Guide to Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs

pet dog with toy

Separation anxiety is a common problem in dogs, especially in certain breeds. Some dogs suffer only minor distress upon separation while others experience severe anxiety. If your dog responds to being left alone by urinating on the carpet, howling, chewing on the furniture, or pacing compulsively, he likely suffers from significant separation anxiety and would benefit from treatment.

Before you make any changes to your dog’s routine, visit your veterinarian for a complete examination. Your vet will need to rule out any underlying medical problems for your dog’s symptoms. If your dog gets a clean bill of health physically, the problem is probably psychological.

Treating Mild Separation Anxiety in Dogs:

Mild separation anxiety often responds to counter-conditioning, a technique that helps your dog associate a positive experience with being alone. For example, offer your dog a treat or toy when you leave for work, and make certain to praise your dog when you return home.

Encouraging your dog to increase his activity level may also help treat mild separation anxiety. Exercise decreases stress and burns nervous energy. Spend time stimulating your dog physically and mentally, and ensure he does not spend too much time cooped up in the house alone.

It is also important to remember that your dog senses your emotions. Make certain that all your hellos and goodbyes are done in a calm manner. Do not prolong goodbyes, become upset, or give in to your dog’s demands to stay home. When returning home, offer a quick hello and then wait for your dog to calm down before giving him more attention.

Treating Moderate Separation Anxiety:

Although mild separation anxiety usually responds to counter-conditioning and changes in routine, more severe anxiety may require desensitization and other techniques.

Eliminate pre-departure anxiety, or the panic your dog experiences when you grab your keys or put on your shoes, by breaking your own routine. If you are like most people, you follow a certain routine when preparing to leave; you may brush your hair, put on your jacket, grab your keys or purse, and then turn off the kitchen light. Your dog is aware of these cues and may respond by becoming obviously stressed or by attempting to stop you from leaving. To eliminate pre-departure anxiety, you need to break these connections.

Disrupt your dog’s cues by picking up your keys and then sitting down to watch a movie. Try modifying your morning routine by brushing your hair in a different bathroom, or by putting on your shoes before you eat breakfast. While these changes won’t completely get rid of your dog’s anxiety, they will make it easier for you to get out the door and will prevent your dog from panicking every time he hears keys jingle.

Moderate canine separation anxiety may also respond to desensitization. This technique involves gradually increasing your dog’s time away from you in a controlled way. For example, begin by leaving your dog with another household member for short periods. When your dog becomes comfortable with that, leave him with a mostly unfamiliar person for a short period. Work up to leaving your dog alone for increasing periods of time.

Treating Severe Separation Anxiety:

If your dog’s symptoms are severe or do not respond to home treatment, professional intervention may become necessary. In addition to therapy, there are medications available to reduce your dog’s anxiety by altering levels of certain neurotransmitters in his brain. These medications will not alter your dog’s personality; they simply treat depression and anxiety to minimize your pet’s symptoms and prevent stress-related behaviors.

However severe your dog’s anxiety, it is very clear that scolding or punishing him will not ease his symptoms. In fact, it is very likely to make the situation worse. Do not punish your dog for emotions and reactions that are not fully under his control. If you feel you are losing patience, contact your veterinarian for help.


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