You may be here because you’ve come home to destroyed books or reports of nuisance barking. If you walk out the door and notice your dog panting, pacing, howling, and unable to relax, your dog might have separation anxiety. Or maybe you’re just looking to get ahead of separation anxiety. Training your dog to relax or be okay alone is a very useful life skill. And this can start at any age.
A dog with separation anxiety can be triggered into a state of panic if they believe they will be left alone or without their guardian. What you probably missed on the pet camera are the signs your dog has started to exhibit even before you left the house. Triggers like the sound of keys or grabbing your scarf can alert your dog that you’re leaving, which means they’re well on their way full blown panic by the time you’re out the door.
Based on expert and dog parent experiences, we wrote this guide to cover:
- the severity of your dog’s symptoms and signs
- the type of separation anxiety your dog has
- root causes or trauma your dog has
- your patience and commitment to training
You and your dog’s journey will look very different from someone else’ but one thing is true: No matter where you are starting from, the relationship you have with your dog and how you interact with them is what sets you up for success. Here is a quick video we made about separation anxiety in dogs and how you can solve it.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety will look different in every dog, however Certified Dog Trainer and Pet People Panel member Nicole Ellis says the most common signs of separation-related anxiety include:
- Decreased or no appetite, even treats
- Urinating or defecating in house or crate
- Pacing and panting, especially by the door
- Trying to escape
- Whimpering, howling, barking, or crying
- Sweating paws
These behaviors can appear anytime from when you show signs of leaving the house to 10 minutes later, after you are gone.
More separation anxiety symptoms
One study with a sample of over 5,000 dogs bucketed all separation anxiety symptoms into seven different categories. Check if your dog’s behavior falls into one or more of these buckets:
- Exit frustration: Destruction of objects or property around the door or house structure
- Social panic: Restlessness, vocalization, and panting when separated from pet parent
- Elimination: Urination or defecation in places they normally don’t or wouldn’t
- Redirected frustration: destruction of objects or clothing in absence of human company
- Reactive communication: Barks or reacts to noises or sights happening outside the house
- Immediate frustration: Overexcited behaviors, like mouthing, when you return home
- Noise sensitivity: Panics when sudden loud noises occur
Even if your dog has a mild reaction, they may benefit from seeing a vet behaviorist or trainer who specializes in separation anxiety.
Types of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is a broad diagnosis and a clinical one that can only be determined by a veterinary behaviorist. The most common type of separation anxiety is the one where a dog has formed a hyper-attachment to a single individual. If that person isn’t present, the dog goes into panic mode.
Isolation distress is a milder form of separation anxiety. These dogs don’t want to be alone and can be calmed when there is someone else in the room, be another family member or a trusted pet sitter. Another way separation anxiety may manifest is through doggy ‘FOMO’. More excitable dogs can develop a “fear of missing out” when they want to play or investigate an environment. Untreated, doggy FOMO can escalate into behavior patterns that look like separation anxiety.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can be a genetic or environmental behavior. Some dogs, due to breeding or other genetic factors, are simply predisposed to isolation distress.
Researchers have found that the following factors increase the risk of a dog developing separation anxiety:
- Lack of socialization and desensitization with experiences outside the house, from 5 to 10 months old
- Early separation from litter (less than 8 weeks)
- Sourced from pet shops
- Change in household (new owner, change of routine, or location)
- Traumatic event tied to being alone
- Velcro-dog behavior, where a dog follows you everywhere
The same research also noted that dogs who lived in apartments or in homes without children were also more likely to develop separation anxiety.
Other conditions related to separation anxiety
Some of these symptoms can appear in a dog who isn’t a “true” case of separation. For example:
- Confinement anxiety, or barrier frustration, looks like separation anxiety but is specific to being locked in a small area. Some dogs will panic when placed in a crate or closed room, regardless of their human’s presence. This is why some experts advise not crating your dog at all when training for separation anxiety.
- Boredom can result in destroyed toys, furniture, or human items. Taking your dog on a walk, short training session, and play time before they are left alone can help resolve this.
