Separation Anxiety in Dogs is More Common Than You Think—Here’s How To Recognize and Treat The Signs
Fido loves you so much, he doesn't want you to leave.
Dog owners are all undoubtedly familiar with "the look." It’s the look that your dog gives you right before you walk out the door: Fid, perched atop the staircase or sitting patiently at your feet, looks up at you with those big, sad eyes—“Don’t go,” he’s saying. But as much as you'd like to stay and cuddle with Fido all day long, you have places to go.
Dogs thrive on connection. There's ample proof to show that dogs love us just as much as we love them—when we leave our dogs for a few hours, days, or weeks, they’re likely to notice. Unlike cats, which are more independent creatures by nature, dogs bond to their humans and feel distance acutely. “Dogs are social animals and thrive on companionship,” says Kit Darling, Infection Control Coordinator at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
According to Darling, separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioral tendencies in canines; anywhere from 20 to 40% of dogs can suffer from separation anxiety—and certain dogs are at higher risk than others. Rescue dogs and dogs that have changed ownership run a higher risk of developing separation anxiety.
How To Recognize Signs of Separation Anxiety in Your Dog
How can you recognize signs of separation anxiety in your dog? Darling says to watch out for revertive behavior. For example, if your dog is housebroken but starts to have accidents again, or if you leave your dog in the house and they start destroying the furniture (tearing up the couch, eating the blinds, scratching doors, gnawing on the legs of the coffee table, etc.), these could be expressions of anxiety. Excessive whining, barking, or howling are additional symptoms of separation anxiety.
How To Alleviate Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety
If you notice these signs in your dog, there are a few ways to help Fido feel more secure and safe. First, even if they scratch a layer of paint off the wall, “it’s very important not to punish or scold them,” which Darling says will just make your dog more upset or fearful. Instead, focus on the root of the problem—separation anxiety is often a manifestation of a dog’s fear of abandonment.
According to Darling, the best way to treat separation anxiety in dogs is to “make something pleasant out of something scary.” This approach is called counterconditioning—it aims to rewire your dogs to associate something that’s fearful with something pleasant instead. Before you leave the house, make a habit of giving your dog a special treat or making a safe place for them in the house—create an especially cozy spot in their crate or a nice nook by their pillow, Darling suggests. You can even leave a t-shirt or a towel that has your smell on it to comfort your dog. Another approach you can take is to give your dog ample exercise before you leave so they’re tired out and ready for a nap.
A key to alleviating your dog’s separation anxiety is to start small and ease them into distance and time apart. “To help your dog to become less anxious when you leave, begin with very short departures,” says Darling. Use these tactics before you leave the house for a few hours, then build up to a few days or a week. If you suddenly disappear for two weeks before preparing your dog, they’re more likely to react with anxiety. This is important to keep in mind when you’re planning a vacation. If possible, it’s most comfortable for the dogs to stay in their own surroundings, but if you can’t find someone to come to the house, try boarding your dog for a shorter period of time to get them adjusted and work up to longer periods apart.
This general strategy can help dogs with all different kinds of anxiety. If your dog gets anxious on car rides, think about why that may be—if your dog is only in the car for trips to the vet, it’s no wonder they’ll be anxious and fearful of the car. “The best way to work with anxiety is to ease them in,” Dr. Darling says. This will help your dog feel more confident about going to unfamiliar places or encountering frightening situations.
At the end of the day, remember to treat your dog's separation anxiety with compassion. After all, it's really just a sign that they love you!