Help! My dog has separation anxiety!

Dogs with separation anxiety have behavior problems when they are left alone. The most common of these behaviors are:

  • Digging, chewing, and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to escape and reunite with their owners.
  • Howling, barking, and crying in an attempt to get their owner to return.
  • Urination and defecation (even with housetrained dogs) as a result of distress.

These behaviors occur as a panic response to being separated from their owners. Dogs with separation anxiety will take out their anxiety about being left alone on just about anything, including your furniture, bed, clothing — anything they can get their paws (and teeth) on.

If your dog already has unwanted separation behavior, training may be more difficult, but is worth the effort to correct. Many older dogs with separation anxiety were shelter dogs or strays at some point in their life. Up to half of these dogs will improve with training, but you may need to modify your routine to desensitize them to your leaving.

For a dog that has mild separation anxiety, it can be relieved by (according to HSUS):

  • Keep arrivals and departures low-key. For example, when you arrive home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes, then calmly pet him. This may be hard for you to do, but it’s important!
  • Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you—such as an old t-shirt that you’ve slept in recently.
  • Establish a “safety cue”—a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back. Dogs usually learn to associate certain cues with short absences by their owners. For example, when you take out the garbage, your dog knows you come right back and doesn’t become anxious. Therefore, it’s helpful to associate a safety cue with your short-duration absences.Some examples of safety cues are a playing radio, a playing television, or a toy (one that doesn’t have dangerous fillings and can’t be torn into pieces). Use your safety cue during practice sessions with your dog. Be sure to avoid presenting your dog with the safety cue when you leave for a period of time longer than he can tolerate; if you do, the value of the safety cue will be lost. Leaving a radio on to provide company for your dog isn’t particularly useful by itself, but a playing radio may work if you’ve used it consistently as a safety cue in your practice sessions. If your dog engages in destructive chewing as part of his separation distress, offering him a chewing item as a safety cue is a good idea. Very hard rubber toys that can be stuffed with treats and Nylabone®-like products are good choices.

If your dog has more severe separation anxiety you can desensitize him by:

  • Do your usual leaving routine. Put on your jacket and pick up your keys. Then, put your keys down and take your jacket off. Go and sit down. Ignore the dog for a few minutes then calmly pat him. Repeat this process until he ignores your leaving cues.
  • Next, repeat the same process, put on your jacket and grab your keys. Go to the door. Open it, then close it. Put your keys down and take your jacket off. Ignore the dog for a few minutes and the calmly pat him. Do this until he is calm when you go to the door.
  • Now do the same process again, this time step through the door, close it, then open it and walk back in. Do the same as before. When your dog is comfortable with this step move on to the next.
  • From now on, each time you walk out and close the door, wait a bit longer each time until you can leave for short periods of time without the dog becoming distressed. It is a long process, but it will be worth the effort when your dog is able to stay alone and not destroy your furniture.

Another thing you can do to reinforce this desensitization is to teach your dog “sit-stay” or “down-stay.” Doing this will allow you to leave your dog’s sight while he sits or lays happily until you return. To do this, you gradually increase the distance you move away from your dog. As you progress, you can do this during the course of your normal daily activities.

Because the treatments described above can take a while, and because a dog with separation anxiety can do serious damage to himself and/or your home in the interim, consider these suggestions to help you and your dog cope in the short term (HSUS):

  • Consult your veterinarian about the possibility of drug therapy. A good anti-anxiety drug should not sedate your dog, but simply reduce his anxiety while you’re gone. Such medication is a temporary measure and should be used in conjunction with behavior modification techniques.
  • Take your dog to a dog day care facility or boarding kennel.
  • Leave your dog with a friend, family member, or neighbor.
  • Take your dog to work with you, even for half a day, if possible.