Am I causing my dog’s separation anxiety?

If your dog experiences anxiety when left alone, you are probably contributing to his anxiety in some way.

Separation anxiety in dogs is a serious problem and often requires months of consistency to overcome. I’m not at all suggesting there is a quick fix.

But there is one piece of the puzzle that gets overlooked – the human’s anxiety.

Sometimes a dog’s owner is actually the direct cause of the dog’s anxiety.

What if the dog owner is actually the one with separation anxiety?

Black lab mix lying on a dog bed

I received an email from a reader who was thinking about cancelling her vacation because she couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her dog at a kennel – not just any kennel, but a dog resort with “suites” that included TVs and lamb cots. She said:

… I have worked myself up that I have been crying for two days! I have it in my head he will be depressed, or he will die there without me (yes I am obsessive with my dog:). My husband does deserve a vacation as I do too, so I don’t want to ruin it for him …

She asked me for my advice.

So I told her that she owed it to her husband to go on this vacation, and that she and her husband better enjoy themselves. And that her dog would be just fine. I told her to stop crying and worrying, because it would only make her dog feel anxious as well!

This may seem like an extreme example, but many of us feel anxious about leaving our dogs and that only makes our dogs feel anxious, too. Of course, some amount of anxiety is a part of life, but we often turn a small problem into a much larger problem.

I’ve left my own dog Ace at boarding kennels, and I’ve seen how my own attitude directly affects him.

If I feel guilty about dropping Ace off at a kennel, he acts accordingly. He goes in with his tail and head held low. He tries to follow me out the door when I leave. He crouches low to the ground and drools.

But if I go in there thinking about what a great time my dog will have and how lucky he is to stay at Chasing Tails where they will play ball and fill up the pool, then my dog walks in there appearing more confident and excited.

Dogs without separation anxiety – not a coincidence

Leaving our dogs at a kennel is not the problem for most of us. The more difficult problem is leaving the dog home alone during the day if he has separation anxiety.

My parents are a good example because I have seen them raise four dogs from puppies, and they have never had a dog that had a problem being left home alone. You can read more about their dogs on my mom’s blog here.

Four dogs. No separation anxiety.

I believe this is directly related to my parents feeling absolutely no guilt when leaving the dogs home alone in their crates or confined to a small room.

I’ve never seen my mom or my dad hesitate at the door before leaving and say something like, “Well, do you think we should leave a radio on for them?” I have never heard or seen them carry out a drawn-out goodbye. At most, it might be “Be good!” or “See ya!”

There is absolutely no drama. Why should there be? Leaving is a part of everyday life. Their dogs know this, and it makes life much less stressful for them.

Don’t feel bad when you leave your dog to go to work

I know I spend too much time pining over my dog before I leave the house. When I feel guilty about leaving Ace, he looks at me with “sad” eyes. He might even whine a bit or follow me to the door. On the other hand, if I ignore him and consciously choose not to feel guilty he’ll most likely be snoring on his bed in a corner somewhere. He might not even notice when I leave.

This is why any dog trainer will tell you to ignore your dog when you leave and also when you return. You do not want to make a big deal out of departures or homecomings. It’s better to ignore your dog than to hug him and kiss him and repeat over and over “It’s OK. It’s OK, baby. Mommy will be home soon.”

If you are feeling anxious about leaving your dog home alone for eight hours a day, think of it this way:

Who has to slave away at a demanding job? Who has to get up early and be to work on time?  Who has to deal with a difficult boss?

And … who gets to lounge around all day on a couch or dog bed? Who gets to take a nap, play with some toys or maybe chew on a bone?

Still feeling guilty?

What if you adopted a dog with existing separation anxiety?

I’m not saying that if your recently adopted dog has anxiety it’s entirely your fault. Your dog probably had anxiety issues before you adopted him, and that might be why he ended up with a rescue group in the first place.

What I am saying is that no matter how your dog’s anxiety came about, you can help your dog by remaining collected, calm and anxiety free.

Easier said than done, I know. I’ve had to stop fostering quite a few dogs because their anxiety when left alone was too much of a problem in my townhome environment.

Still, if I have a new foster dog, and I’m bent out of shape over whether or not he’s going to bark when I leave him home alone in his crate, guess who’s going to bark?

But, if I’m truly relaxed and I truly let go of my worries and anxiety, that dog will have an easier time calming down.

When dog separation anxiety is really human separation anxiety – a final example

I want to share a final example of a dog walking customer I had a while back and how her anxiety was the direct cause of her dog’s issues. I have changed her name and her dog’s name and breed.

“Julie” had a dachshund mix named “Scruffy” with severe separation anxiety. She called me up wondering if I could come walk the dog.

