Dog separation anxiety

It’s sometimes impossible to live with a dog that has “separation anxiety.” A loud or destructive dog creates stress for everyone in the house, costs extra money and ruins good relationships with neighbors.

Well-meaning dog lovers aren’t always aware of a dog’s anxiety issues before adopting or fostering, and this can lead to big problems, especially in an apartment setting. I know what a difficult choice it is to return a dog, especially for a dog lover who doesn’t want to “give up on the dog.”

But sometimes there is no other option. Sometimes you have to put yourself and your family before a dog.

Almost every dog I’ve fostered has had some form of “separation anxiety,” and I’m not talking about a bit of crying as the dog adjusts to her new environment.

What is separation anxiety in dogs?


Dog separation anxiety booksNote: This post has been expanded into an ebook on dog separation anxiety. The cost is $4. Click the book cover for more info.

I consider a dog to have separation anxiety if she has never been properly conditioned to being left alone and therefore goes into a frantic state of mind when her owner leaves the house.

There are a lot of loose definitions for separation anxiety, and people are too quick to say a dog has it.

In most cases the dog hasn’t been given any rules, exercise or a routine so of course she’s going to bark and destroy things when left alone – she’s bored out of her mind and has never been consistently disciplined or exercised!

Another mistake is to say the dog has separation anxiety just because she cries when kenneled. All dogs will naturally need a few days or weeks to adjust to a new environment.

And it does take some time for a dog to get used to a kennel. My mutt Ace cried for 20 minutes every time I kenneled him for the first two weeks. This wasn’t separation anxiety. Ace was just learning his new routine and didn’t want to be left out. He’s also a big baby and still does a fair amount of whining in general 🙂

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs

  • An unhealthy attachment to her owner, often following him from room to room and sitting as close as possible.
  • Leaning into or climbing on her owner for security.
  • Crying and scratching at a bedroom, bathroom or office door if she is not allowed inside with her owner.
  • Nervousness at the sound of her owner jingling keys, putting on shoes, grabbing his coat, etc.
  • Frantic excitement to see her owner when he returns, even if he was gone for one minute to get the mail.
  • Destructive behavior when left alone, often chewing or scratching at the door or objects near the door.
  • Panicking when kenneled.
  • Trying to break out of a kennel to the point of damaging the kennel or injuring herself.
  • Drooling, “foaming” at the mouth, panting, “smacking” her lips and pacing as her owner is getting ready to leave and while he is gone.
  • Barking, crying, howling or literally shrieking when alone.
  • Going to the bathroom in the kennel or on the floor when left alone.
  • Ignoring very tempting goodies when left alone.
  • Odd, obsessive behaviors such as licking her paws – similar to a person who bites her nails or lip when nervous.

Some dogs will show all of these signs, and some will show a few signs depending on the severity of the dog’s anxiety. Also see my post for how to prevent separation anxiety in dogs to begin with.

How to help a dog with separation anxiety

The first decision a dog owner must make is whether or not he is up for dealing with a dog that has separation issues. Unfortunately there is no quick fix, and the owner should assume he will be dealing with these issues for several months.

I recently made the difficult choice to return a foster dog because of his anxiety when left alone. The townhome environment I live in is not the place to properly condition a dog that needs months of work.

Although it is not easy to return a dog to a rescue or shelter, sometimes there is no other choice. If you are faced with this decision, remember there are always more dogs to adopt that do not have separation anxiety.

Don’t miss my other post on how to prevent separation anxiety in puppies and dogs.

Here are some suggestions for helping a dog with separation anxiety:

1. Do not coddle a dog that shows insecurity.

Insecure dogs will lean into their owners in order to feel protected. The dog may also try to climb into her owner’s lap. When my foster dog Levi leaned into me, the best thing I could do for him was to get up and move away. I did not pet him or comfort him or say “It’s OK, Baby.” No.

Levi would also follow me from room to room. I would purposely set up barriers to stretch his comfort zone such as not allowing him to follow me into the bathroom or my bedroom or office.

2. Do not reward excited behavior.

Dogs showing any kind of anxiety or excitement should never be rewarded for it. Instead, they need to learn to chill out.

Owners should reward their dogs only when the dogs are calm. A dog that is pacing around the house, panting and whining should not be rewarded. I will often leash a dog and put her in a down-stay position to help her relax.

