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How to reduce separation anxiety in dogs: A vet's guide

separation anxiety in dogs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Does your dog hate being left alone? Does he become destructive, pace the room, vocalize incessantly, or have accidents in the house while you’re away? If so, you’re not alone. These problematic behaviors are all symptoms of separation anxiety, a common behavioral disorder in dogs. 

A recent study estimated that 17.2% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety, and many behaviorists are also concerned that separation anxiety may become more prevalent now that so many pet owners are spending most of their time at home. Separation anxiety is a frustrating experience for both dog and owner, but there are some steps you can take to help your dog feel more comfortable at home alone.

Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs 

The symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs can vary from mild to severe.  In mild cases, your dog may simply whine a little or seem upset when you are away.  In more severe cases, symptoms may include:

  • Panting 
  • Pacing 
  • Trembling 
  • Excessive vocalization 
  • Destructive behavior
  • Attempts to escape 
  • Inappropriate urination or defecation  

If your dog exhibits symptoms of separation anxiety, it’s best to intervene right away. Separation anxiety will only get worse over time.  With patience and training, you can help your dog get used to your absence using these methods. 

How to treat separation anxiety in dogs 

1. Keep departures calm and predictable to reduce your dog’s anxiety

Just like anxious people, anxious dogs do best with a predictable routine. If your dog knows what to expect, he won’t need to be so fearful. Establishing a routine for your dog does not need to be complicated. Something as simple as always walking your dog on the same schedule or handing him a treat before you head out the door, when repeated on a daily basis, can help make life more predictable for your dog.  

As you work on your dog’s routine, it is especially important to keep your comings and goings calm. Don’t make a big deal out of saying goodbye to your dog when you leave the house, just calmly gather your things and leave. When you return, resist the urge to rile your dog up with lots of excitement and play. Instead, ignore your dog for a few minutes while you get in the door and set down your things. Once you’re settled and calm, you can invite your dog over for some quiet petting and praise. This may seem like less fun than an excited welcome from your dog, but keeping your departures and arrivals calm will be much less stimulating for your dog and will help reduce anxiety.

separation anxiety in dogs

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2. Give your dog plenty of exercise and mental stimulation

Many destructive and anxious behaviors arise because your dog is bored. Even with a whole house to roam and plenty of the best dog toys, without exercise and active mental stimulation your dog can easily fall into problematic behavior patterns. One of the best things you can do to alleviate anxiety in a dog is to ensure that he gets plenty of exercise every day. Most dogs will need a minimum of an hour of active exercise every day, but high-energy or working dog breeds may need even more. If your dog has previously been a couch potato, start exercising gradually and increase your daily workouts as your dog builds more endurance. Ideally, try to get a good exercise session in before you leave home for the day. A nice long walk or a game of fetch in the park will go a long way to keeping your dog relaxed while you’re away. A tired dog is a happy dog!  

In addition to exercise, be sure your dog has plenty to do by himself at home while you’re out. Your dog won’t need to chew on the furniture if he has more rewarding things to occupy his time! Try offering extra rewarding items like everlasting chews, puzzle toys, or a kong toy stuffed with peanut butter. Much of separation anxiety occurs in the first 30 minutes after you leave the house, so offering your dog one of these activities right before you head out the door may help. If possible, having a friend or pet sitter stop by to take your dog out and provide some active play time while you’re away can also help break up the long boring day for your dog.  

separation anxiety in dogs

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Seek professional help when dealing with separation anxiety in dogs

Ultimately, although there are steps you can take to help your dog at home, moderate to severe cases of separation anxiety do best when treated under the guidance of a veterinarian or a positive reinforcement-based trainer. Some dogs are so fearful and anxious that they cannot learn to relax without medical intervention. In these cases, your veterinarian may recommend trying behavior modification drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or tricyclic antidepressants to help alleviate your dog’s anxiety. This type of pharmacological intervention can reduce your dog’s emotional stress so that he can learn more effectively.

However, it is important to note that medication alone cannot cure separation anxiety. A good behavior modification plan always includes a plan for training your dog. The goal of training is to help your dog gain confidence, learn better coping strategies, and decrease fear of new or uncertain situations. Training for separation anxiety in dogs should focus on rewarding desired behaviors and should not include punishment, which may worsen the underlying anxiety. If your dog’s anxiety is severe, your veterinarian may recommend a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist. A behaviorist is a veterinarian who has completed additional training in animal behavior, and who specializes in treating problem behaviors such as separation anxiety. Working directly with a veterinary behaviorist will give you and your dog the best chance at success when it comes to addressing canine separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety in dogs: Learning to be alone

Separation anxiety can be tough to deal with, but with patience and consistency, you can train your dog to be more comfortable being alone. A good treatment plan for separation anxiety in dogs should include a positive reinforcement-based training program, a stable routine, plenty of exercise and environmental enrichment, and medication to reduce anxiety under the guidance of your veterinarian.  With these tools, you and your dog can make separation anxiety a thing of the past!

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Since obtaining her doctorate in veterinary medicine, Dr. Racine has worked exclusively in small animal general practice. Her work has been featured in blog posts, articles, newsletters, journals, and even video scripts.