Within seconds of meeting Julie and Scruffy, I knew I would not be able to help. The problem was the owner. No amount of exercise would help Scruffy.

Scruffy had caused all kinds of damage when left alone. Mainly, she had destroyed a set of blinds and injured herself in the process. Julie had videotaped Scruffy, and the dog would howl and pace and whine the entire time she was alone.

Julie refused to leave Scruffy in a crate as she just “couldn’t do that to her.” She did try a citronella spray collar once to stop the barking but felt tremendous guilt. “It killed me to do such a thing,” she said.

Julie was extremely nervous about hiring me and trusting someone to care for Scruffy. She would likely leave her video camera on when I was there.

We came to the agreement that I would walk Scruffy every day starting the next day.

That never happened.

I received about 20 text messages from Julie over the next 12 hours with various questions. Would I give Scruffy water? Would I be careful not to let her run out the front door? Would I be walking any “aggressive breeds”?

Oh, boy.

Unfortunately I had to “fire” that customer. My services and attitude towards dogs were not a good fit for her.

I sincerely hope the dog is doing better these days, but I doubt it.

Hopefully this example will help a few others consider their own behavior.

I do know my dog experiences anxiety whenever I am feeling anxious, and I can help him by remaining calm. That is almost always my goal.

If it seems like your dog’s separation anxiety won’t stop, consider your own emotions and feelings not only when you have to leave your dog but whenever you are around your dog. It will go a long way.

Does your dog have separation anxiety? How have you contributed to your dog’s anxiety?

10 thoughts on “Am I causing my dog’s separation anxiety?”

  1. Heh. Now that I’ve had Tarski for nearly 6 months and we’ve undone many of the issues he came with, I’m pretty sure I cause 80% of all my dog’s current problems… Like when he’s anxious and tense, and I’m annoyed, it helps nobody and frustrates us all. And the only one between us who can really reflect on the situation and reset would be me, but how often do you think I succeed in doing that?

    But that’s the cool (aggravating? 😉 thing about dogs — they can be a mirror into your own mental state, and so when you see a problem in your dog, you can be pretty sure it’s a problem in yourself. 🙂

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      All of Ace’s “problems” are directly related to me! 🙂 That’s just the way it’s going to be I guess!

  2. Neither of my dogs has any tendencies toward standard separation anxiety – being left home alone, being left with the dogsitter when I’m on vacation.

    That’s a good thing, because the one thing I don’t have is a schedule or routine. My away from home work hours vary greatly from day to day and week to week. My partner travels for work in a non-routine way. I realize that while this can be good training for the fact that you leave and ALWAYS come back, even if not in a predictable way, there are a lot of dogs that would need more predictability and routine than mine do.

    If there was one thing I wish dogs could understand it would be exactly how long you are going for and when you are coming back. I don’t feel guilty for leaving, but I would love to be able to give my dogs the info, because I think they would rather know than not know. Too bad it’s outside canine comprehension.

    That said, my dog Scout does display some forms of separation anxiety. Scout gets anxious if we go somewhere and then leave a member of our family behind (human or canine). Scout has a marine attitude about outings.

    Also, I recently discovered that while Scout doesn’t care who is left behind at home when she goes somewhere, Scout does have some anxiety when she gets left home and Buddy (the other dog) gets taken somewhere. It has nothing to do with being left alone vs. left with people. It’s based on Buddy leaving and her staying, and while it’s not severe, she’s not entirely herself until Buddy returns. It’s something that just never happened very much, so she is not at all used to it. As a result, I am now trying to set up short separations just to get her used to realizing that Buddy can go without her and come home, and it’s not a big deal.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Ace experiences some pretty bad anxiety whenever we go somewhere “fun” to visit friends or family or if family visits us and then he gets separated from them. All of the excitement puts him in a different state of mind, and he gets very vocal. He whines and even howls and yips. Mostly it’s just irritating whining. I have not been very good at calming him in theses situations, and I know my own anxiety adds fuel to the fire.

      For example, my brother was visiting me this week. Ace views my brother as one of the most exciting, fun people on earth. When my brother and I went outside to play catch without Ace, he then proceeded to sit inside and howl and bark. He would never do this if I were to leave him inside on any normal day.

  3. The dog world would be a great place if separation anxiety in dogs was purely caused by owner anxiety. Sadly, this is not the case. Separation anxiety often has a lot more to do with the dog itself than the owner. Not always, but mostly. There seems to be a pretty strong rhetoric that owners cause separation anxiety, and I really don’t think it’s awfully accurate or helpful – it just makes owners feel guilty when it was often never their fault.

