Do you dread leaving your own home because it might stress your dog out to be left alone? Have you come home to find your dog has destroyed objects, chewed through walls or doors, or caused damage to her paws from frantically trying to “escape” the comforts of your house?
If so, your dog may have separation anxiety, a mental health disorder that causes your dog to feel terrified and panic when left alone. While it can be normal for dogs to chew objects out of boredom when dog owners leave the house, a dog suffering from separation anxiety truly feels that he is in a life-or-death, fight-or-flight situation—and is willing to do ANYTHING to escape what he perceives as a dangerous situation. Dogs with separation anxiety will literally chew through walls and doors, scratch until their nails are broken and paws are bleeding, break out of a kennel, and even break their teeth trying to chew their way out of the terrifying situation of being left alone. (Just think of how terrified YOU would have to be in order to accomplish these things—nobody wants that mental anguish for their beloved dog!)
Differentiating Separation Anxiety From Other Behaviors
True separation anxiety is often diagnosed with the use of video cameras in the home to observe your dog’s behavior after you leave the house (yay, technology!). Just because your dog chews on non-toy objects, barks excessively, or urinates/defecats in the house does NOT mean they have separation anxiety. (If your dog is merely barking excessively, read our guide on “how to make a dog stop barking“). It’s important to understand dog body language. While your furry friend is left alone, look for clues that he is genuinely fearful and anxious.
For example, if your dog has an open, relaxed facial expression and seems to enjoy rooting around your belongings for your favorite shoe before he settles down into a good chewing session, then this is not cause for concern (other than a reminder to put your shoes away before you leave!). Making sure your dog is tired out from lots of exercise, and hiding or securing inappropriate chew items are great tools to help solve these common problems!
However, within 15 minutes of your departure, if your dog is panting, drooling, whining, pacing, holding their tail down, urinates or defecates, destroys things or seems frantic as he paws at the door or other objects—then he may be suffering from true anxiety. If you have any concerns your dog may have separation anxiety, it’s best to talk to your veterinarian as soon as possible. The genuine terror your dog feels while being left alone will only get worse over time, and a mental health disorder requires medical intervention.
How to Treat Separation Anxiety
While supplements and prescription medication are often used to help calm your dog’s anxiety and enable him to learn that “being left alone is okay,” the most important part of therapy for separation anxiety is what YOU can do at home: exercises referred to as “behavioral modification.” In this article, we’ll discuss several common exercises that your veterinarian may recommend (and that you might be able to start today!), different supplements to discuss with your veterinarian, and how your vet may approach your anxious dog.
Desensitization to Triggers
The next time you leave your house, pay attention to your dog’s behavior and your own typical routine prior to leaving that may stimulate symptoms of anxiety. Dogs are keen observers, and may display anxious behavior while you prepare to leave the house—called a “departure.” Performing tasks, especially in the same order, like putting on your makeup, putting your shoes on, grabbing your keys or purse, or doing that last-minute check that the coffee pot is turned off are all examples of potential anxiety-inducing “triggers” for your dog that lets her know she is about to be left alone.
How do you know your dog is feeling anxious? Early signs of anxiety could be starting to pant, excessive licking of the lips, or following you as you complete your departure routine. Whining and bumping into your legs are other indications that he/ she is anticipating a stressful situation.
Once you’ve identified the triggers that tell your dog you are about to leave, it’s time to desensitize your pup to these behaviors. The idea behind desensitization is that your dog no longer associates your actions with an imminent departure—and instead, that triggering behavior eventually becomes meaningless to your dog.
Once you have a trigger in mind, the goal is to repeat the task over and over and over again until your dog does not associate your behavior with anything worrisome. For example, let’s say a trigger for your dog is when you put on your shoes. Pick a day when you are home with your dog. Put your shoes on, ignore your dog, walk around the house, take your shoes off, sit down, put your shoes back on, take them off….you get the idea! The important thing is to make putting your shoes on “no big deal” to your dog. Eventually, when you put your shoes on, your dog should barely lift his head to pay attention—because it doesn’t mean anything to him. This exercise takes a LOT of repetition—sometimes dozens, or even a hundred times! Stick with it, and try doing this for each trigger you identify as distressing to your dog.
