Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Can it Be Cured?

(Disclaimer: I am not a licensed veterinarian or an animal behaviorist. Everything I have written in this post is from my own personal experience and research on the topic. Please consult your veterinarian first.)

Do you think your dog has true separation anxiety? Do you hate leaving your dog home alone because of the mess they leave for you to find? Do your neighbors complain about your dog barking while you’re away?

Separation Anxiety In Dogs

Many people believe their dog suffers from anxiety when left alone. However, most of the time their dog’s behavior stems from a lack of training. These learned behaviors can include going potty inside the house and chewing on things other than their toys. This would be considered simulated separation anxiety because these behaviors are learned. For example, “When mom leaves I can get in the trash and find some goodies!” There is a big difference between a dog having a true separation anxiety disorder and just misbehaving due to lack of structure or boredom.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about having a dog with separation anxiety it is that it is not something to take lightly. It is, however, with the right training, and, if needed, medication, possible to manage if not completely eliminate.

When I got Piper at 9 months old, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew nothing about her life before the shelter other than she had been found wandering along the side of the road and was picked up by some wonderful citizen. But no one claimed her. Did she have an owner? Was she kept outside? Did she have brothers or sisters?

What I did know after bringing her home was that she had horrible separation anxiety. I couldn’t even leave the house before she was barking and crying her head off. As I mentioned in my piece about doggy daycare, I was terrified to come home and see what she terror she had inflicted on my room. One day, I came home to the tray of her crate slid completely out and across the room, poop at the back of her crate, and her pillow torn to shreds. It broke my heart to see her so panicked.

Eventually, I was able to talk to my vet about everything and she started Piper on an anti-anxiety medication. I love it because I only have to use it when needed. This could be being home alone or going on a long trip. It really helps to calm her down and sleep most of the day! Between that, some invaluable training, and regular exercise, I’ve noticed a HUGE difference in the severity of her anxiety. It hasn’t gone away completely but it is much more manageable now.

Diagnosing Separation Anxiety

There are a few questions to ask when determining if your dog has true separation anxiety: Does the behavior…

  • occur every time you leave?
  • happen while you are home or with your dog?
  • begin before you have even left?

If you answered yes to any of the above, your dog may have separation anxiety. However, you should consult your vet before making any kind of self-diagnosis.

True separation anxiety in dogs occurs when a dog exhibits signs of severe distress when left alone or away from its owner. These behaviors are more serious and more destructive than the usual puppy boredom behavior. They also typically occur at the time of the owner’s leaving or within 20 minutes of being left alone.

Separation anxiety can be caused by a number of factors:

  • a traumatic event such as that related to weather or abuse
  • loss of a pack member (either an owner or another dog)
  • or even still some breeds are genetically more predisposed to having separation anxiety
Separation Anxiety Symptoms

True separation anxiety behaviors can include but are not limited to:

  • defecating in the house after being potty trained
  • extremely destructive behaviors such as chewing or ripping up pillows and bedding or even chewing on walls or windowsills
  • constant barking, howling or whining
  • persistent and intense pacing
  • attempting to escape, as well as
  • physiological responses such as excessive panting or dilated pupils

Prevention of Separation Anxiety

So how do you treat anxiety like this? Well, ideally, you would prevent the problem before it starts. This can be done through training (am I sensing a trend here, lol) and regular physical and mental exercise

Crate training is one the very first things you should be doing with your dog. If a dog feels safe and secure in their crate it can be an invaluable tool in the prevention of anxiety. Many dogs who are crate trained early enough see their crate as their den and usually prefer to be in there during times of rest or stress.

I cannot stress enough how important exercise is. Always make sure that your dog has done some form of exercise before you leave them at home alone. This can be in the form of…

  • a short walk (which you should do anyway as it gives them a chance to relieve themselves so that they don’t do so inside)
  • a romp at the dog park
  • or maybe a short game of tug with some of their toys.

Playing with your dog also gives them a chance to spend time with you. This is all they really want anyway. And remember, a tired dog is a good dog! They will be more apt to take a nap while you are away.

I love using Piper’s Kong (a treat and toy in one!) for when I know I am going to be gone awhile. Usually, I will fill it full of HIGH VALUE (this is important) treats and peanut butter and freeze it. I say high value treats because I only give her the Kong when I am leaving her at home for a longer period of time. This creates a sense of excitement surrounding my leaving as it means she gets something SUPER special while I’m gone. High-value treats would be better than regular food, however, I have used her kibble in a pinch. Freezing it also makes it last longer and is great for during the hot summer months. The mental exercise of her having to get all the peanut butter out to get to the treats at the bottom can keep her occupied for hours.