- Noise phobias or environmental fears may also be mistaken for separation anxiety. However, exposure to these triggers over time, especially when your dog is alone, can cause separation anxiety. This is because your dog associates being alone with scary noises. White noise machines and covering your windows may help, as will sound desensitization.
If caught early, you can successfully teach your dog how to regulate themselves to avoid fear, frustration, or boredom. Left untreated, these separate conditions can develop into separation anxiety. This can account for “sudden” behavioral changes. Meaning, your dog may not have originally been afraid but, through other negative associations, has learned to panic about being alone.
How Do I Start Training for Separation Anxiety?
Whether you have a dog with mild or severe separation anxiety, you’ll want to follow these guidelines while training your dog:
- Suspend absences, or leaving your dog alone, during your training. This means hiring a pet sitter or having a friend watch your dog when you cannot be at home. The more you can prevent your dog from panicking, the easier it is to train them for separation anxiety.
- Work with a separation anxiety trainer to develop a training protocol. A professional can help you minimize mistakes during training. Errorless learning can go a long way with helping your dog.
- Talk to a vet behaviorist about medication and whether your dog is a candidate for it
- Establish a routine for mealtimes, training, exercise, and relaxing with your dog. For cases of severe separation anxiety, you may not be able to incorporate leaving the house just yet, but teaching a routine helps set expectations and makes it easier for you to identify outside stressors.
- Work on commands, such as settle, place, and stay. Building duration (time your dog stays in one position) in these skills and in different environments can help your dog adjust to relaxing when alone more easily.
Ellis also recommends:
- Work on crate training games. These are fun ways to create a positive association to a crate which can be a relaxing environment when they are stressed, if introduced properly. For example, throw a couple treats in the crate for your dog to find and give them plenty of encouragement when they go in the crate on their own.
- Don’t make a big deal when you leave or come home. By fussing over your pet when you leave and come home, you’re raising their energy. This can confuse some dogs who can’t distinguish between anxiety or excitement.
- Try calming pheromones. Consider using a DAP diffuser, which releases dog-appeasing pheromones in the air. These don’t work for all dogs but may have a positive impact.
- Offer pleasant distractions. Play some music, white noise or the TV to create noise in your house. These noises can cue your dog to relax or expect alone time. Animal-loving dogs may enjoy watching DogTV, which has the colors adjusted to attract dogs to the images on the screen.
Training for mild separation anxiety
Mild separation anxiety can often be resolved through persistent training and counter conditioning. Teaching your dog that being alone is fun and can result in special treatment may help for mild cases. Giving your dog a frozen KONG recipe, especially one they never get, before you leave can help them start to associate your absence with good experiences.
A frozen KONG toy or mental puzzle toy can also help tire your dog out by working their brain. Pair this with a consistent routine, and your dog may soon associate your absence with sleeping.
Watch out: If your dog tends to swallow items or can’t be left in their crate, this method will not be safe for them.
What If I Have to Leave My Dog Alone?
First, do not feel guilty for needing to be away from your house or your dog. Keeping on top of your own health and needs is also part of the process to helping your dog. With the exception of emergencies, you should always make a plan for your dog to be accompanied.
To prevent your dog from making excessive noise or doing damage while you’re gone, you can:
- Create a safe space for your dog. This can be the bathroom, bedroom, or laundry room where your dog is comfortable and can do the least amount of damage. Puppy-proofing may be one way of creating this space but sometimes simple (just a bed, food, water, toys, and a shirt of yours) can also be enough.
- Hire a pet sitter to watch your dog while you are out. This is considered constant care as your sitter should not leave your dog unattended. If you can’t find a sitter, consider dog day care.
Talk to a vet about anti-anxiety medication. There are drugs such as Trazadone that can be used situationally. Some dogs may need to go on meds long-term, like Prozac, to help stabilize their mood before they are ready to learn how to be alone.
What If My Dog Panics Before I Leave?