    I have 3 of my own dogs, and countless foster dogs, who have come through and have mostly been happy to be crated, at least for short periods. I had one dog that, if left in a crate, could be found in a pool of blood on return where had attempted to rip himself out of the crate. Nothing about my demeanour was different for this dog, but man did I feel guilty that I was anxious and causing my dog’s anxiety – for years. I have finally found peace knowing that this dog was genetically a basket case, and I had very little to do with his behaviour.

    Some dogs are just anxious dogs that cannot be fixed by ‘fixing’ the owners.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thanks for sharing your opinion and experience.

      There are definitely some dogs that are anxious no matter what. I’ve fostered my fair share of those. I’ve had three that broke out of crates. They came to me with problems and there was no way I was going to fix those problems in the short time I had those dogs, if ever. Those dogs definitely had issues that could’ve been due to poor breeding and spending their first few weeks in a puppy mill. But in addition to that, I know they were never given a solid base with structure, security or a routine from their original or second or third families. Over time, that creates a very anxious dog.

      I believe that the majority of separation anxiety issues are caused directly by the owners, especially when you look at a dog that was raised by the same person from puppyhood.

  4. I left a comment here earlier, or at least I thought I did…

    I believe it’s essential for dogs to learn how to be “alone” and separated from you. Otherwise you will probably end up with a very clingy and anxious dog. The most helpful tool for teaching them how to be away from you is a crate or kennel. It’s kind of nice to think our dogs need us so much they can’t stand to be separated from us, but really that’s not healthy for anybody.

    Glad to know we’ve done this right. Now if we could just keep certain members of the household from making a fuss when we get home…and I don’t mean the dogs!! Ha.

    Thanks for the link to my blog too.

  5. My fluffballs were my first dogs ever – my parents are not dog people and dogs in the house just kills them. So I’ve made lots of mistakes, and some I could correct but don’t want to take the time. No matter what any of my dogs are, I have never blamed them – I know 100% I did it to them. LOL.

    The couple of things I did right though was to socialize them and leave them home like it was no big deal, and both of those things I learned from having worked at a day care. The parents that worried over every move their kid made, always had the kid that cowered in the corner. And the worst, that I complained about all the time there, were the parents that could not bring themselves to leave without getting their kid worked in to a frenzy. I think many of them felt that if their kid DIDN’T throw a fit when they left, it meant that the kid didn’t really love them enough to miss them. So their kid would be happily playing with a toy or a friend and they would make a point of going over and hugging and kissing them and telling them how much they would miss them and that they wouldn’t be gone too long and that the kid would be ok there… etc… and pretty soon the kid would be in tears and freaking out because the parent was making such a huge deal about it. The parents that dropped the kid off, let them start playing and then turned around and walked out the door – had kids that never noticed.

    A dog is a dog and not a kid, but there are a lot of things about training them that overlap. LOL. For the record, I let kids jump all over me too 🙂

  6. My dog used to have separation anxiety when she was a puppy and I admit it was probably all my fault. Now that she is over a year old and acting more mature, there is no anxiety when I leave the house for a long time (well as far as I know. No neighbors have complained and she is no longer destroying walls or furniture). When I leave for work or the store, I give her a simple kiss on the forehead, tell her I love her and that she needs to guard the house.

  7. I wrote quite a bit on the other separation anxiety blog about our trials with our mini dacshund over christmas. We rehomed him and from the get go he barked/ cried when alone. It was all very stressful at the beginning but we’ve learned to accept his habits.
    9 months on he still barks/ cries when alone- on those rare occasions he is! He is at doggie day care when we work and we drop him at a neighbours if we have plans where dogs aren’t allowed. And if we need to go to the shop briefly, he is just left – we do video him so know he stands at door and cried and barks.
    Our dog is rather spoiled and I’m sure if we changed it it would be more helpful to train him out of this. We do find it hard to balance- after a long days work and commute when I get home I love to have a good play session with him and cuddle on the sofa. He’s funny, while he can jump on sofa he knows he is not allowed to, so he sits looking cute waiting to be lifted.
    He has his own bed in our room but early morning he shakes his body which wakes me and he’s allowed in the bed after 6am. Until then I ignoire him if he does the shakey thing and he trots to his own bed.
    I know you’ll say he is the boss of our house and that’s all part of the anxiety!
    We have a holiday coming up for 7 nights and he’ll stay with his day care person. Next Saturday night he’ll do an overnight with him. We know it is practise for us not the dog!!!
    We initially began with leaving him for 3 minutes etc and built it up, but it was almost like the anxiety of thebuild up with the kong etc all contributed, so we decided to just get on with our lives and fit it all in.

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