Dog anxiety: a guide to separation anxiety in dogs

Like us, dogs are very social animals. Sometimes, being separated from their owners can be confusing and disorienting for them. Whether you’re leaving your dog alone for just a few hours or more extended periods, it can be a difficult time for both of you – but Petplan’s behaviourist Nick Jones shares his top tips for how to deal with this issue.

Separation anxiety is the stress your dog feels when they’re apart from you. It’s a complex and potentially serious issue – with the Petplan Pet Census finding that 40% of owners believed their pets suffered from separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety can vary in severity and intensity, becoming a real issue for some dogs and their owners. Knowing how to recognise the symptoms and then take action means you can help your dog stay as calm and comfortable as possible when they’re home alone.

Dog anxiety symptoms

Symptoms of separation anxiety can differ from dog to dog, but there are some common signs to watch out for, including:

  • Becoming upset or agitated when they see you’re getting ready to leave the house
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Higher levels of panting and salivating
  • More activity
  • Inappropriate soiling in the home
  • Barking or howling
  • Chewing or scratching at the door or other items within the home
  • Looking for constant reassurance or being very clingy when you’re home

These symptoms aren’t always down to separation anxiety, though, so it’s best to keep a close eye on your dog and their surroundings for further clues. Are they barking because they can hear other dogs, or did they go to the toilet in the house because you forgot to take them out before you left?

Being destructive can also be a sign of boredom, so your dog might be chewing on things because they’re not getting enough mental or physical stimulation. But if they’re specifically scratching or chewing at the door when you leave the house, this could be a sign that your absence has triggered the behaviour.

A pet camera can help you monitor your dog’s behaviour while you’re out of the house, but it’s also important to book a full health MOT with your vet to rule out any health issues.

Helping your dog stay calm during fireworks season

Fireworks can make a lot of dogs feel anxious and stressed, especially if they’re left home alone on the big night. Here are some tips to help ease your dog’s symptoms:

  • Take your dog for a long walk during the day, to help get rid of any excess energy.
  • Keep your windows and curtains closed to muffle the sound of fireworks.
  • Create a safe and quiet space where your dog can retreat to.
  • Offer your dog a long-lasting chew or other distraction.
  • Try to stay calm and resist the temptation to follow your dog around the house.
  • Make sure your dog has access to cool, fresh water.
  • Resist the urge to shout at your dog if they get destructive or have an accident in the house.

Why do some dogs suffer from separation anxiety?

Dogs love company! They’re natural pack animals and need the company of other dogs and humans to feel safe. While some dogs adapt very well to being left at home alone, others are far more likely to develop anxiety when separated from their owners.

If your puppy or adult dog becomes overly attached and dependent, they can become very anxious when you leave and they have to spend time alone. Sometimes, this can be the result of not training your dog that it’s OK to be alone. Often, we take time off work to settle a new pet into our homes. As a result of this undivided attention, our animals can bond so strongly with their new owner that when we have to go back to work, they don’t know how to cope with our absence. But there are ways to help.

How to help a dog with separation anxiety

Every dog is different, but the end goal is the same – to adjust your relationship so that your dog can spend time alone without becoming anxious. Here are some tips to get you started:

Speak to a professional

It’s a good idea to speak with a qualified pet behaviourist who can build up a full picture of what’s going on and work out a plan of action. One size definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to treating separation anxiety, and what may work for one animal may actually make another much worse.

Slowly introduce alone time

If you’ve spent a lot of time at home with your dog or puppy, it would be a good idea to start introducing periods of time where your pet is left on their own. This will not only test whether your dog is comfortable with being left, but may also highlight whether this causes anxiety.

A stairgate can be a great way of helping to train your dog to relax when they are on their own. You can start by leaving your dog in a room behind the stairgate randomly throughout the day while you go about your business. Leaving them with a chew or toy, such as a stuffed Kong can help keep them entertained and relaxed, plus make this time apart more enjoyable for your dog.

To begin with, stay where your dog can see you. Over the next few days, increase the amount of time your dog is left behind the gate until they are comfortable with you being completely out of sight. Then, gradually increase the amount of time you leave them alone. For some dogs, this may be a straightforward process, but for others, it can be distressing, and steps should be taken slowly. If your dog becomes too distressed, take the process back a few steps to where they last felt comfortable and try again – building up slowly.

Top tips from the experts

As well as introducing periods apart from your dog, here are some of the other ways a behaviourist might tackle the issue:

  • Create a cosy space, such as a crate or bed that your dog is able to relax and feel safe in.
  • Get other family members involved in caring for your pet. If it’s always you who walks and feeds them, they’ll be more closely bonded to you. Teach your dog that they can have these things from a variety of people to ease their reliance on you.
  • Calming products such as herbal sprays – or medication in severely anxious dogs – can help relax a dog enough to enable them to learn a different behaviour.
  • Worn T-shirts or towels with an owner’s scent on them can reassure some dogs when you’re not home. Try placing one in your dog’s bed.
  • Ignore attention-seeking behaviour from your dog and try to teach them that attention is not always given when they request it.
  • Try to prevent your dog from learning shadowing behaviours. Although for many dogs this is a natural behaviour, intense shadowing may indicate underlying anxiety, so try to stop your dog from following your every move, either by having another person holding or entertaining them, using the wait command or closing a door behind you. Start with suitably short periods and build this up.
  • Leaving or returning to the house should be done in a calm manner so as not to increase your dog’s anxiety. When returning home, be sure to stay calm and ignore them until they are also calm. Once quiet, ask your dog to sit and greet them in a calm way. This will help to set your dog’s expectations for when you return home.
  • Try not to assume that getting a second dog will solve the problem. If a dog has separation anxiety due to being dependent on you, canine company won’t make up for your absence.

The most important thing to remember is when dealing with dog anxiety, you need to have patience and understand that your pet is in distress.

There’s no quick fix – and remember, whatever you do, don’t punish your dog for stress-related behaviour, such as chewing or scratching – it will only make the problem much worse. If you’re not sure where to start, it’s always best to seek help from a professional.

Do you have any practical tips for helping dogs with separation anxiety? Tell us on social media using the tag #PethoodStories!

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