What to Know About Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Here’s how to tell the difference between separation anxiety in dogs and boredom and how to prevent and solve your dog’s separation anxiety.

A dog with chewed-up towels and shoes, looking sad or embarrassed.
Don't let your lonely dog turn to bad behaviors. Photography © Vesnaandjic | iStock / Getty Images.

Is your dog bored or is he struggling with separation anxiety? And why is separation anxiety in dogs so common today? Let’s take a look at the signs of separation anxiety in dogs, how to solve it — and how to perhaps prevent it in the first place.

Separation anxiety in dogs vs. dog boredom

A bored, sad or sleepy dog lying on a couch.
Is it boredom or separation anxiety in dogs? Photography ©dosecreative | Thinkstock.

Separation anxiety (S.A.) symptoms in dogs often resemble boredom behaviors, including chewing, dissecting, digging (if dogs are left outside), “accidents” in the house and excessive vocalization. A close look at your lifestyle will determine if yours is a case of separation anxiety in dogs — or dog boredom.

Separation anxiety in dogs and the modern lifestyles

According to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, dogs evolved because humans have inadvertently or intentionally selected for “low flight distance” for millennia — those dogs that were most comfortable in close proximity to humans and their settlements were most likely to receive food from humans. Closeness to humans conferred a reproductive advantage for dogs through increased access to resources.

Traditionally, this arrangement worked well for dogs. Then and in many rural areas today, leashes or fences were few or non-existent. Dogs could roam off-leash, greeting other dogs, chasing squirrels, rabbits, deer, woodchucks, cats, and the occasional skunk or porcupine. Crashing happily through woods, fields and streams, dogs exercised their bodies and all their senses. Many worked closely with their owners all day hunting, herding, carting, or guarding. These dogs would then return home exhausted, crash on the floor to happily receive belly rubs, and sleep until morning. Very few dogs living this type of lifestyle suffer from separation anxiety.

Automobile traffic makes this type of lifestyle dangerous for many dogs now, and busy modern lifestyles and long working days make similar stimulations impractical and out of reach for most dog parents. This is a conflict of interests — what is in the best interest of the dog (plentiful mental and physical stimulation) conflicts with the owner’s desire to relax after a long day.

Staving off separation anxiety in dogs

How much exercise does your dog get? And how much daily training? How often do you play with her? For how long are you separated each day? How often does she socialize with other dogs appropriately?

Many dogs have deficits in socialization (with humans and dogs), mental stimulation (training, toys, play) and/or physical stimulation (running, swimming, walking, hiking, playing). Make sure to provide your dog with an opportunity to engage in all three daily. If dogs are not provided with this stimulation, boredom digging, chewing, barking, etc. will likely ensue. Fulfilling basic needs remedies behavior problems related to boredom.

Separation anxiety in dogs — when they’re puppies

Separation anxiety in dogs can take root in puppyhood — now is the time for prevention. It is always better to prevent than untrain; so provide your puppy with “stuff to do” in your absence (toys stuffed with treats, a visit from a puppy walker to play/walk), and always remember to make entries and exits to the home very low key (these are good tips for adult dogs as well!). Practice separation as a behavior, starting with a small duration and gradually building as your dog is successful.

If you must say goodbye to your dog, do it well before you plan on leaving (at least a half hour in advance) and get it out of the way — remember that this is for your benefit— not your dog’s. Dramatic goodbyes will only teach her that separation is cause for stress. Wait for calm behavior before greeting your dog upon your return home, and keep the greetings quiet, relaxed.

Identifying separation anxiety in dogs

If your dog’s basic needs are met and you still suspect separation anxiety, look for the following symptoms: extreme destruction of property or self (tearing walls apart, bloodying paws trying to escape from a crate, breaking or cracking of teeth trying to escape the house or enter if left outside, anorexia/inability to drink fluids when left alone, inability to be separated from you (even briefly, in another room) while you’re at home, and anxiety behavior related to one specific individual in the household (dog is not relieved by the presence of other household members in the absence of the attachment figure). If you note these symptoms of extreme separation anxiety in dogs, consult with a behavioral professional for guidance.

Solutions for separation anxiety in dogs

Treatment for separation anxiety in dogs should include desensitization and counter-conditioning to the attachment figure’s absence as well as the environmental cues which predict her absence (grabbing keys, putting coat/shoes on, sunglasses, starting the car, etc.).

For extreme cases, it is best to bring a veterinary behaviorist into the rehabilitation team, as some S.A. dogs can benefit from conventional or alternative medical treatments.

And for dogs with hormonal or neurochemical imbalances, desensitization and counter-conditioning may need to be accompanied by medication or supplementation. For these dogs, neither medical nor behavioral treatment will be successful without the other.

See more ways to help a dog with separation anxiety here >>

Tell us: Does your dog have separation anxiety? What works for you when it comes to separation anxiety in dogs?

This piece was originally published in 2009.

Thumbnail: Photography © Vesnaandjic | iStock / Getty Images. 

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5 thoughts on “What to Know About Separation Anxiety in Dogs”

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  4. Suzanne Hurtado

    We purchased our dog from the pound. She was an older dog and only had a few days before she was to be euthanized. She is a golden retriever mix. She not only was abused but had separation anxiety. She is now blind. We ordered a very tall gate from Walmart and put it in our hallway to prevent her from entering our living room area. We kept her there with water, chew items and her favorite toys while we were gone. When we came home she was allowed to roam free. We read everything about the subject. We each would take turns leaving jangling our keys, etc. We weren’t gone very long and would increase our time away each time. Then we would leave together thus increasing our time again. We decided to give her more room and increased her space with the gate. Eventually we took the gate away. She would stay by the front window waiting for us to come home. Sometimes we would bring a treat (bone) home. We played with her a lot and we still do. She turned out to be the best dog we’ve ever had. It take patience, persistence and time. You have to stick with it. I hope this has helped others – it certainly worked for us.

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