For some triggers, it may be easier to alter your own departure routine to become less predictable or to perform the behavior out of sight of your dog—for example, closing the door to your bathroom while you put on your makeup. Less stress and anticipation are built if your dog cannot predict what is happening and what may come next.
Once your dog is desensitized to common triggers, it’s time to desensitize her to when you actually DO leave the house. Start by going to your door and putting your hand on the doorknob, then walking back and sitting down. Touch or turn the doorknob again, go into the kitchen, touch the doorknob, go into the bedroom, etcetera.
Eventually, when your dog seems relaxed while you touch the doorknob, move on to opening the door. Repeat opening and closing the door over and over, while varying your behavior in between trips to the door. Once your dog doesn’t care if you are opening the door, the next step is to actually TAKE a step outside and come right back in. Again, do this over and over and over and over and…(I’m sure you’re getting the idea by now!).
After your dog doesn’t seem to notice that you are leaving for a second, you can start spending thirty seconds or a minute outside before returning. Gradually increase the length of time you are outside, eventually going for a walk around the block. As you can probably tell, this exercise takes a LONG time—and dozens and dozens of repetitions. Keep at it, though, because the results are worth it!
It’s important that, if your dog is exhibiting any anxious behavior as you go through these desensitization exercises, you ignore her UNTIL she calms down. If you are trying to comfort her, she will continue to think that there is genuine “danger” when you leave the house and your comfort is viewed by her as positive reinforcement for her behavior. Similarly, when you leave the house, make sure to do so in a casual way that implies it is “no big deal” to your dog—nix those prolonged goodbyes, telling your sweet pup that you are going to miss her and she should be good! Instead, stay calm and relaxed, acting like nothing unusual or upsetting is happening as you leave the house. Once your pup exhibits any evidence of calm behavior, reward her immediately—see below!
Rewarding Calm Behavior
Just like training your dog to do a trick, it’s important to reward your dog for behavior you want—and ignore behavior that you do not want. In patients with separation anxiety, you can also reward the behavior you want—which are signs of calm and relaxation.
While doing your desensitization exercises, have some of her favorite treats in your pocket—or a willing accomplice who can toss treats to your dog as soon as any calm behavior is noticed. It’s important that the time from behavior to reward be two seconds or less—otherwise, your puppers will not associate the positive reward with the action she has just taken. This will probably remind you of the days when you were conquering potty-training together, as it’s the same idea!
As you go through your desensitization training, pay attention to what your dog is telling you. Is she pacing, panting, whining, or drooling? Keep calmly going about your random repetitions. The second she closes her mouth and turns away (because “there’s nothing to see here”), toss a treat! As soon as she lays down, that deserves another treat. Stretching out a leg or letting out a big sigh? You guessed it—treat time! By giving your dog a favorite treat when she lays down, stretches out, gives a big sigh, or settles, it reinforces the happy chemicals in her brain. This further reduces stress and general anxiety.
It’s helpful to train your dog to go to a “safe space” where everything is positive—like a special blanket, or bed. We refer to this as a calming mat, and want your pet to associate only positive and happy things with settling on the mat/bed—similar to crate training. If you teach your dog a command to “go to your mat,” you can use this tool to help reinforce calm behavior and happy brain chemistry before you prepare to leave the house. You can also utilize a long-lasting treat to distract your pup before you even leave the house—Kong brand makes lots of yummy fillings for their rubber treats that can keep dogs distracted on a calming mat so you can sneak out without too much drama.
If your pup is crate-trained and relaxed in his crate, then utilize the crate as a “safe space” for when you leave. So, how to crate train a puppy? Teach your dog to “kennel” and give him a long-lasting treat to enjoy. It’s helpful to have the crate located out of sight of the door, so your dog does not receive visual cues that you are about to leave.