Treatment of Separation Anxiety

Sometimes prevention isn’t always an option such as in the case of a shelter dog or possibly an older dog. When it comes to treatment, the two biggest ways are through desensitization training or (if necessary) medication. I will not cover the medication portion as I am not a licensed veterinarian and therefore do not have the expertise to speak on the subject.

Desensitization involves teaching your pooch that your coming and going is no cause for concern. Your dog should feel no emotion for you leaving or returning. This is hard for people to understand (especially me!). We all want our dogs to be excited when they see us. Unfortunately, for an unbalanced dog, this isn’t always a good thing.

Desensitization can be done through a few ways. The first involves creating a situation in which you are about to leave. You grab your coat and keys, put on your shoes, whatever it is that usually causes the anxious behavior to start. Right before you head out the door, sit down and begin doing something else.

At first, your dog will be very confused. Do this over and over until your dog no longer associates your picking up the keys or putting on your coat with their anxious behavior. If the act of grabbing your keys gets your dog riled up, only do that action until he is no longer excited by the keys. Then, add in putting on your coat. Continue adding actions until all the elements of your departure are now meaningless to your dog. Be patient. It will take time.

Keep your greetings short and sweet. Long goodbyes and ecstatic hellos only worsen the problem. I’m so guilty of this! Dogs are insanely good at picking up on our emotions. If you start to panic before you have even left the house, whether you think you’re showing it or not, I can guarantee you your dog already knows what’s about to happen. The sooner you start becoming a leader for your dog, the sooner you and your pup can get past this.

If your dog is suffering from true separation anxiety, I highly encourage you to talk with your veterinarian about possible treatment options for them. It could be something as simple as some training or behavior modification or it could require something more serious such as medication. Bottom line is that this is not a death sentence. It is preventable and treatable. With the right tools, you and your dog can overcome this issue and through it create an even stronger bond between the two of you. For more information about separation anxiety, Ceasar Milan has a great article on how to handle this behavior.

What are some ways that you help your dog deal with separation anxiety?

38 Comments

  1. Erry

    July 15, 2017 at 9:48 pm

    You have great advice in this post. I’m a fellow dog mom, so I totally understand this. Can’t wait to read more! 🙂

    1. Augusta

      July 16, 2017 at 10:36 am

      Thank you so much!

  2. Michele

    July 15, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    I am so glad my mom’s dog doesn’t have an extreme case. He just gets sad when we leave, especially if it is for more than a day or so.

    1. Augusta

      July 16, 2017 at 10:35 am

      You’re so lucky! Although it’s nice to know that our pups miss us when we are gone 🙂

  3. Kate

    July 15, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing! Luckily my pup doesn’t have separation anxiety, although I know she was neglected before we got her. She occasionally gets into the trash when we’re not home, but that’s really a “There’s something in there that smells good and I want it” behavior! Considering that’s her worst behavior problem, I feel incredibly lucky.

    1. Augusta

      July 16, 2017 at 10:35 am

      That’s great! I’m so glad to hear that her past neglect has not affected her and she can live a normal happy life now! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Julia Elizabeth

    July 16, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Thanks for such an informative post! I’m happy to see that mental health is coming into the public’s eye more and more, even in relation to animals. It’s so important to take care of loved ones, especially our four-legged friends 🙂

    1. Augusta

      July 16, 2017 at 6:56 pm

      Absolutely! Especially when it comes to shelter dogs! We have to be able to understand what is really going on before we can attempt to treat it!

  5. Stephanie

    July 16, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    Good advice and thank you for adopting a dog as opposed to buying one! I have rescued and fostered a lot of dogs over the years. I loved your advice about grabbing your keys and your purse as if you are going to leave and then sit down and read a magazine or do something else. That’s a good one. Another one is to record yourself washing dishes, humming to yourself, possibly talking on the phone and play it low on a loop while you’re gone. A tv or classical music can help, also a crate for short periods 4 hours and under IF your dog destroys your house. Most of all, EXERCISE. An exercised mind is a quiet mind. More than a quick walk, you have to get in a rigorous 45-60 minute walk PRIOR to leaving.

