How to Help Your Dog with Separation Anxiety

a brown and white dog looking sadly out the window

Sometimes, being home alone can be a scary experience for your dog. “Separation anxiety” is a very real concern for pet owners, and it can have unpleasant results for both you and your pup. But leaving your dog home and alone doesn’t mean always coming home to possible destruction -- there are ways to help your dog feel more comfortable in your space while you’re gone.

In this article, we will go over everything you need to know about your pooch's separation anxiety, including:

  • The signs and symptoms of separation anxiety
  • The differences between separation anxiety and general distress
  • The tools and tricks that you can use to help your dog feel better

What does separation anxiety look like?

You come home from a long day at work to a note on your apartment door -- your next door neighbor is angry with your dog’s constant barking and howling. You walk into your kitchen to find chew marks on the couch and the door frame, and your dog covered in a mess.

You may feel frustrated, and rightfully so, but your dog may not be acting badly because he wants to be bad -- he or she may have “separation anxiety.” Separation anxiety is a legitimate concern for pet owners, especially owners who have to leave their dogs at home during the work day.

a yellow lab howling
Your dog howling at the park while having the best day of his life? Great. Your dog howling all afternoon while you’re out at work? Not so great. Barking, howling, and other crying can be a sign of separation anxiety in dogs.

There are some common signs that your dog might show if he or she is experiencing separation anxiety while you’re away.

Sometimes, dogs will howl, bark, or yelp for hours on end. This isn’t the kind of “please stay home” barking that stops once your pet realizes you aren’t coming back for a bit, and it isn’t an “oooh, I see a squirrel out the window!” kind of talking. This is a constant behavior that doesn’t seem prompted by anything other than the dog being home alone, and it can be especially frustrating to manage if you live in close quarters with other people.

Dogs that are experiencing separation anxiety also may urinate or defecate in the home while you’re away. If your dog has potty problems while you’re home, it probably isn’t separation anxiety. If your dog is perfectly good at asking to go outside while you’re home, however, and only has accidents while you’re away, your pet may be feeling especially nervous when alone.

Destruction is a particularly easy sign to spot, although it is also a messy and costly one. Dogs who are experiencing separation anxiety will chew, dig, and scratch all sorts of surfaces, ranging from furniture to the walls. Destruction can be an especially serious problem for dog owners because it is both costly and possibly dangerous to your dog.

Pacing and other restless behaviors may also be a sign of separation anxiety. It can be hard to figure out if your dog is pacing while you’re away, but you can use a monitoring device (like the Petcube Camera) to keep an eye on your dog. You should also monitor your dog’s energy and weight -- if your pup is losing pounds, or if he seems especially exhausted at the end of the day, it might be the result of his pacing around while you are out of the home.

Finally, dogs will sometimes make a break for it if they’re experiencing separation anxiety. If your dog is happy to hang at home with you, but tries to escape when he is by himself, it could be a sign of separation anxiety.

In short, separation anxiety can take a whole lot of forms -- your dog may show some or all of the signs above. If you notice this behavior, don’t write it off as your dog being bad for being bad’s sake. Instead, understand that your dog may be experiencing extreme nerves while you’re away.

What are the differences between separation anxiety and other concerns?

Sometimes, your dog’s behavior may look like separation anxiety, but may actually be caused by something else.

If you notice that your dog is having accidents while you’re out of the house, you should schedule an appointment with your vet. It is possible that unintentional urinating or defecating is the sign of a medical problem rather than behavioral issue. Alternatively, your dog may also need a tune-up on bathroom behaviors (rather than a diagnosis of separation anxiety).

a bulldog lays with his head on a dark rug, looking dejected
While it is important to monitor your dog’s behaviors, make sure to rule out all possible reasons for unwanted behavior. Sometimes, behavioral issues may have a medical basis, which your vet can help you fix.

If you notice that your dog is displaying some or all of the signs listed above, you should think about any major changes to your dog’s daily life. Moving homes or changing schedules can cause stress for dogs (they’re especially sensitive to routines). So, if you’ve gotten new hours at work or if you’ve upgraded your living situation, your dog might need some time to adjust and get back to normal behaviors.

What are some tips and tricks to help relieve separation anxiety?

If you’re sure that your dog is experiencing separation anxiety, there are preventative measures that you can take that will help him have a nicer time while being home alone.

First, make sure you’re giving him time to get out energy before your leave. Dogs are active creatures -- they love to play and run and engage with the world. Accordingly, you want to make sure that your dog gets in a good amount of exercise before you leave him alone for a longer period of time (this is especially useful for dog breeds that are known to be naturally higher energy).

Second, you can train your dog to enjoy his time home alone. Rewarding your dog with delicious treats when you leave and return can help him understand that you + the door doesn’t have to equal fear or anxiety.

While you’re away, you can help your dog feel safe by leaving him with fun toys and comfy places to rest and relax. Enrichment toys (ones that engage your dog by releasing treats) are a fantastic way to help your dog enjoy his time alone. A large and fluffy dog bed is also a nice tool to help your dog feel comfortable -- you can even leave one of your pieces of clothing on the bed to help your pet feel like you’re still home.

a chihuahua curled up on a cozy pile of blankets while his owner is away
Making your dog psychologically comfortable may mean helping him feel physically comfortable, too. A large and soft dog bed (with some of your worn clothes) can do wonders to help relieve anxiety and fear.

If you’ve tried out these tricks with little or no success, you can also consider confining your dog to a single room while you’re out. This will limit any potential damage that he can do to your living space (or himself), and it might actually help him feel better. By removing rooms, you may also remove stress because he will learn that he only needs to hang out in one space while you’re away.

Finally, you can also consider asking your veterinarian about anti-anxiety drugs or natural remedies to help your dog's anxiety while you’re away, or you can consider kenneling your dog while you’re out. Both of these solutions are more costly than at-home training techniques, but they are viable solutions for dogs that experience significant separation anxiety.

No one wants to see their dog upset, especially since they count on us to help them feel safe and taken care of.

As frustrating as it can be to have a dog that experiences separation anxiety, it is important to remember that your dog is isn’t being bad because he wants to -- it is because he is scared and struggling to feel safe. Punishment isn’t the answer, nor is ignoring the problem.

Instead, make sure to give your dog plenty of exercise, toys, and comfortable spaces to hang out while you’re away. And if you’re not sure you are equipped to handle your dog’s separation anxiety issues, reach out to your vet or local dog trainer -- they can help make home-alone time more fun for you and your dog both.

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