8 Ways to Help with Dog Separation Anxiety
Change can be hard, even for pets. As the world resumes normalcy following the pandemic, your dog may begin exhibiting signs of separation anxiety. Hanie Elfebein, DVM, PhD shares her tips for making your dog’s adjustment as smooth as possible.
No matter how much you love and cherish every member of your household (furry and otherwise), the prospect of returning to a life outside the home after months of pandemic quarantines and lockdowns is something to celebrate.
But whether you’re looking forward to returning to a workplace or anyplace outside your own four walls, keep in mind that some members of your quarantine crew — namely, pets — may not be as thrilled about the change as you are.
For many pets, returning to a more “normal” routine after months of extended togetherness may feel like a drastic shift. And for “pandemic puppies” who have never been left alone before, that shift could be even greater. This life change may trigger separation anxiety in dogs.
What is dog separation anxiety?
Dogs are social creatures. That’s primarily because they evolved from wolves, a pack animal with strong social tendencies. But it’s also because, for thousands of years, they have been bred to assist humans with all sorts of tasks. And over that time, they have become part of our human family.
Dogs instinctively want to be around us 24/7. And if they aren’t properly trained to understand that alone-time is good and people always return, they learn to fear being left home without their family.
In dogs, separation anxiety is an extreme fear of being alone that’s triggered when a pet parent or caregiver leaves and the dog thinks they’ve been abandoned.
What are signs of separation anxiety in dogs?
There are many levels of severity of separation anxiety. On the less-severe end of the spectrum, a dog with separation anxiety might refuse to eat unless there are people around. At the extreme end, dogs with severe separation anxiety may destroy crates, chew at door frames, and even break windows to try and get out of the house to find their family.
Signs of separation anxiety in dogs vary but may include excessive vocalization, drooling, and house soiling when left alone. Sometimes, dogs will lick a particular spot on their body until they cause a wound. Anxious dogs may follow people from room to room when they are home, never wanting to be separated by even a few feet.
Dogs who have one type of anxiety, such as storm phobias, are more likely to be anxious in other stressful situations, including separation. Breeds whose job is to follow people around, like herding dogs, are more likely to develop separation anxiety than dogs bred for property protection or other solo work.
Separation anxiety is different from barrier frustration (being crated or locked indoors) and the typical whining puppies do for the first few minutes they are left alone. However, the more your dog experiences these other stressors, the more likely they are to develop separation anxiety.
If your dog’s signs are severe or you are worried they might hurt themselves trying to escape, see your veterinarian right away. Some medical issues come with symptoms that can be easily confused with signs of separation anxiety, so it is best to get your veterinarian involved early to make sure you are treating the right thing.
How to help with dog separation anxiety
When it comes to helping your dog with separation anxiety, the first piece of advice is to start addressing the problem early so your pet has plenty of time to adapt. Whether you recently adopted a new dog or your longtime companion has simply grown accustomed to your pandemic routine, any change will be difficult unless you properly prepare them.
Also, remember that baby steps (or puppy steps) are best. If you can tell your training efforts are causing your pet even more stress, it’s okay to pause or take a step back so your pet has more time to adjust. The idea is that you are training your dog to be comfortable alone and that takes time.
When it comes to most dog behavioral issues, there are no quick fixes. And separation anxiety is no exception. Having a dog is a big commitment and you need to be just as committed to preventing or helping your dog overcome separation anxiety. So be sure to give your dog (and yourself!) plenty of time to prepare for your return to post-pandemic “normalcy.”
You may also find that you are feeling anxious about being away from your dog for long stretches. So be sure to plan soothing and replenishing activities the two of you can enjoy together, such as hiking or doggy play dates, so you can both ease back into the swing of a safe and active social life.
Create a positive environment for you and your pet. Never punish your dog for anything they do when you’re not there. As hard as it may be, try to respond to the situation calmly. Your dog knows when you are upset or anxious and that only makes things harder for both of you.
And, as always, talk to your veterinarian for additional guidance about how to treat your dog’s separation anxiety. Whether you’re dealing with a temporary bump in the road or severe behavioral issues, they can help you develop a plan, or even recommend a veterinary behavior specialist or certified animal trainer who can address your dog’s specific needs.
Dr. Hanie Elfenbein is a veterinarian whose medical philosophy centers around the pet as part of the family and working within that relationship to resolve medical issues and strengthen the human-animal bond. She shares her home with Loki, a "Heinz 57" dog she adopted in 2017. Loki goes to work with Dr. Elfenbein at her veterinary clinic, where he sits on anyone's lap who sits down (he's 50 pounds) and is the official taste-tester of all lunches.