7 Ways to Treat Dog Separation Anxiety

boston terrier puppy chewed door
A tiny Boston terrier puppy chews a hole in the bathroom door in an attempt to escape

Do you frequently come home to scattered trash, pillow massacres, or “unwanted presents” in the house? Your pet could be suffering from separation anxiety.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a condition in which dogs suffer severe mental or emotional distress when separated from their owner or primary attachment figure. 

Common Signs of Separation Anxiety:

  • Urinating and defecating in the house (if they don’t normally)
  • Chewing, digging, and other destructive behavior (especially to windows and doors)
  • Escaping / running away
  • Pacing
  • Coprophagia

Some of these signs can be due to other behavior problems, so check with your vet if you are unsure if your dog has separation anxiety.

Why Do Some Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?

black golden retriever looking at camera
Black Golden Retriever

There is no conclusive evidence showing exactly why dogs develop separation anxiety. However, because far more dogs who have been adopted from shelters have this behavior problem than those kept by a single family since puppy-hood, it is believed that loss of an important person or group of people in a dog’s life can lead to separation anxiety. Other less dramatic changes can also trigger the disorder. The following is a list of situations that have been associated with development of separation anxiety.

Change of Guardian or Family
Being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter or given to a new guardian or family can trigger the development of separation anxiety.

Change in Schedule
An abrupt change in schedule in terms of when or how long a dog is left alone can trigger the development of separation anxiety. For example, if a dog’s guardian works from home and spends all day with his dog but then gets a new job that requires him to leave his dog alone for six or more hours at a time, the dog might develop separation anxiety because of that change.

Change in Residence
Moving to a new residence can trigger the development of separation anxiety.

Change in Household Membership
The sudden absence of a resident family member, either due to death or moving away, can trigger the development of separation anxiety.

What NOT to Do When Treating Separation Anxiety

Jack russell terrier dog holding stop sign police
Jack Russell Terrier Police dog holding a “other danger sign”
  • Punishment. Punishment isn’t effective for treating separation anxiety and can make the situation worse.
  • Another dog. Getting your dog a companion usually doesn’t help an anxious dog because their anxiety is the result of their separation from you, not just the result of being alone.
  • Crating. Your dog will still engage in anxiety responses inside a crate, and they may urinate, defecate, howl or even injure themselves in an attempt to escape. Instead, create other kinds of “safe places” as described above.
  • Radio/TV noise. Leaving the radio or television on won’t help (unless the radio or TV is used as a safety cue).
  • Obedience training. While formal training is always a good idea, separation anxiety isn’t the result of disobedience or lack of training.

When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching him to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being left alone. This is accomplished by setting things up so that the dog experiences the situation that provokes his anxiety, namely being alone, without experiencing fear or anxiety. So here are our 7 tips to help overcome dog separation anxiety.

1. Exercise your dog before you leave

Jack Russell terrier exercising with weights
Jack Russell Terrier with dumbbell.

A tired dog will have less energy to get into trouble, and may even just nap while you are gone. Try to wrap up your exercise session at least 30 minutes before you leave so they have time to calm down.

2. Re-examine your routine

Border collie alarm clock yellow background
Border collie with a alarm clock

Before shelling out for any products that promise to soothe your pup’s stress, consider how you might be able to help him feel calmer. “Most of the time, pet owners do have to do something different to help manage and improve their dog’s anxiety,” explains veterinary behaviorist Meredith Stepita, DVM.

For instance, having a predictable daily routine that helps your dog anticipate when he’ll get to eat, go outside, and spend time playing with you could help him feel more confident and less nervous. That’s especially true if his stress seems to stem from separation anxiety, Stepita says.

3. Try a compression wrap

french bulldog wearing thunder shirt
French bulldog wearing Thunder-Vest

Those Thunder-Vests might make your pup look funny, but they really can make a difference. (And not just during thunderstorms or fireworks.) The wraps work by swaddling your dog and applying gentle, continuous pressure, which is thought to help reduce fear, says Stepita.

4. Play some music

Jack Russell Terrier with headphones
Jack Russell Terrier with headphones

Reggae and soft rock aren’t the only genres that can encourage your pooch to relax. Classical music like Mozart and Beethoven has also been shown to reduce stress in dogs, and even encourage them to bark less.

5. Treat your pup to a massage.

Anecdotally, physical touch is thought to ease anxiety and aggression in dogs. And though there’s not much research to support this, gentle petting seems to help dogs stay calmer during stressful or uncomfortable situations like getting shots or having their blood drawn, suggests one small Applied Animal Behavior Science study.

6. Ask a neighbor or a friend to help out or hire a dog walker

border collie with heterochromia
border collie with heterochromia

If you’re struggling to handle your dogs separation anxiety you can always call up a friend or a neighbor to help out for those short moments when you have to leave your puppy. However, if you have a tight schedule every day consider on hiring a professional dog walker.

7. Seek professional help.

Little pug puppy with veterinarian
Little Puppy with vet

If you’re still struggling to find the key to calm, don’t give up. It’s important to pinpoint the source of your dog’s stress and find ways to manage it. Chances are, he won’t just learn to get over whatever’s upsetting him — and his anxiety will likely get worse, Stepita says.

Consider meeting with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist, who can help you put together a specific plan to change your dog’s underlying emotional response— so he can get back to his happy, tail-wagging self.

Do you frequently come home to scattered trash, pillow massacres, or “unwanted presents” in the house? Your pet could be suffering from separation anxiety.

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