Separation Anxiety: When Your Dog Can’t Be Alone

For many pets that are closely bonded to their owners, being alone can be traumatic and result in some difficult behaviour. While the solution is not always simple, there are some basic things you can do to help your dog cope with alone-time.

What is separation anxiety?

Dogs who bark, house soil, are destructive and show anxious behaviour before you leave are often sufferers from separation anxiety. Some may not show obvious signs, but may perhaps have accidents inside the house when they are otherwise well trained. Obsessive chewers are often trying to cope with their problems in a different way. Those dogs that are driving your neighbours mad by barking all day, may actually be suffering from distress and separation anxiety.

Why does separation anxiety occur?

It is thought that there may be a genetic basis for separation anxiety, so unfortunately some dogs will develop separation anxiety despite being otherwise well trained and socialised. Dogs that are hyper-attached to their owners and rarely left alone can suffer badly if they have never been taught to be alone.

Simply put, dogs are a sociable beast. They are not really built to be alone all day while you work. They tend to naturally live in groups so the way our modern dog usually lives is fairly unusual.

How do I know my pet has it?

If your dog starts to whine, follow you around and perhaps pace when you show signs of needing to leave the house, your dog may be anxious about you leaving. If you come back to accidents in the house and all your treasured possessions being chewed, you may have a dog with separation anxiety. If your neighbours tell you your dog whines, barks and howls while you are gone, this can be a sign of anxiety.

Treatment for mild separation anxiety

For pets that have a mild form of anxiety, Adaptil can work brilliantly. This pheromone collar or diffuser releases a relaxing odour that only your dog can detect and means your dog feels comforted as though he was back feeding with his mother. A Thundershirt an also work well if you think your dog craves body contact and touch (those types that always need to be sitting on your foot or close by will often love these shirts).

You also want to make sure something very good happens when you leave the house, so give your dog a Kong stuffed with peanut butter or treats, a pig’s ear or a tasty chew. Chewing is a great stress reliever for dogs, so this has the added bonus of giving your dog a strategy for calming down.

Treatment for severe cases

In many dogs when the behaviour is well established and has gotten worse over time, medications are needed to help your dog cope. We are not talking about doping your dog up just to sedate him, the medications are to reduce anxiety and allow his brain chemistry to return to a more normal state. There are many medications available from your vet that can help your pet achieve a happier state of calm. Medications are best used in conjunction with desensitisation and counter conditioning.

Predeparture anxiety

For dogs that start showing signs of anxiety before you even leave the house, it can be useful to change your routine. For example if your dog starts pacing when you get your bag, coat and keys, do this, but go sit down on the couch instead. Vary your routine until it is less predictable.

Other strategies

While you are working on getting your dog more comfortable with being alone, it is important to not trigger his anxiety. There are a few options you could try.

  • A dog sitter – ask a family member or neighbour to come sit with your dog.
  • Take your dog with you to work – wouldn’t we all love to do this, it would be great for the workplace morale!
  • Take your dog to doggy daycare.
  • Arrange a playdate. That doggy friend at the local park may love for your dog to hang out together for the day.
  • Consider fostering another dog (a great way to see if a second dog helps the situation).

Crate train your dog

In some cases, dogs can be trained to accept confinement in a transport crate that becomes their safe haven. To start with put a Kong or treat in the crate and encourage your dog to stay in there, without shutting the door. Reward calm behaviour. It may take a great deal of time before your dog is happy in the crate for any length of time and in some cases confinement can make some dogs much worse.

If you have a pet with separation anxiety, don’t forget to chat to your vet about the options. We recommend in particular seeking the advice of a veterinary behaviourist who can recommend some options, both medical and behavioural that can help.