Dog anxiety: a guide to separation anxiety in dogs

Dogs, like us, are very social animals and separation from you can be confusing and disorientating for them. Whether you’re leaving them alone for just a few hours or for longer periods, it can be a difficult time for the both of you. Petplan’s behaviourist Nick Jones and APBC clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar have some advice on this issue.

Separation anxiety is the stress felt when an animal is away from its owner – it’s a complex and potentially serious problem for a lot of dogs in the UK. The Petplan Pet Census 2018 found that 40% of owners believed their pets suffered from separation anxiety, an increase of 7% points from the 2011 Pet Census.

Separation anxiety can vary greatly in its severity and intensity and can be a real problem for some dogs and their owners. Petplan takes a look at separation anxiety in dogs and what you can do to help your pet be as calm and comfortable as possible when the time comes for them to be left alone...

Why do some dogs suffer from separation anxiety?

Dogs are fundamentally a very sociable species. They naturally live in packs and need the company of other dogs and humans; they are not designed to be alone. While some are completely unfazed by being left alone, other dogs have a greater disposition to developing separation anxiety.

Dog or puppy separation anxiety occurs when an animal is overly attached and dependent on its owner so that it becomes anxious when they are apart. Over-attachment could be the result of a puppy or rescue dog not being taught that it’s OK to be alone sometimes.

Quite often, when someone gets a puppy or adopts a dog, they’ll take time off work to help their new pet settle into their home. As a result of this undivided attention, an animal can bond so strongly with its new owner that the dog doesn’t know how to cope with their absence.

Dog anxiety symptoms

While the symptoms of separation anxiety may differ from dog to dog, there are often some common symptoms that are displayed. Straight away, it may become obvious that your dog becomes upset when you leave, or when you display cues for leaving, such as putting on your coat or collecting your things. Other symptoms may include:

  • An increase in heart and breathing rate
  • Increased panting and salivating
  • Increased activity
  • Inappropriate soiling in the home
  • Barking or howling
  • Chewing or scratching at the door or other items within your home

It is wise not to jump to conclusions, however, because a dog could also be displaying these behaviours for a different reason. They might be able to hear other dogs, or something might have frightened them to result in this response. This is where installing a monitoring kit could come in handy.

Some dogs with separation anxiety might urinate or defecate in the home, but again, there could be another explanation for this, such as having an upset stomach or not being given ample opportunity to go to the toilet before the owner leaves. It’s important that your pet has a full health MOT to rule out any health issues first.

A dog might be destructive in the home, but this could just be a sign of boredom. If a dog chews or scratches the door through which you’ve left, however, it could be a sign that your absence has triggered the behaviour.

A dog that tends to be clingy and who needs constant reassurance from their owner, combined with any of the above signs, is a likely candidate for separation anxiety and it is important to seek professional help. A qualified pet behaviourist will be able to 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.

How to help a dog with separation anxiety

Although every animal’s journey will be different, the end goal is the same – to change the relationship with the owner so that the animal is not so dependent on them. If you have 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 stair gate 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 stair gate randomly throughout the day while you go about your business. We recommend leaving them with a chew or toy, such as a stuffed Kong, to keep them entertained and relaxed, and help make this time apart more enjoyable for your dog.

To begin with, stay in eye shot of your dog and over the coming days, increase the amount of time your dog is left behind the gate until they are comfortable with you being completely out of sight. Gradually increase the amount of time you leave them alone for. 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.

As well as introducing periods apart from your dog, here are some of the 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.
  • Dirty T-shirts or towels with an owner’s scent on can reassure a dog when their owner isn’t there. These could be put in the animal’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 prevent your dog following your every move, either by having another person holding or entertaining the dog, 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 in all cases and can be discussed with an experienced behaviour specialist.

The most important thing to remember is that, when dealing with dog anxiety, you need to have patience and understand that your pet is in distress. There is no quick fix to separation anxiety – and remember, whatever you do, do not to punish your pet for stress-related behaviour, such as chewing or scratching – it will only make the problem much worse. Always seek professional advice and do not get angry with your dog.

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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