    1. Augusta

      July 16, 2017 at 7:49 pm

      Those are all fantastic ideas as well! I usually either leave the tv or the radio on while I’m gone as well. Keeps it from getting too quiet 🙂

  6. Ariel

    July 16, 2017 at 9:15 pm

    Great advice! I’ve had two dogs with separation anxiety and in both cases, I found tips like yours (exercise, mental stimulation with toys like a Kong, desensitizing them to your “leaving”) to be invaluable. These are some great tips for dog owners suffering from this issue.

    1. Augusta

      July 16, 2017 at 10:59 pm

      Thank you! Yes, it can be a struggle but it doesn’t have to be! Time and patience.

  7. Nikia H

    July 17, 2017 at 8:43 am

    I don’t have a pet but these are some great tips on what to you expect and helping your dog with separation anxiety. Thanks for sharing

    1. Augusta

      July 17, 2017 at 12:34 pm

      Thank you! And thank you for reading!

  8. Jessica

    July 18, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    This is all so helpful! I have a minpin who struggles with anxiety. We’re working on it.

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:17 pm

      Keep working! I promise with patience and effort it will get better! Consistency and confidence are the two biggest things.

  9. Lisa x Mugbird

    July 18, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Great post and thanks for all of the tips and advice 🙂 I always feel so guilty leaving my dog for any period of time. I definitely know it gets better with time/training! Cheers and thanks for sharing!

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:16 pm

      Gah she always gives me those sad puppy eyes every time I leave for work in the morning! It’s the worst 🙁

  10. Nicole

    July 18, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Awww, so sweet. Love puppies!

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:15 pm

      Thank you!

  11. Amna Tariq Shah

    July 18, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    I have never had a dog in my life.. like not my own. My brother have had many. However, I have always been very curious about their psyche, how they function, what they think and all. This was certainly something I enjoyed reading. Thanks for this amazing post <3

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:15 pm

      Aww thank you! Yes, animal psychology is quite fascinating! They are so like and so not at the same time.

  12. Elizabeth

    July 18, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    my puppy has such a hard time with separation anxiety! he crawls into my purse when he sees me getting ready to leave. I spoiled him when I first got him, but now it’s too hot to take him with me and leave him in the car. He has to stay at home, poor little guy doesn’t like being left behind!

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:15 pm

      And neither do we want to leave them behind! I wish my work was more dog-friendly or I would bring her every day! 🙂

  13. Shelby

    July 18, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    Great post! I have had to deal with this a lot and it can be super hard. 🙂

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:14 pm

      It really does take a lot of time and effort! Thanks for commenting!

  14. Shayla

    July 18, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Great advice! It’s too often that separation anxiety is misdiagnosed! It’s a struggle but can often be misunderstood.

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:13 pm

      Absolutely. A lot of people think their dog will simply “grow out of it” or that they are chewing up their walls out of revenge when that really isn’t the case.

  15. Cate

    July 18, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    Great tips! Its tough to see our dog in distress, thanks for sharing ways to help

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:12 pm

      Oh it’s the worst! Poor things can’t help themselves!

  16. Laura

    July 18, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    My friend fostered and later adopted a dog with severe separation anxiety. I seen how much she struggled but someone else may not have put in the time needed. These are really good tips.
    Laura x

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 6:12 pm

      It really does take a lot of time and effort! Trust me, that dog doesn’t want to feel that way any more than we want them to! Thanks for visiting!

  17. Priscilla

    July 18, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    I found that having all my dogs around the same age helps with anxiety. I have four dogs, the oldest being 2 years old. Although training all pups around the same age is a bit crazy, they keep each other company and play all day long. We live on 7 acres that we had a fence installed around the entire yard (cha ching for the fence company…lol). They get Bark Boxes delivered every month so they have lots of toys. Every morning before we go to work, my husband plays with them with the water hose, which they absolutely love. Dogs having dog buddies makes it easier on them when you have to leave.

    1. Augusta

      July 18, 2017 at 9:05 pm

      Those are all fantastic ideas! I love that you have really invested in giving them the best life. Sounds like some spoiled pups. Love it!

  18. shehroz haider

    July 19, 2017 at 3:28 am

    that is very nice article i love to read your articles thankyou very much … looking more here in future … 🙂

    1. Augusta

      July 19, 2017 at 12:03 pm

      Thank you so much! I can’t wait to share more with you!

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    July 23, 2017 at 3:31 am

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