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So Hard to Say Goodbye: Separation Anxiety in Dogs

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Think back to when you last fell in love. Remember how agonizing it felt saying goodbye to the object of your affections — even if you were apart for only a few hours? Over time, these temporary absences became much easier to take as you grew accustomed to trusting that your paramour would return. 

But what if that trust never developed? Imagine your emotional state if every single farewell felt final. That’s exactly what it can feel like for some dogs who have separation anxiety.

Let’s take a closer look at the causes of this issue, how it manifests in behavior, and how you can work with your dog to decrease her anxiety.

Why Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety

Dogs often develop separation anxiety after a significant change to the family or household. These could be moving house, the abrupt absence of a family member, or a sudden schedule change. No matter how smart your fur baby seems, remember that they can’t understand what’s happening in the human world.

For instance, think how when a puppy comes home. How would you feel if you were one day bundled into a car, driven to a new house, and never returned to the old one — with no explanation? Or if all of a sudden your human started to leave every morning and was gone all day, every day, and you had no idea when or if she would be returning.

separation anxiety

When stressful events like this occur, they may feel abandoned, confused, and distraught if those humans aren’t around very much, whether it’s as a result of the new situation or not.

While more than 70 percent of dogs suffer from some sort of anxious behavior, not all can be classified as separation anxiety, and it’s important to understand the difference. Dogs can develop situational anxiety or even demonstrate a genetic predisposition toward anxiety.

Related: Work Full-Time? Here Is What You Need to Know to Keep Your Dog Happy While You’re Away.

Learn the difference, so that you can provide the best possible treatment.

Signs That Your Dog Is Suffering Separation Anxiety

To observant owners, it’s fairly evident when a dog has developed separation anxiety. They will likely howl, bark, or whine when you leave or while you’re gone. Anxious dogs may also engage in digging or clawing behavior, particularly around windows and doors, in a heartbreaking attempt to follow you. Sometimes they even succeed in escaping, ostensibly to find you. 

While puppies are notoriously prone to causing destruction when left to their own devices, even an ordinarily well-behaved dog may take desperate measures to alleviate their feelings of abandonment. This could result in chewing, upending the trash bin, destroying the sofa, laying waste to your new shoes, and other significant damage to your home and belongings.

If your housebroken dog starts to defecate or urinate in the home when left alone, that too might be due to separation. An occasional accident isn’t a big deal, but when frequent messes occur or a pattern emerges, take note.

How to Help Your Dog with Separation Anxiety

Resolving separation anxiety can be simple if it’s a mild case or mostly circumstantial. One of the easiest tips to implement is to act calmly when you return, as well as when you depart. Making a big deal of your arrival will only reinforce your pup’s emotional inclinations. This goes double if your dog goes crazy with relief and excitement upon seeing you again. Resist the urge to react in kind, or you run the risk of rewarding this behavior. Rather than greeting your dog right away, delay the reunion by removing your coat and shoes, putting away the groceries, or saying hello to your human family members before you lavish any attention on the household’s canine population. The same goes for long, drawn-out goodbyes. It may seem cruel, but in the long run, your dog’s equanimity will be worth it. 

For more serious cases of separation anxiety, you’ll need a longer-term approach that involves gradually teaching your dog that he can be safe and happy when you’re not around. First, don’t allow your pup to be your constant companion. Only hang out together some of the time; while you work in another area of the house, let them enjoy a special toy, like a treat-dispensing puzzle or peanut-butter-filled Kong. This helps them learn to self-soothe when you aren’t around. Take the toy away when you return, so that your dog comes to associate it with alone time. 

separation anxiety

Related: Meet the Trainer Drake, Carrie Underwood, and Kaley Cuoco Use — And What You Can Learn From Her

Next, set your dog up for separation success with a two-fold practice plan. The first step is leaving — briefly and randomly. Think of everything you typically do upon departing the house: putting on your shoes, donning a jacket or hat, pocketing your phone, finding your keys. Several times during the day, do all of those things, then stay right where you are. At other times, do all of those things, then leave for five minutes, or 15 minutes, or 90 seconds, or half an hour. The idea is to make your absences unpredictable; this, in turn, will break the association your dog has with the jingling keys and other signals of your imminent leave-taking.

It can also be helpful to develop a cue to reassure your dog that although you’re leaving, you will be back. Say “see you soon” or a similar phrase, turn on the radio, or take out that dedicated alone-time toy. Whatever your cue, employ it every time you leave the house (or pretend to). In the beginning, it might be necessary to leave for no more than a minute or two. Gradually increase the duration; eventually, your dog will become comfortable seeing you off. And while these are great starting points, we always recommend consulting with a trainer, too.

Additional Tactics to Try

Opinions on crate-training vary, but if your pet loves spending time in his dog cave, he can spend your absence safely tucked away there. Otherwise, consider restricting him loosely by enclosing him in one room or area of the house with a baby gate. You can chew- and dig-proof this space, but make sure to leave toys, a bed and blanket, food and water, and other healthy stimulation, like a window to watch the world from. 

Take advantage of aromatherapy’s benefits by leaving soft clothes that smell like you, such as an old, unwashed hoodie or t-shirt. That can be a great comfort for an anxious dog. Similarly, consider using a DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) diffuser, which releases the same pheromones as a nursing mama dog. 

Another great idea is a calming supplement, which can help combat stress, anxiety, and fear in your dog when you are away.

Optimistic pet parents might see a silver lining when it comes to separation anxiety: a dog who’s loath to see you leave has clearly created an incredible bond with you. Of course, looking on the bright side doesn’t do your poor pooch any favors, so it’s essential to assess the situation honestly and address their anxiety. Doing so will ultimately make your relationship that much stronger.

Related: How to Prepare Your Dog Now to Prevent Separation Anxiety After Lockdown Ends

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional advice.

By Nicole Shein

Nicole Shein has been a wordsmith and an animal lover ever since age 5, when she penned a book about the courtship and marriage of two rabbits named Charlie and Lila — but needed her mother to spell most of the words for her. Nowadays, she works solo as a freelance writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in or on This Old House magazine, HowStuffWorks.com, and Match.com. Nicole lives in Rochester, NY with her partner and two children, but dreams of one day owning a rambling, rustic old farmhouse with plenty of land to accommodate all the animals she would love to rescue.

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