How to prevent and deal with separation anxiety in dogs: practical advice from an expert

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  • Separation anxiety in dogs is one of the most common problems I deal with. It can be one of the most difficult, life-limiting, distressing and emotional situations that you and your dog might encounter. There are varying degrees of separation anxiety in dogs as there are different reasons for it.

    It’s important to remember that two dogs with the same anxiety problem won’t benefit from equal treatment of the issue. Even more importantly, you need to be willing to think outside the box and the standard advice or you’ll be in for a tough time. To solve the problem of separation anxiety in dogs, you need to understand your dog’s personality, how and why it started and if the standard go-to methods do not help, be able to get your thinking cap on and try other things.

    Which dog breeds suffer from separation anxiety?

    Any dog can suffer, but some breeds and and cross-breeds are more prone than others, including:
      • cockerpoo
      • dachshund
      • lurcher
      • whippet
      • greyhound
      • Border Collie
      • chihuahua
      • German Shepherd
      • bichon frise
      • poodle

    Why do dogs get separation anxiety?

    Dogs are social animals and it’s normal for them to stay close to their social group, so they can become anxious when left alone. This usually happens when a puppy is first separated from its mother and litter siblings – they’ll bark and whine in order to get attention so that they can be found and reunited.

    It is much harder for an owner who only has one dog to get this right and not create the problem. In my experience, having one or more dogs at home already makes bringing home a new pup or a rescue dog much easier as the social group is already established and there is constant canine companionship so they don’t have to rely on a human presence.

    Traumatic event

    Separation anxiety in dogs can also be caused by a traumatic event that may occur while you’re away from them. Examples include a thunderstorm, fireworks, building work or banging in the vicinity of the home. Dogs can only hear what’s happening, so they cannot rationalise it and you’re not there to reassure them. The next time you leave the house without them, they’ll get anxious that the event will happen again and separation anxiety may begin.

    Changes in circumstance

    A stay in boarding kennels can trigger a separation anxiety issue, especially if your dog had a stressful time while boarding, as your dog is fearful of you leaving it again. This is usually no fault of the kennels – some dogs just don’t settle in the kennel environment.

    Covid is a notable example of the rocketing cases of separation anxiety. Lots of people bought dogs and were with them 24/7 – then when life returned to normal, they left them to go back to work. This is hugely traumatic for a dog as the majority of the new owners would never have had the foresight to make the dog have alone time separate from them with enrichment toys to amuse itself.


    This is usually seen in the more timid and fearful rescue dogs. Being caged or locked up in kennels for a length of time can create a co-dependency on the new owner and their home environment. For the first time, the dog feels safe and is given care, love, and attention. They will not have had one-to-one attention for some time, so when this (you) is removed, it can send them back to the kennelled state of mind, being frightened and self-sufficient. Lots of time and patience is required to build up the dog’s confidence and make it feel safe when alone in such circumstances.

    Being an only puppy

    Some dogs are born the only puppy in the litter. This gives rise to lots of problems as there are no litter siblings to play with and learn bite inhibition from, so if removed from its mother and sent to a home with no other dogs it can give rise to many issues, including separation anxiety. Any reputable breeder in such circumstances should either keep the puppy or home it with another dog or dogs in situ.

    Owner action

    As I mentioned earlier, a puppy that has been brought home, is never left at all and is constantly fussed over will not learn to be independent of the owner and will not be able to cope if the owner nips out for 10 minutes or even goes to another room. This type of separation anxiety is taught and is a problem of your own making. I always make sure puppies have time alone – in short spurts first – even if I am in the house, as they do need to learn to be independent and confident without your presence.

    What are the signs of separation anxiety?

    Dogs often begin to display anxiety as soon as the owners prepare to leave but in some cases it may only happen on selected departures, such as leaving for work or when the owner leaves again after coming home from work. The best way to determine if behaviours are due to the anxiety associated with the owner’s departure is use one of the best pet cameras to capture the behaviour when the dog is alone. It is usually very easily diagnosed.

