How to Help Your Dog Overcome Their Separation Anxiety
Author: Amanda Brahlek
When your dog suffers from separation anxiety, it can leave you feeling heartbroken, nervous, and overwhelmed every time you leave the house. Many dog owners even wonder if they somehow caused their dog to develop this condition. If your dog has separation anxiety, you can help your dog conquer their fear of being left alone with persistent training and a little know-how. Restoring your dog’s peace of mind (and yours) does take patience, time, consistency, and understanding, but the results are well worth the work.
How to Determine if Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
When it comes to canine separation anxiety, it’s often a situation of “you know it when you see it.” Yet the symptoms of this disorder often develop gradually over time, leading to a sudden revelation for many dog owners. However, catching the signs early can make reversing the issue easier.
If you suddenly realize your dog is a nervous wreck when you’re preparing to leave, there’s a good chance they have separation anxiety. But if you’re unsure, look for the combination of several of these signs:
- Destructive behaviors such as tearing things up, digging, or chewing on inappropriate objects
- Whining, whimpering, howling, barking as you get ready to leave or after you close the door
- Accidentally urinating or defecating
- Not eating a treat or food while you’re away
- Trying to squeeze through the door
What Causes Some Dogs to Develop Separation Anxiety?
Many people believe that separation anxiety is caused by the early separation of a puppy from its mom. This is not true.
There’s no definitive reason why some dogs develop separation anxiety while others do not. This is why multi-dog homes may have one dog that struggles with this disorder while their other dogs could care less about your departure. Which dogs will develop this problem is relatively random.
However, the root cause of separation anxiety is an individual dog’s fear of being separated from their favorite resource: you! Many dogs see their owners as vital for their safety, food, fun, and so much more. This makes your disappearance frightening to them.
How Can You Help Your Dog Defeat Their Anxiety Disorder?
Luckily, there are ways you can help your dog feel better and reverse their fear of your leaving. A combination of methods is usually the best answer to your dog’s separation anxiety. If you want to put an end to your dog’s separation anxiety, here are some techniques that work:
Talk to Your Vet
Your vet is an invaluable resource when it comes to your dog’s physical and mental health. They can confirm your dog’s anxiety disorder and determine if your dog is a good canine candidate for medications that can help.
Work on Modifying Your Dog’s Anxious Mindset
When it comes to fear-based anxiety, desensitization to what triggers the behavior is vital. With separation anxiety, your departure triggers a fear (even if it is an irrational fear). The key to desensitization techniques is to disconnect the negative sensitivity to your leaving and replacing it with a positive connection. You can do this by showing your dog that you’re not going forever, that they’re safe when you leave, and that your leaving can present special rewards.
1. Learn Your Dog’s Threshold and Work from There
Your dog’s threshold is where their anxiety begins to emerge. Often by the time your hand is on the doorknob, your dog is fully immersed in an anxiety attack--at this point, your dog’s brain isn’t receptive to training. This is why it’s important to notice when your dog begins the slightest signs of distress like whining, perking their ears, or stiffening.
Your dog’s threshold will likely be linked to your getting ready to leave routine. This may be when you put on your shoes or grab your keys.
2. Begin Desensitization. Work Slowly and Steadily
Essentially, you will go through the entire process of getting ready to leave then leaving one step at a time. This technique will gradually lower your dog’s threshold little by little.
Begin at your dog’s current threshold. Once your dog begins showing slight signs of anxiety, give them a few high-value training treats (try cutting gullet stick bites into bite-sized pieces).
Stop and return to business as usual. Repeat this several times throughout the day at random times.
Eventually, your dog will stop reacting in distress. It may even take a few days for your dog to overcome reacting, but once your dog does, you can move onto the next step in your routine.
3. Close the Door
Once you get to opening the door, you will want to amplify the positive reinforcement, eventually getting to the point where you give your dog “busy” treats.
Walk to your door, open it, give your dog a treat.
Step out. Close the door. Immediately open it again and return.
Do not give your dog a treat when you return. Instead, just go back to your normal actions.
Over time, close the door longer and longer.
Once you reach about two minutes, reward yourself and your dog because you’re doing really well. Now you can begin to get in the car, run to the store, or whatever you need.
But before you depart, you want to give your dog their favorite toys. In that way they're more occupied while you're away.
4. Be Consistent and Watch for Signs of Anxiety Returning
Continue giving your dog their favorite toys when you leave.
Make sure all family members are on the same page about your dog’s training.
Be patient. The first steps are always the hardest and many dogs require a lot of work to reverse their initial connection between your exit and their fear.
Separate Your Dog From Their Anxiety
We love our dogs unconditionally. This can make it difficult to see them in distress. It can also be quite frustrating when their anxiety leads to destructive behavior, or their crying makes you feel guilty. You’re not alone in those feelings. The important thing is that you begin training your dog to feel more comfortable alone.
With some healthy, high-value training treats and high-value chew treats, you can replace the negative feelings your dog has with your absence with excitement and contentment.
Providing your dog with plenty of mental stimulation and exercise can also help reduce anxiety to make training smoother.