A dog lying on their owners left leg with an orange chew toy in its mouth

What is separation anxiety in dogs?

By BBC Maestro

Separation anxiety in dogs can seriously impact the wellbeing of dogs and their owners alike. From destructive behaviour to panting and pacing, is your dog trying to tell you they really don’t like being left alone?

Just like humans, our canine companions can suffer from psychological issues too. We’ve bred dogs for hundreds of years to bond with humans, yet today many of our pet dogs are struggling to cope without their beloved owner by their side 24/7.

Read on to find out what separation anxiety is, what signs you should look out for, and how you can work with your dog to make them more confident and happy when they have to spend time alone.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is when your dog cannot cope with being left alone, sometimes for even short periods of time. With research from the RSPCA suggesting 8 out of 10 dogs do not cope when left alone, separation anxiety is possibly more prevalent than most dog owners realise.

Dogs love being with us. We’re precious to dogs as much as dogs are precious to us. Dogs place such value on being with us that unfortunately when we’re absent, some dogs can really suffer with separation anxiety.

Steve Mann, Dog Trainer

So how do you know if your dog has separation anxiety? The signs can be easy to miss, not least of all because the most obvious signs of separation anxiety will happen when you aren’t around. It’s important to familiarise yourself with the signs, particularly any subtle early warning signs that start before you’ve even left the house.

A dog sits at the feet of Steve Mann

Signs of separation anxiety

Have you noticed your dog panting, drooling, pacing or licking its lips the moment you pick up your car keys or pull on your jacket? These are classic symptoms of stress in dogs and could be an indicator you have a separation anxiety problem on your hands.

As well as these initial signs, you may notice other symptoms of separation anxiety that happen when you are not around to directly witness them, such as:

●      Destructive chewing – particularly around exit points, such as door frames.

●      Vocalisation – your dog whines or barks when you’re not there (your neighbours may have mentioned this to you).

●      Not eating – if you leave food down for your dog, you may find it still untouched when you return home.

     Incontinence – toileting in the house can be a sign your dog is distressed, especially if you’ve already ruled out any medical conditions with your vet.

Causes of separation anxiety

So when does separation anxiety start? Separation anxiety can affect dogs of any age. Although there have been no conclusive studies into the reasons for separation anxiety developing, many experts agree on some common triggers. These include:

●      Loss of a family member. If your dog has been particularly close to someone who has moved out of the home or passed away, you may notice your dog showing signs of separation anxiety.

●      Moving house. Moving to a new house can be a stressful time – not least of all for your pets. The stress of a new environment can trigger feelings of anxiety in your dog, and this may leave them feeling insecure and more susceptible to separation anxiety.

●      Change of routine. A change of schedule is one of the biggest factors in the development of separation anxiety. This has become a particular issue for those who got a dog whilst working from home during the pandemic but have since returned to work from an office. If your dog is used to you being home all the time, then suddenly you aren’t around during the day anymore, this can trigger significant separation anxiety problems. Dogs are sociable animals and, according to the Dogs Trust, should not be left alone for more than 4 hours at a time.

●      Being rehomed. Sadly, dogs which end up in a shelter can struggle with abandonment after losing the family they have known and loved. If you adopt a dog, you may find they become overly attached and suffer with separation anxiety whenever you leave the house.

These are some of the main causes of separation anxiety, but it’s important to remember every dog is unique and that sometimes enlisting the help of a dog behaviourist can help you get to the root of the problem.

A dog amongst the grass

How to treat separation anxiety in dogs

The realisation that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety can be distressing for a dog owner. However, the good news is that with patience and time you can cure separation anxiety in your dog so that they are happy spending time alone.

First and foremost, never punish your dog. If your dog has had an accident in the house because they are distressed at being left alone, punishing this will only perpetuate the problem.

Instead, the best way to treat separation anxiety is to build up your dog’s independence and reward positive behaviours.

In his BBC Maestro dog training course, Steve Mann offers a number of tips for dealing with separation anxiety in your dog.

First, he suggests offering opportunities for isolation, so your dog can choose to build up their time alone. This may be giving them access to the best bed in the house or creating a little den filled with their favourite chew toys.

You could also build up periods of semi-isolation, where you are nearby but not necessarily in the same room as your dog. For example, you could throw treats into the garden for them to find while you remain in the house. This shows your dog they can have a good time away from you.

Child gates are another useful tool you can use to put some distance between yourself and your dog. Your dog will still be able to see you through the gate, but they will also get used to not being right beside you all the time.

Separation anxiety is a really tricky one to overcome. But if you keep the faith, trust the process, and you go slowly – I promise you, you’ll get there.

Steve Mann, Dog Training

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Once your dog is completely comfortable with the physical distance between you, then you can build up to leaving the room. At first, do this for only a couple of seconds, so your dog can be reassured you’ll always come back. Build up to leaving the room for a couple of minutes at a time. Then, once you feel your dog is ready, you can build up leaving the house for a couple of minutes at a time. A chew toy can help with this training, as it gives your dog something to focus on.

Steve Mann points out separation anxiety can work both ways, so if you’re nervous about leaving your dog alone you could set up a small camera to monitor them while you’re out and about.

Realistically, most of us need to leave the house at some time or another. If you don’t feel your dog is ready to be left completely on its own you could enlist the help of friends, family members or even a professional dog walker to make sure your dog is safe and happy whenever you’re out of the house.

The key to treating separation anxiety is to increase your dog’s tolerance for being alone in tiny increments and to repeat this training as much as possible.

Remember, prevention is better than cure. At any age you can start building up periods of isolation so your dog can get used to being happy and confident when left on their own.

Want to know more about how to train your dog? Check out Steve Mann’s online dog training course which covers everything from basic training and learning tricks, to dealing with dog behavioural issues.

Want to learn more about dog training?

Join expert dog trainer Steve Mann as he shares his experience and wisdom in training canine companions. From basic commands to shaping behaviour, learn the practical tips you need to train your puppy or adult dog.

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