    General signs

    • Dogs being overly attached to or dependent on family members
    • Trying to remain close to their owners following them from room to room and rarely spending time outdoors alone
    • Craving physical contact and attention

    Preparing to leave and shortly after departure

    • Vocalisation, which is usually howling or whining due to distress (here’s how to stop dogs whining)
    • Becoming destructive, particularly if it’s focused on the owner possessions or at the doors where owners depart or the dog is confined (here’s how to stop dogs chewing)
    • Soiling the house or crate
    • Restless
    • Shaking or shivering
    • Salivating
    • Refusing to eat
    • Becoming quiet and withdrawn

    When the owner returns

    • Over-excited and aroused

    During stressful events

    • Destructive behaviours
    • Old dogs with medical problems, such as loss of hearing or sight, painful conditions or cognitive dysfunction may become more anxious in general and seek out the owner’s attention for security and relief

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    How to prevent separation anxiety

    If you have your dog from a puppy, there are a few things you can do to prevent separation anxiety from developing. A well-adjusted puppy should do well either alone or with the family and will be less likely to have separation anxiety in the future.

    • Ensure your puppy is well socialised with other animals and people
    • Make sure your puppy learns how to have alone time and amuse themselves with their toys
    • Reward the behaviours that you want your puppy to continue – when you take your puppy out of alone time to socialise with the family, make sure that you only get him when he is quietly playing with his toys or settled and calm

    If you have adopted a dog privately or a rescue centre, you need to approach the situation slightly differently. Dogs learn very quickly – especially when brought into a new environment – and until you can get your dog to settle and relax while you are at home, he is unlikely to settle when you leave.

    • Establish a predictable routine very early on and be consistent with it
    • Before you can begin, be certain that your dog has a sufficiently enriched environment, including a selection of dog toys, the best puzzle toys and lick mats and has had interaction socially
    • Give rewards for behaviours that you want to train and not for attention seeking or following

    How to deal with separation anxiety

    Knowing how to help an anxious dog is an important tool and can vary depending on the severity of the problem.

    Mild and moderate cases

    Control the environment

    Begin by making your dog’s day calmer and more predictable, whether you’re home or away. Establish a daily routine so that your dog can begin to predict when he can expect attention, including exercise, feeding, training, play and toilet breaks and when he should be prepared for inattention and should be napping or playing with his toys. Try to schedule these times for play and sleep at times when you would normally depart.

    Meet his needs

    Make sure you are meeting all of your dog’s needs for social interaction, play, exercise, training and toileting. You should initiate enough regular interactive sessions and provide enough play and attention so that when each session is over, your dog is prepared to settle down and relax. At this point, different exploratory and chew toys can be given so that your dog has new and motivating toys on which to focus when it is time to settle. Feeding toys, such as the best dog treat dispenser toys, can also replace standard food bowls to make feeding time more of a mental and physical effort. Start popping out for 10 minutes or so during this process and if the dog is coping well enough extend the time.

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    Establish the reward system

    If your dog has separation anxiety, it is likely that your dog’s favoured rewards are the attention and play that you provide. Treats, food, play and chew toys may also be high motivation factors.

    Bear in mind, however, that some dogs become so distressed and shut down in your absence they will not touch food or toys, which makes life much more difficult. Reward your dog for settling down, relaxing, and showing some independence, but do not reinforce attention seeking and following behaviours. Therefore, training should focus on extended and relaxed stays, and going to a bed or mat on command.

    If your dog seeks attention, you should either ignore your dog entirely until he settles or have him do a “down-stay” or go to his bed. After sufficient time, give attention or affection as a reward. Gradually extend the periods of inattention before attention is given. You’re not trying to ignore the dog, but rather to ignore attention-seeking behaviours. You want your dog to learn that calm and quiet behaviour is the only way to receive attention.

    Provide an area to settle

    Having a calming dog bed, a mat, pen, or one of the best dog crates where your dog can be taught to rest, nap, play with his toys or even sleep, can provide a secure area where your dog might settle when you are not home. You can begin by training your dog to go to the area and gradually shape longer stays and more relaxed responses in the area before rewards are given. It might be helpful to have a barricade, tie down or crate that could be closed to ensure that your dog remains in the area for long enough during each session before being released. However, you must know your dog’s limits – your dog must be calm and settled when released to avoid reinforcing crying or barking behaviour, so don’t leave it too long.

    Not all dogs like crates so it is important to consider this. Lots of books say the smaller the space the better, which is great if your dog likes to den down, but not so great if he is fearful of shut doors and crates. Some dogs cope better with the run of the house, believe it or not, or the place where you spend most of your time, as it is familiar and smells of you. Leave the TV and radio on and draw curtains and blinds at first, your dog can be taken to this area as part of his training routine using a toy or treat.

