, are reported to help with anxiety and can easily form part of a healthy raw diet, but again, it’s important to discuss your dog’s dietary needs with your vet.
A 2017 study showed that playing music reduced overall levels of stress in shelter dogs.
This gives owners of dogs who suffer an extra tool in the toolkit. Playing soft rock, reggae, or classical music in the background while you are gone can help calm your pooch down and has been shown to have the best results.
The study also shows that the playlist and genre should be changed every few weeks, or else it loses effect.
What happens when separation anxiety is untreated?
When left untreated, separation anxiety can cause prolonged psychological distress to both the dog and its owner. The dog has to battle panic on a regular basis, throwing it into a full fight-or-flight response.
Chronic mental distress may eventually lead to physical disorders such as a compromised immune system. In older dogs, it may exacerbate underlying age-related diseases such as high blood pressure or failing organs.
It is just as likely that the dog will injure itself by chewing or destroying something out of angst.
The problem of separation anxiety can be just as difficult for the owner. No one likes to leave their dog knowing they are going to cause significant distress to their best friend.
Besides, the destructive behaviors involved can be costly and exhausting. Neighbors complaining of noise such as barking and howling can force some owners into the position of needing to rehome their dog altogether, leading to heartbreak.
For these reasons, any signs of separation anxiety must be treated as quickly and effectively as possible. If you have had any experience with dog separation anxiety or any success with the methods mentioned above, please comment below or share this article with anybody you know who may be struggling with this problem.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.
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