Dogs catch on to routines very quickly, which they learn which of your habits are cues of a departure. To manage a panicking dog, you need to get ahead of your dog’s anxiety and “prove them wrong” so that they learn not to panic.
Here are two approaches:
- Hire a pet sitter to come before you leave so that they don’t anticipate being alone. Depending on your dog’s level of attachment, you may want to pay your sitter for a few sessions to play with your dog while you are in another room so your dog is truly comfortable with them.
- Practice your departure cues without leaving the house. This can look like picking up your keys and jingling them, only to then go sit on the couch. Do this 3 to 4 times everyday, only repeating the step when your dog is calm. You are aiming for your dog to not respond at all when they hear or see your cues.
Pro-tip: You want to aim for a relaxed dog throughout each step. If your dog panics when you put on your shoes, you may have to scale back and start with touching your shoes until your dog doesn’t react.
Why Is My Dog Getting Worse or Not Progressing?
If you have tried leaving your dog for longer and longer amounts of time only for that to blowback in escalated behavior, don’t worry. This is a common mistake pet parents make when trying to manage their dog’s anxiety, and the simplest way to solve this is to make the process easier for your dog.
This means working within your dog’s “threshold” and giving your dog more “wins” than challenges to conquer.
Below is Shoshi Parks, Ph.D. is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-ka) and Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT)’s tips for finding your dog’s threshold:
- Set up a camera (you can use a free app like Skype, Zoom or FaceTime, or a wireless device like a Nest) and leave the house. Watch your dog’s behavior on a smartphone or tablet.
- Start a stopwatch as you close the door, and watch your device as you walk far enough away so that your dog cannot hear or see you. Take note of what they do, from body language, sounds, to activity.
- If your dog is already displaying behaviors, you can return. However long it takes for your dogs to show anxious behaviors is your threshold.
For example, if it takes 5 minutes for your dog to start reacting, then you should start your training sessions at 5 minutes.
How Can I Gradually Increase My Dog’s Time Alone?
After you know your dog’s threshold, you can begin to slowly desensitize them to longer and longer absences.
For a period of up to 30 mins maximum, practice going to the door and stepping outside the house for variable periods of time. For example, if your dog started to panic the moment you walked out the door, you might start with the steps below:
- Walk to door and open it a crack [do not step outside]. Close door and walk away.
- Walk to door and step outside, closing it behind you. Immediately return.
- Walk to door and turn doorknob [do not open]. Release and walk away.
Pause for at least a minute between steps to do something “natural” like watching a minute of TV, straightening up, or washing a dish.
A more advanced routine might look like this:
- Go to the door, open and step outside for 5 seconds.
- Return and sit down on the couch.
- Get up and touch the door handle, return.
- Step outside for 10 seconds, return.
- Step outside for 6 seconds, return.
Between your pauses try not to give your dog too much attention or excitement. You don’t want to ignore them completely, but sitting down for a play session between steps is going to make your next step more challenging. You can start changing your steps or raising the difficulty level when your dog no longer reacts.
Doing this at least 4 to 5 times a week will significantly improve your dog’s behavior. The more you do this while keeping your dog under threshold, the more successful your dog will be.
Some pre-departure cues, such as locking the door vs. putting on your shoes, may frighten your dog more than others.
When you begin working them into your training, be sure to add only one new per day. That way you will be able to more easily identify those cues that trigger your dog’s anxiety. In most cases, you will want to hold off on adding a new cue until your dog is familiar with the previous one.
How Long Does Separation Anxiety Training Take?
To set your dog up for success, expect this process to go slowly. Remember this is called “gradual desensitization” for a reason! You have to move at your dog’s pace and the journey will not be linear.
In Park’s experience, how quickly a dog overcomes their anxiety does not correspond to the severity of the symptoms, the age of the dog, or the breed. Some dogs catch on and progress up to one hour of being alone within a month.
The rule of thumb is to increase time by seconds if you are working under a minute, minutes if you are working under 15 minutes, and then 30 minutes if you are working within an hour time frame. Once your dog is able to break the one hour threshold, it should be easier to train for three to four hours of alone time.