    In time, a daily routine should be established where the dog learns to lie on his mat after each walk, play and training session to either sleep or play with his own toys. This is similar to the routine for crate training. Outside of play, exercise and training sessions, focus on giving your dog some of his rewards in this area, such as his food or one of the best high value dog chews or lick mats. You can also feed a dog by spreading his wet food on a lick mat, so he must work for it, which is mentally tiring but also releases dopamine, which is calming.

    A piece of clothing with the owner’s scent and a comfortable bed can help to promote a relaxed response as they are associated with relaxation and your presence. Baby gates (like this one on Amazon) can be helpful if a dog requires more space to be calm as it prevents the dog from entering other parts of the house without having a door shut on them. Crate training or dog proofing techniques may work for those dogs that already have an area where they are used to being confined.

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    Prepare for your departure

    Before any lengthy departure, provide a vigorous session of play coupled with a walk or training session. This helps to tire your dog and provides a period of attention from you. Once finished, take your dog to their rest and relaxation area with a radio or TV playing so that you can prepare to leave while your dog is out of sight and earshot. Provide your dog with some different motivating toys to keep them occupied and distracted before and during your departure.

    There are several activities that we do consistently prior to departure and dogs soon learn to identify these cues. These might include brushing your teeth, changing into work clothes, collecting keys, handbags or coats. Avoid as many of these departure cues as possible, performing them out of sight, so that your dog’s anxiety doesn’t heighten before you leave. Avoid saying goodbye because this will only serve to bring attention to the departure.

    Alternatively, expose your dog to as many of these cues as possible while you remain at home so that they no longer are predictive of departure. This entails some retraining while you are home. Get the items that normally signal your departure (for example, keys, shoes and jacket) and walk to the door but do not exit the house. The dog will be watching and possibly get up, but once you put everything away, your dog should lie down. Repeat the activity once your dog is calm. Stick to a maximum of three or four repetitions in a day – and only present the cues a second time if your dog remains calm and quiet. Eventually, your dog will not attend to these cues because they are no longer predictive of you leaving.

    Severe separation anxiety

    For dogs with severe separation anxiety, crates should be used with caution because they can promote intense escape attempts and may result in serious injuries. It is important to choose a room or area that does not further increase your dog’s anxiety. Your bedroom, if the dog sleeps with you, the feeding area, or the place you relax and spend most time in may, therefore, be most practical.

    To help with vocalisation, the best dog calming tablets and other dog calming products may also be useful for short-term use, until you’ve effectively corrected the problem. In some situations, a second dog can help to keep the dog occupied and provide company while you’re out. Some dogs are even happy with a cat, although they can’t be relied on solely unless they are house cats. If your dog is not reactive to other dogs, ask a friend if you can borrow a dog and see if it helps, that way you will know before getting another dog and then potentially causing another problem if it does not work.

    Some dogs are too anxious to be helped in these ways. Drug therapy can be useful especially during initial departure training. Tranquilisers alone do not reduce a dog’s anxiety but may be helpful to sedate your dog so that he’s less likely be destructive. I have suggested this to extreme cases I have dealt with and they have worked to significant effect.

    It is important to remember that dogs can be diagnosed with many of the same mental health issues humans suffer. Thankfully, more and more vets are understanding this and helping dogs with the conditions. Although medication may be important in reducing underlying anxiety and helping your dog cope, it is the retraining program coupled with medication that is needed to help your dog gain some independence and accept some time away from you.

    Pheromone therapy can also be useful for diminishing anxiety both while you are home and when you are away. If your dog has been anxious during your departure, and this has led to destruction or house soiling, then being cross or angry may increase your dog’s anxiety, making matters worse for future departures – and it will not correct what has already been done. Therefore, both punishment and excited greetings must be avoided. At homecomings, ignore your dog until they settle down, which may take 10–15 minutes. Your dog should soon learn that the faster they settle, the sooner they’ll get your attention.

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    Does separation anxiety ever go away?

    Unfortunately he short answer is no but the behaviours can improve hugely. One of my first cases was a wolfhound. Over a period of time and practice as above, we found that he was most happy in the kitchen with a baby gate across the living room threshold and one across the entrance to the conservatory. We pulled the blinds, left the radio on, and gave him a long-lasting chew toy. We also went out the front door and not the usual back entrance. This stopped his vocalisation and he could be left comfortably for four hours.

    Whatever your setup is when you go away – a home-boarding scenario, a friend who is happy to have the dog – the plan that you successfully implemented must be the same in each environment and periods of time should be spent at these locations, conditioning the dog in exactly the same way. If you have a house sitter, they should be briefed to follow the plan in exactly the same way.

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