3. Stick to a routine when leaving.

Dogs learn by repetitions and conditioning, so decide where your dog will stay when you are gone, and stick to it. If she panics when left in the laundry room, she is going to panic when left in the bathroom, bedroom or kennel, so just pick one place and stick to it.

Establish your routine for leaving and try to be as consistent as possible every time. Let your dog out, then put her in “her spot” and ignore her for a good 20 minutes while you get ready to leave. Then leave.

Don’t say good bye. Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her. Completely ignore any crying she does and just go.

4. Adopt a dog at a time when you are able to take a week off from work.

This will help make the adjustment period easier because you can slowly work up to leaving the dog for longer and longer periods rather than “suddenly disappearing” for eight hours.

5. Condition your dog in small steps.

Ace the black lab mix close up with gray on his nose

Slowly condition your dog to sounds like picking up your keys and putting on your coat so she eventually learns that these sounds are no big deal. Do this by randomly picking up your keys several times throughout the day without actually leaving.

Once your dog is OK with this, progress to putting on your coat or shoes without actually leaving. Next, progress to jiggling the doorknob randomly without actually opening the door. The next steps could be opening the door without leaving, then leaving for 10 seconds, leaving for 30 seconds, opening the car door without actually leaving, etc.

6. Commit to using a kennel.

A destructive dog will cause a lot less damage if she is in a kennel. Most importantly, you will feel less anxious by knowing your dog is safely confined and out of trouble. There’s nothing worse than sitting at work all day or going out Friday night and spending the entire time worried about the dog!

7. Kennel the dog for short periods while you are home.

Kong toyEven on days you are home, put the dog in her kennel for an hour. This will help her stick to her routine. It will also help her realize that just because she is in her kennel does not mean you are going anywhere.

Use puzzle toys like Kongs and stuff these with treats to make the kennel a positive place for your dog.

8. Place a radio in the room, stock the kennel with treats and ignore, ignore, ignore.

The hardest thing to do is ignore the dog when he’s crying or barking. Some people want to scold the dog and some people want to coddle the dog. Yelling at the dog will make her even more anxious, and coddling the dog enforces her thought that there’s something to be worried about.

Both yelling at and coddling the dog teach her that if she cries and barks, you will return to her. So as hard as it is, ignore her. Leaving the radio playing on talk radio and providing extra goodies like frozen Kong toys filled with peanut butter will help.

9. Ignore the dog when you return.

This is hard to do, but it is so important not to throw a party every time you come home. Your dog is going to be extremely excited to see you and probably barking, jumping, crying and wiggling. Completely ignore the dog until she settles down. Don’t even look at her for several minutes.

Making a big deal out of coming home reinforces that it was OK for the dog to feel anxious while you were away and that everything’s OK now that you are back. It should not be an event when you leave, and it should not be an event when you return.

10. Increase the dog’s exercise.

I offer dog running services to dozens of dogs in the Fargo area, and trust me, a dog that has had enough exercise will have an easier time relaxing. Most dogs with any kind of anxiety have a lot of pent-up energy.

A long rollerblading, running or biking session in the morning before work will make a huge difference for the dog. Do not overlook this factor.

11. Apologize to neighbors.

Apologizing for the noise and explaining the situation goes a long way.

Explaining that the dog is a “rescue” and still in training also helps. If your neighbors are dealing with a lot of extra noise coming from your house, why not send them a simple gift like a thank-you note or a gift card for their family to go out to dinner somewhere?

You want the neighbors to support you, not report you to the police or landlord.

12. Avoid anti-anxiety medication (for the dog).

I realize how tempting it is to use drugs to calm the dog, especially when a veterinarian supports the idea.

Instead of using prescription medications, I recommend you try natural products first such as Bach’s Rescue Remedy or dog appeasing pheromones.

If these do not work, then you could consider talking with your vet about anti-anxiety medications for your dog.

Keep in mind, vets see all kinds of dogs with different issues, and they know the average person is not going to follow through with training, socializing and exercising a dog. But putting your dog on Prozac or a similar drug is not solving the problem in the long run.

We fail our dogs in so many ways. Dogs develop “issues” because of our mistakes (or someone else’s mistakes), and solving the problem by drugging the dog is not a happy ending. Of course there are cases where drugs are necessary, but these cases are extremely rare.

If your vet or trainer suggests drugging your dog, get a second or third opinion and trust your own judgement.

Helping a dog overcome separation anxiety is a long process, but it is well worth it in the end!

What experiences have you had with dogs and separation anxiety?

Also check out my other post on how to stop a dog’s separation anxiety.

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