Dogs are pack animals - so when left alone for long periods, it’s not uncommon for them to show signs of boredom or even distress.
It’s important to know how to treat separation anxiety in dogs so that your pet can feel happier and more secure and so that when you need to, you can leave them at home without worrying that they are feeling anxious or frustrated.
In a survey by the RSPCA, an estimated 75% of dog owners didn’t know that their dogs were upset at being left alone - and unless you already have some “evidence” (for instance, a note from a neighbour about barking), it can be difficult to know what’s happening.
A video camera may help (you can find some small, affordable models online that work well). Set this up where your pet is likely to be and secure the camera high up and out of the way of your dog so they cannot chew any cables (in case of electrical shock).
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Once you have your “footage”, you can check for unusual behaviour. You may notice signs of anxiety in your dog within the first few minutes after being left alone, such as:
● Chewing or scratching at furniture, doors or items with your scent on them.
● Vocalising (e.g barking)
● Pacing, increased activity or looking for “escape routes”
● Physiological signs such as panting or drooling
● Defecating or urinating
● Excessive thirst
● Displaying anxious behaviours when you pick up your keys or put on your coat to leave.
● Following you around once you are home
● Body language signals such as cowering or excessive yawning when not tired.
Why does this Happen?
While some breeds are similar in temperament, pets are individuals and some dogs feel safer alone than others, so methods of how to treat separation anxiety in dogs can vary depending on your pet’s individual needs.
Besides this, separation anxiety in dogs can have a number of causes:
1. Boredom, particularly in younger, energetic dogs. To avoid this, it’s important to give them proper exercise and mental stimulation.
2. Triggers such as sudden noises, either indoors or out. These may be random (such as fireworks going off outside), or regular (such as the postal service).
3. Frustration at not being able to go outside or see you.
4. Not having been left alone previously.
5. Traumatic experiences of being left alone .
6. Sudden change in circumstance, such as repeat rehoming or a change of schedule.
Your pet may be grieving the loss of another pet (this can be a dog or another species) or a human family member, but getting your dog a new “friend” won’t necessarily help - their anxiety is due to your absence - not simply because they are alone.
How Long to leave your Dog
Dogs should not be left for more than four hours - less if they are younger (puppies may be left for up to one hour for every month of age, but the especially young should be supervised at all times). Never leave your dog alone in a hot car - this can be lethal.
If you need to be out for longer than the required amount of time, arrange for a trusted daycare facility or pet sitter - or if you are working away from home, see whether it’s possible to bring your dog to work with you.
Where to Leave your Dog at Home
If you have a puppy, train them early so they are comfortable with being left alone. Crates can be an option if a dog is left for short periods of time, but train them properly or they may feel trapped and fearful.
If a dog is left in the same room each time you leave they may start to associate this area of the house with isolation - and closed doors can be anxiety-inducing. Instead, try using a stair gate that allows your pet to see through to the other side.
You can also minimise disturbances by closing the curtains and leaving talk radio on with the sound turned down (this muffles outside noises while simulating the sound of “company”).
Some things to keep with your dog include:
● A dog bed
● Drinking water
● Chew toys
● An old item of clothing with your scent on it (be careful of fibres in case they chew these)
● A pheromone plug-in may also be useful (consult your vet first).
What Not to Do
If your pet shows signs of “destructive” behaviour, it is their instincts - not because they are misbehaving intentionally. If you punish your dog, they will only learn to fear you - patience and training is a better strategy.
Here’s what to avoid:
● Raising your voice
● Getting angry (your dog can sense this, so if you need to clean up any mess, let them outside first)
● Physical punishment (even a “bop” on the nose with a newspaper)
● Equipment that could be frightening or painful, e.g. shock collars - these can worsen anxiety.
● Leaving a dog or puppy to “cry it out” - this triggers stress hormones which can create long term negative mental and physical effects.
First see your vet so they can assess your dog’s behaviour and to address any underlying medical issues. They can then advise on the best course of action to take.
Your vet may also refer you to a qualified behaviourist who will be trained in how to treat separation anxiety in dogs. They can then tailor their training to your pet’s specific needs. This may include:
● Assessing to see whether your dog’s exercise needs are being met
● Whether they are getting enough mental stimulation (in addition to training, a food toy or puzzle toy can help with this)
● Learning how to make positive associations in situations where your pet needs to be left alone
● Teaching your dog not to rely too much on your attention so that when you are away they do not feel as anxious about being left.
● Graduated absence exercises (saying hello and goodbye as you prepare to leave the house in a brief, but calm manner.
● Using simple training exercises as distraction.
The behaviourist may also use “desensitisation and counter conditioning” which is where a pet is gradually exposed to a trigger to desensitise them to it (such as leaving them alone for short periods of time and slowly increasing duration).
Training duration may vary depending on your dog’s needs, so try to be patient durin g this process. You can also ask which training methods you can teach your dog at home.
In most cases, behavioural training should be enough to help your dog feel more safe. In some cases your vet may prescribe medication (never give medication to your dog without advice from your vet, and always administer according to their instructions).
For advice on finding the right dog harness to large dog beds for bigger breeds, our Info Hub contains a wealth of useful resources to help support you in caring for your pet.