Is Separation Anxiety Bad For Dogs?

A lot of dogs suffer from separation anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Separation anxiety is very distressing for dogs and requires a little extra effort from owners to combat it. 

Let’s take a look at everything you need to know.

Table of Contents

lonely dog at the window

What is separation anxiety? 

Separation anxiety is when dogs feel an overwhelming, intense feeling of stress due to being apart from their owner or family. It can result in destructive behaviors due to emotional distress, and according to the American Kennel Club, it is thought to affect around 14% of dogs in the United States.

Is separation anxiety bad for dogs?

Separation anxiety is extremely distressing for dogs. Nobody knows exactly what our dogs are thinking – but it’s widely believed that dogs who experience separation anxiety are scared of being alone and/or worried that you may not come back. The symptoms of separation anxiety are also extremely distressing – for both dogs and owners alike.

What are the signs of separation anxiety?

As mentioned above, separation anxiety can cause destructive behaviors. This often includes self-mutilation through excessive licking, scratching, and biting, destroying toys, furniture, and household items, excessive barking and whining, trying to escape the home, and going to the bathroom indoors. 

Some lesser signs that are sometimes missed include pacing, panting, drooling, shaking, stomach upsets, and other repetitive behaviors.

What causes separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is most often caused by one or a combination of the following things; under-stimulation, loneliness, and a lack of confidence or independence. 

lonely dogs made a mess with pillow

Which dogs get separation anxiety?

Breeds with high intelligence, intense personalities, and a lot of social needs such as Border Collies, Poodles, and Labradors are more likely to experience separation anxiety than others. 

This is because their personalities are a little more high maintenance, and they get bored, lonely, or underworked very easily. This can leave a big gap for anxiety when their needs aren’t met and they can turn to compulsive behaviors very quickly.  

Dogs of people who work full time and/or are left alone for big portions of the day are prone to developing separation anxiety, as well. Certain breeds are also naturally clingier than others. Vizslas, for example, are known for their clingy personalities. 

A lack of confidence or independence is often seen in puppies, rescue dogs, older dogs, and dogs who are experiencing illness or trauma. All of these things can make a dog feel unsteady or insecure, and frightened of being alone, so they may cling to their owners for security and become anxious when left by themselves. 

Puppies often lack independence because everything is brand new and frightening and they’ve never spent time alone before. Similarly, older dogs can lose some confidence when they become weaker and their health starts to deteriorate. Rescue dogs that have spent a long time on their own or have experienced neglect or abuse also tend to lack confidence. When they find their forever home, they can develop separation anxiety because they’re frightened of being alone again.

When separation anxiety develops suddenly, it can also be because of trauma or a serious medical problem. Medical problems such as a visual or hearing impairment, mobility issues, or age-related cognitive dysfunction (CDS) can cause sudden clinginess and separation anxiety, as can trauma. Common traumatic incidents for dogs include big life changes, illness or loss in the family, physical traumas, and scary incidents like violent storms.

How to prevent separation anxiety in dogs 

First and foremost, to prevent separation anxiety, it’s important that your dog gets enough exercise. Stress takes up a lot of energy, so when their bodies are being sufficiently exercised, it leaves less room for separation anxiety. 

How much exercise your dog needs will depend on their age, size, and breed. You can use Rover’s exercise calculator for general advice, but ask your vet for specifics about your dog. 

Dogs generally do best on two or three walks per day and it’s a good idea to vary the location, add in some fun activities, such as fetch and swimming, and interact with as many friendly people and dogs as possible. 

Socialization is important for a dog’s wellbeing in general, but it’s also great for avoiding separation anxiety. When a dog feel’s socially fulfilled, they’re less likely to feel anxious when they’re alone.

It probably goes without saying, but make sure you give your dog plenty of love and affection every day, especially during times of emotional or physical stress, and try to involve them in your social or family life as much as possible. It’s also important not to leave your dog alone for too long. 

The UK’s leading dog charity Dog’s Trust recommends that you do not leave a dog alone for more than four hours at a time, or one hour per month of age for puppies under 6 months old. Elderly dogs may differ based on their health. 

Exercising the mind is just as important as physical exercise; their minds need to be challenged and entertained every day with fun games and toys. Not only does this make them happier, but it also leaves a lot less space in the mind for anxious thoughts. 

Dogs like to play games that engage their natural instincts like fetch and chase and depending on your dog’s breed, there may be other things you can do, too. For example, herding breeds tend to enjoy agility courses, bully breeds like spring poles, and gun dogs tend to love snuffle mats. 

Games that stimulate the mind are also great. Hide and seek, treasure hunt, and the cup game are some of the most popular ones. To play hide and seek, ask your dog to sit and wait while you hide somewhere. Then, call them to come and find you. To play treasure hunt, follow the rules of hide and seek but hide their favorite toy or some treats instead.

