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Separation anxiety in dogs and how to overcome it

What is separation anxiety?

This is a broad term covering a range of behaviours which dogs display if they become anxious when separated from their owners. Dogs with separation anxiety commonly struggle with being left home alone. In more severe cases even being in a different room to their human family will result in signs of anxiety.

Signs that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety:

  • Accidents around the house
  • Barking, howling, and/or whining
  • Excessive dribbling (hyper-salivation)
  • Destructive behaviours, like chewing or digging
  • Pacing and attempting to escape – some dogs may even damage doors and windows.

Why do some dogs struggle when left home alone?

Past experiences and interactions, individual temperament, and genetic makeup can all be factors affecting your dog’s anxiety levels. Just like people, dogs are individuals, so the cause can vary and must be treated on a case-by-case basis.

Are dogs prone to separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is common in younger dogs, between 9 months and 2 years, and in older dogs who may become increasingly dependent on their owners as their senses of smell, sight, and hearing begin to deteriorate. It can also be common in rescue dogs.

How common is separation anxiety and related behaviour?

Scientific surveys suggest that more than 30% of UK pet dogs show obvious signs that they are anxious when home-alone* (see the bullet points above for examples of these signs). However, there are also more subtle ways that dogs may express their unhappiness. These signs include inability to settle, looking for their owner, and anxious body postures.

These less obvious signs are hard to spot so it’s difficult to know the extent of your dog’s discomfort without videoing your dog home alone. Some experts suggest up to 80% of dogs could be suffering in silence.

Dog displaying destructive behaviour

Does my dog have separation anxiety – or is he badly behaved?

Damage and destruction can be misinterpreted by some owners as ‘revenge’ or ‘spite’, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If your dog is left at home alone and isn’t behaving as you’d hope, please don’t punish your pet – their actions may be a symptom of acute distress.

How to diagnose separation anxiety

It’s best to talk to your vet or a behavioural expert. They’ll help to discount other behavioural issues as well as potential medical problems like gastrointestinal or urinary disorders, or seizures. Once you know you’re dealing with separation anxiety, they can also give essential guidance on how to work with your dog to help them feel better.

Is there a cure for separation anxiety?

With the right help, most dogs can feel much less anxious when you leave them home alone. Your vet or a behavioural expert is the best person to put together a plan for your dog, which might include:

Counter-conditioning for mild dog anxiety

Many behaviourists and vets recommend counter conditioning for mild cases. This technique turns a negative experience that the dog fears into something that becomes enjoyable. If your dog’s separation anxiety isn’t too serious, your expert might recommend that you try things like:

  • Stuffed Kongs –your dog could be entertained for hours with one of these hollow rubber toys filled with something tasty like peanut butter, cream cheese, or banana, or stuffed with wet dog food and frozen to make it last!
  • Plenty of walkies – a good run helps to tire your dog before you leave them home alone, so they’re more relaxed and likely to snooze through your absence.
  • Brain games – mental exercise is also good for tiring dogs. A clicker training session before you leave can help them relax too.

Dog chews on Kong toy

Training your puppy to feel comfortable home alone

To help your puppy deal with being home alone and reduce the likelihood of them developing separation anxiety, watch our video below. Dr Emily Blackwell PhD CCAB, Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour & Welfare at University of Bristol, explains how to best help your new pup:

Help for dogs with severe separation anxiety

In more severe cases, your dog may need complex counter-conditioning and desensitisation. It’s important to only do this kind of work with guidance from a vet or the right behavioural expert.

It’s a process that will vary depending on your dog, but to give you an idea of what to expect, it’s likely that your expert will work with you to help your dog feel more comfortable with ‘pre-departure cues’ – that’s things like putting on your shoes or picking up your car keys. Then they’ll expose your dog to ‘graduated departures’ – that’s absences of slowly increasing length, from say 15 minutes to 30 minutes, to longer and longer. They may also advise not to leave your dog alone for extended periods of time while you work on separation anxiety.

If possible, take your dog to work with you. If your employers cannot accommodate this, why not try doggy day-care, or a dog-sitter, like the services on offer with DogBuddy? Your behavioural expert may also suggest anti-anxiety medication or a natural calming supplement like YuMOVE Calming Care for Dogs to increase your dog’s chances of feeling better, faster.

Using a calming supplement

YuMOVE Calming Care works on the calming pathways in the brain to help reduce stress and support dogs towards feeling better. YuMOVE Calming Care is newly available in a convenient chewable format, YuMOVE Calming Care One-A-Day, for smaller dogs who are stressed or nervous. Start your best friend on YuMOVE Calming Care at least a week before the potentially distressing event, but remember that it may take up to 6 weeks to see best results. (Learn more about how your dog could benefit from a natural calming supplement in our blog ‘How to help a dog with anxiety).

Keep in mind that if your dog struggles with separation anxiety, they can’t help their dog behaviour – and they’ll need your help to feel happier and more confident when home alone. Just like when friends and family members are struggling with life’s challenges - patience, understanding and love will make the world of difference to your dog.

*Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W. D. & Casey, R. A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145, 15-25.

Have you noticed your dog exhibiting signs of separation anxiety? Do you have any handy hints to help fellow dog owners? Leave a comment below or join our pet-loving community on our Facebook and Instagram pages.

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