Obviously not all dogs follow the same pattern. “[I had a] very calm, older pug who had more trouble. He couldn’t be left alone for longer than six minutes after a month of training,” says Parks. “Training is not a straight line. What we are looking for is gradual improvements over time; a general trend of moving towards longer and longer absences.”
Separation Anxiety FAQs
Does my dog need medication?
Only a vet or vet behaviorist can answer this for you. What will help you have this conversation with your vet is to show them recordings of your dog’s behavior when alone and outline the process you have tried so far. Detailed reports of when your dog is successful or not can help you advocate for your dog.
Can another dog solve my dog’s separation anxiety?
As popular as this belief is, another animal will not solve your dog’s separation anxiety. In fact, since separation anxiety is a true panic disorder, the outcome may be even worse. A younger dog may either learn from your dog’s anxious behavior or the dog with separation anxiety will start to turn to your other dog for comfort, potentially bothering them.
Will separation anxiety go away on its own?
If left to suffer or “work it out on their own,” separation anxiety is likely to get worse. Remember, this is a dog in a state of panic. Evidence of separation anxiety going away on its own is likely a result of a dog experiencing “an extinction burst”. An extinction burst describes a situation where your dog’s behavior escalates worse and worse before it gets better or completely goes away.
This is not ideal because there is no way to tell how long the “worst” will last and what psychological trauma it may cause your dog during this time. It also makes behaviors like barking, destruction, or urination worse.
How often do I need to train?
Dogs are terrible at generalizing. This means you should train at least 4 to 5 times a week (but only for 30 minutes max) at different times. If you only train your dog at 10am every morning, they won’t understand why you may leave the house at 3pm. If you live in a multi-person household, each person will need to participate in the dog’s training.
The most important thing is to keep your dog under threshold each time. If you can’t keep them under threshold, take a break for a day and resume training at an easier level.
What tools or toys should I get to help my dog’s anxiety?
The most common toys for separation anxiety are food-stuffed, dispensing puzzle toys. These toys are mental and physically stimulating which helps to reduce stress and anxiety. DAP collars or diffusers, calming supplements, calming music (like Through a Dog’s Ear), ThunderShirts and even prescription medication are all possible additions to the good training you’re working on.
How effective pet cameras that dispense treats or allow you to talk to your dog will vary. Dogs with severe separation anxiety are more likely to panic if they can hear but not see you. Treat dispensing toys may also only be a momentary distraction, or worse a target for destruction.
Caution: Using devices like anti-bark collars may stop your dog from barking when left alone but will not solve the problem of his panic.
What if I come home to a mess and a very excited/anxious dog?
As difficult as it may seem, do not make a big deal of the mess. Don’t scold or punish your dog. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite but a result of your dog trying to deal with a great deal of stress. If you punish them, they may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.
The best thing to do is pretend like the mess didn’t happen and as you clean up, make an assessment of how you can dog-proof or protect your belongings next time. If your dog has destroyed a door or part of the property, consider a pet sitter to stay with your dog.
Keep in mind spending more time with your dog or engaging in their normal routine with you is likely to decrease their stress. Reacting to their behavior and spending less time with them will only reinforce negative associations with your departure.
What if my dog panics during a training session?
Wait to see your dog can regulate themself without help. If your dog can settle back into a calm, relaxed state within a minute or two, you can try resuming the session at an easier difficulty. Make note of what triggered your dog. It might be the length of time you were away or a doorbell. This signals other opportunities to train and reinforce your dog for calm behavior.
If your dog is in full panic mode, stop the routine and play some training games or take your dog on a walk (after you’ve calmed them down a little) to help redirect their energy. Try again the next day or take a break.
How to Find a Separation Anxiety Specialist for Your Dog
The good news with separation anxiety is that you do not have to leave your home. In fact, for many dogs and situations, a virtual dog training session is more effective for training than an in-person one. This is because remote sessions allow a trainer to observe your dog in their organic environment without diluting context.