To play the cup game, put two empty cups face-down and side by side on the floor in front of your dog, then put a treat underneath one of them. Finally, switch the cups around and ask your dog to find the treat. For pros, you could switch them twice, add another treat, or even another cup! 

Puzzle toys, puzzle feeders, toys that stimulate the senses, and treat-dispensing toys are another fantastic way to engage your dog’s mind and prevent anxiety of all kinds.

Building your dog’s confidence & independence 

Whether you’re leaving your young pup for the first time, or your adult dog has developed full-blown separation anxiety, instilling a sense of confidence and independence is essential to prevent – or fix – separation anxiety.

You can do this by introducing alone time gradually and positively. Try leaving the house for a small period of time and always leave young puppies confined to a small, safe space using a crate or dog gate for their own safety. Make sure they have enough room to move about freely, and always leave adult dogs with access to a bed, drinking water, and some toys to keep them company. If you can’t just leave them roaming around in the house, make sure they’re in a well-lit part of the home with secure windows, and never leave a dog shut in one room.

Try not to make a big deal out of leaving but always make a big fuss of them when you return. Then, the next day, leave for slightly longer and continue to expand your time apart. 

lonely dog and slippers

This builds trust with your dog and ensures a sense of security that whenever you leave, you will always return and that it will be something to look forward to.

Another thing you can do is encourage solo play to make a positive association with spending time alone. Use treat dispensers and puzzle toys to encourage independent play and leave your dog with his favorite puzzle when you go out if it’s safe to do so.

You should also try and desensitize an anxious dog to your actions. Dogs with separation anxiety often follow their owners around to watch for signs of leaving. So, if there are some things that you often do before you leave the house, for example, picking up your keys or putting your coat on, do them, and then instead of leaving, sit down and play with your dog. This teaches them that your actions are nothing to worry about and should relieve some anticipatory anxiety.

Relieving separation anxiety in dogs 

If your dog’s separation anxiety stems from illness or trauma, you should seek to treat the underlying problem first. Watch for other symptoms and make an appointment with your vet if you think your dog is unwell. Trauma can be managed with lots of attention, affection, fun, and fulfillment, as well as a stable daily routine, a calming bedtime routine, anti-anxiety products, and positive associations where possible. If you feel like you need extra help, get in touch with a behaviorist. 

If your dog’s anxiety is severe, you could try using an anti-anxiety pet product, such as herbal supplements, plug-in diffusers, and sprays. 

Supplements come in treat form, liquid form, and contain natural ingredients like CBD that are clinically proven to lower stress levels. Diffusers and furniture sprays use natural calming ingredients like lavender to relax your dog’s body and mind. 

Alternatively, there are anti-stress toys that contain soothing essential oils, comfort plushes with heartbeats to combat loneliness, and household pet cameras that connect to your phone and alert and show you when something is going on. Many of them also allow you to speak to your dog through the phone. 

pitbull home alone

What to do if I work full time?

If your dog has to be alone for long periods of time on a regular basis, there are several things you can do to avoid loneliness and separation anxiety. First of all, be sure to make the most of your time together when you are at home. If you work full time and you’re thinking of adopting a rescue dog, don’t adopt one with special needs that you can’t fulfill. 

Many dog owners that work full time find it helpful to plan ahead, work from home wherever possible, and, almost 20% of owners in the US even take their dogs to work with them once a month! 

When you’re going to be out of the house for more than 4 hours at a time, ask a close friend or relative to come over and check on your dog, or even take them to a family member’s house for the day if possible. Some people also try leaving the TV or radio on to comfort their dogs when they are alone. Alternatively, you could hire a dog sitter, get a second dog, or enquire about local doggy daycare centers.

Should you punish a dog with separation anxiety?

You should never punish a dog with separation anxiety. Think of it as a cry for help; it’s a sign of a bigger problem that you, as their owner, need to try and fix.

If your dog is destructive when you leave the house, don’t react angrily. Although it’s frustrating, dogs with separation anxiety are desperate for your attention, so reacting at all may actually end up encouraging the behavior. Not only that, it may frighten them and ruin your bond, or even make them feel threatened. 

Instead, show them that this kind of behavior doesn’t get any attention and confine them to a small, safe area of the house next time you go out, using a dog gate. Always reward them when they get it right, and consult a professional behaviorist or trainer if you’re feeling stuck. Visit our page on separation anxiety solutions for more info! 

The bottom line

Separation anxiety is distressing for both dogs and owners. However, it can be tackled with some TLC and training. If your dog has separation anxiety, try to get to the bottom of why and then address the problem accordingly. 

If you need some extra help, don’t be afraid to reach out to a vet, behaviorist, or trainer. Separation anxiety is a common problem and doesn’t make you a bad owner! 

Laura <br> <h6>Writer and Border Collie Mom​</h6>

Laura

Writer and Border Collie Mom​

Laura is a dog-lover with an animal-related degree and plenty of hands on experience. She is passionate about dog health & welfare and wants to arm owners with all of the essential info they need!

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