However, if your dog is anxious in the crate, or fearful of being confined —DO NOT CRATE YOUR DOG to solve a separation anxiety problem. Crating a dog who is scared of the crate will only serve to amplify their distress and panic—and they can harm themselves just as easily inside of a crate or during a panic attack trying to break out. Veterinarians have treated many broken teeth from dogs frantically chewing at the bars of their cage, trying to escape due to the genuine terror associated with separation anxiety and confinement.
As you can tell, helping a dog with separation anxiety requires a lot of time, effort, and patience on your part. How can your veterinarian help?
At your appointment, your veterinarian will ask questions about how your dog behaves when you are out of the house, including house soiling, and any destructive behavior towards household contents or self-injury your pup has induced. A video recording of your dog alone in your home may be requested to better understand whether your pup is truly suffering from anxiety, or normal behaviors. The doctor will likely recommend blood, urine, and possibly hormone testing to make sure there is not another medical cause for your dog’s anxiety.
We all know that, when you are fearful of something, it is difficult to focus on learning anything new. Your veterinarian may recommend a multimodal approach to reduce the stress-related chemicals in your dog’s brain so that he can more easily learn that being left alone is okay. These options may include pheromones (chemicals dogs use to communicate with each other that “a happy dog was here!”—available in collars, sprays, or plug-in diffusers). Supplements are often used to help improve your dog’s mood and brain chemistry, though these take several weeks of daily use to build up in your pup’s system enough to help. A prescription food is available that also includes calming nutraceutical ingredients.
Finally, your veterinarian MAY elect to prescribe anti-anxiety medication for your dog. Just like in humans, some drugs vets choose are for “rescue”—they are short-acting and not meant to be used on a daily basis, but are instead used for unusually scary situations. They are also often used as needed when starting a daily anxiety medication—since daily medication also takes several weeks to take effect in your dog’s brain (just like people!).
While investing in supplements, pheromones, and possibly medications may seem excessive, multiple treatments are often used to achieve success as quickly as possible. If pheromones improve your dog’s mood by 10%, and supplements help 20%, and your behavioral modification exercises help 40%–then you may not need to depend on anxiety medication at all, or your dog can be on a lower dose! By using calming supplements and medications, your dog will also learn more quickly and progress through desensitization training faster.
Consulting a Specialist
If your pet has a severe case of separation anxiety, is at risk of being re-homed or placed in a shelter, or if your veterinarian simply recognizes that your dog’s needs are beyond their professional capabilities, you may be referred to a veterinary behaviorist. These doctors are veterinarians who completed three years of additional training in mental health AFTER veterinary school and became certified mental health veterinarians—the vet world’s equivalent of a psychiatrist.
Veterinary behaviorists are some of the profession’s most valued resources, helping countless pets with mental health issues and allowing them to live happy lives with their families. However, not many veterinarians have completed this training, and there are parts of the country where access to one of these specialists is hours away.
The Bottom Line
Separation anxiety is a true mental health disorder. The good news? You have the power to help your dog, just by devoting some time and effort! Partnering with your veterinarian and putting in the time at home will help your dog live her best life—even when you are living yours outside the home.
Our AskVet Veterinarians are available to discuss all of your pet’s needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Whether you have an immediate need to address separation anxiety or are looking to improve your pet’s overall wellbeing, just sign into your account and one of our friendly and knowledgeable veterinary experts will attend to your needs, no appointment required!
Allison Ward, DVM
Dr. Allison Ward grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and started working in veterinary hospitals when she was 14 years old. After graduating from veterinary school in 2011, she completed a small animal rotating internship in New Jersey, followed by a neurology/neurosurgery internship in Miami. After completing this advanced training, Dr. Ward then moved on to general small animal practice. Dr. Ward’s professional interests include feline medicine, neurology, and pain management. Her passion for educating pet owners carries over into her work with AskVet, and she loves being able to help pets and their parents at all times of the day (and night!). She currently resides in sunny south Florida with her two cats, Larry and George.