Canine separation anxiety is a disorder that can develop when a pet is away from the human or other animal to whom they’re most bonded. It results in a spectrum of behaviors that can include trembling, salivating, excessive vocalization, overgrooming, loss of bladder control, or even minor to major destruction of your home. You might see or hear treatment recommendations like putting them in a crate—but the solutions, below, are much more nuanced.
Separation anxiety, as opposed to generalized anxiety or boredom, is unique in when it occurs (as soon as you leave) and in what way it occurs (it’s excessive, and your pet’s panicked—not casually chewing on a shoe, but tearing through a crate, couch or even wall).
“In really simple terms, separation anxiety is just the fear of being left alone and the unknown that follows,” says Dr. Nellie Goetz, veterinarian and Arizona state representative for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. “Animals live in the here and now … so when you leave, as far as they know, you could be gone forever.”
Time of transition or change in routine
Being adopted after spending time in a shelter or foster home
Family members returning to work or school after a long period of time at home
Death of a family member or other pet
Suffering a traumatic event
Being housed in a shelter (even great shelters are inherently stressful environments for pets)
Being left alone in a boarding kennel
Abuse or neglect
Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit distress and behavioral issues when they're left alone, such as:
Trembling or salivating
Digging and scratching at doors or windows
Howling, barking or whining
Urination and defecation (even with otherwise house-trained dogs)
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Tire out your dog with long walks and puzzle treats
Tiring out your dog physically and mentally is the best tool you have for treating separation anxiety, says Lindsay Hamrick, a certified professional dog trainer and HSUS director of shelter outreach and engagement. Take your dog on a long walk—trying out new routes and allowing lots of sniffing—and then bring out puzzle toys, long-lasting treats (such as a stuffed, frozen Kong or a frisbee smeared with peanut butter) or other enrichment before you leave.
“Anything more interesting than the fact that you’re gone,” Goetz says. If it’s in the budget, doggy daycare “is fantastic for dogs with separation anxiety” but a dog walker, pet sitter or neighbor checking in midday can also help. (Although it might be tempting, adopting another pet isn’t necessarily a silver bullet and can make the situation more complicated, says Hamrick.)
Establish a routine and keep it relaxed
“Leave at the same time, come home at the same time. Eventually they develop a level of comfort with [the idea that] you’ve come back before, so you’re going to come back again,” says Goetz.
While Hamrick doesn’t recommend ignoring your pet, she says you should “keep your departures and your return home as chill as possible” to avoid reinforcing your pet’s anxiety with your own.
Try soothing music when you’re gone
For dogs used to noise, music (one study showed dogs prefer reggae) can help some pets’ anxiety but exacerbate others’, so play the Bob Marley for a week, and if it’s not working, try something else, says Hamrick.
Ditch the crates and create a safe space
Your dog will still engage in anxiety responses inside a crate, and they may urinate, defecate, howl or even injure themself in an attempt to escape. Instead, confine your dog to a safe room with windows, toys and objects with your scent on them, such as dirty laundry.
Talk to a veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication
In cases “where the separation anxiety is so severe that the animal is either doing damage to themselves or doing damage to their surroundings,” your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medication while you continue to try soothing techniques, says Goetz. “If you can bring their anxiety baseline down, you will have more success on the behavior modification,” adds Hamrick.
Try positive reinforcement training
Never punish your dog for separation anxiety behaviors; punishment isn't effective for treating separation anxiety and can instead increase anxiety. Separation anxiety isn’t the result of disobedience or lack of training. However, positive reinforcement training can be a tool to tire out your pup before you leave, and a certified professional dog trainer can help you neutralize anxiety triggers using positive training techniques. (Locate a professional dog trainer near you.)
Patience, compassion and consistency are key. Treating separation anxiety can take months, and although many dogs with separation anxiety can go on to live stress-free lives, the behaviors may resurface during other times of transition. Hamrick and Goetz both emphasize that there’s no shame in recognizing that your pet needs more time, energy or resources than you can give.
“Separation anxiety isn’t just challenging for your pet. Your home or lifestyle may not be the best match for your pet or vice versa,” says Hamrick. If this is the case, chat with your local shelter or rescue to explore your rehoming options—depending on your dog, a retiree, a marathon runner or someone who works from home might be a better fit.