Separation Anxiety in Dogs

March 6, 2024
Diana Bocco
Reviewed By: 
5 minute read

Imagine this: Your furry friend, usually the life of the party, suddenly turns into a bundle of nerves the moment you grab your keys to leave. This is a clear sign of separation anxiety in dogs. 

More common than you might think, separation anxiety can lead to a wide range of behavioral issues, from incessant barking to destructive chewing and more. For dogs, separation anxiety is a severe stress response that can affect their overall well-being.

Understanding and addressing separation anxiety is crucial for any pet owner, but the journey into the canine mind is often tricky. 

History of Separation Anxiety in Dogs 

The history of separation anxiety in dogs is deeply engrained in their evolution and domestication. Like the bond observed in wild canines and their pack members, dogs have developed a strong attachment toward their human “pack members,” including their reliance on human companionship for emotional support.

Separation anxiety in dogs is a complex mix of emotions that appears primarily due to the absence of their owners, but it's also influenced by the dog's temperament, the nature of the dog-owner relationship, and their interactions. In fact, experts believe it has just as much to do with physical separation as it does with how well the dog has been integrated into the household, its temperament, and the quality of the relationship between the dog and its owner.1 

For many dogs, changes in living arrangements, like moving to a new home, can also trigger separation anxiety due to dogs’ strong bonds with their surroundings​​​​.

Because separation anxiety is so complex, it’s also often difficult to diagnose and treat. In most cases, easing your dog’s discomfort will require a mix of things, including creating a stable and secure environment, fostering a positive and supportive relationship, and addressing any underlying health or behavioral issues that may contribute to anxiety.

Causes of Separation Anxiety 

Separation anxiety in dogs is a complex condition influenced by a combination of genetics, environment, and personal history.

Genetics, in fact, is a big part of it. Just as humans inherit traits from their parents, dogs can inherit a tendency toward anxiety. Certain breeds like Border Collies or German Shepherds, known for their deep bonds with humans,, might be more predisposed to feeling anxious when left alone as well. World-renowned pet expert and positive dog trainer Victoria Stilwell also stresses that herding dogs like Border Collies are more prone to separation anxiety because they are both sound and environmentally sensitive, so they’re more likely to experience fears and anxieties. 2

Studies also show that “dogs from a home with a single adult human were approximately 2.5 times as likely to have separation anxiety as dogs from multiple-owner homes.”3 Hyperattachment to the owner also increases the likelihood of a dog developing separation anxiety. 

Then, there are environmental factors. Dogs thrive on routine – their daily walk, meal times, and cuddle sessions are the framework of their world. When there's a shake-up in this routine, such as a move to a new home, a change in work schedules, or even a new family member, it can leave them feeling lost at sea. These changes can be particularly challenging for a dog to navigate, leading to feelings of anxiety when they find themselves alone.

Traumatic events or changes in ownership can also leave a lasting imprint on a dog's psyche. For example, a dog that's been rehomed multiple times might start to worry that each goodbye could lead to another separation. Or, a dog that's experienced a particularly scary incident while alone – like a thunderstorm or fireworks – might associate being alone with those fearful experiences.

By recognizing the signs and underlying reasons for separation anxiety, pet owners can then begin to address their furry friend's needs, creating a sense of security and comfort even when they can't be by their side.

Identifying Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Identifying the symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs is crucial for any pet parent looking to understand and support their furry family member. This condition manifests in various behaviors that can be both distressing for your dog and disruptive for your household. 

Here’s a closer look at the most common symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs:

  • Destructive Behaviors: Dogs with separation anxiety may express their distress by chewing furniture, digging at doors and windows, or tearing up household items. These behaviors aren't acts of rebellion but desperate attempts to cope with their anxiety, and dogs should never be punished or “told off” for doing this.4
  • Vocalization: Excessive barking, howling, or whining when left alone are classic vocal signs of separation anxiety. While these might sound like a lot of noise to you, to your dog, it’s a way to voice their discomfort and longing for your return.
  • Physiological Signs: Anxiety can also trigger physical reactions in dogs. Look for signs of panting, drooling, or pacing around the house. These symptoms indicate your dog is under stress and struggling to settle down in your absence.
  • Elimination Issues: A house-trained dog urinating or defecating indoors is a significant indicator of separation anxiety. This behavior often occurs in response to the stress of being alone rather than a lapse in house training.

Understanding these symptoms is the first step toward helping your dog overcome their anxiety. By recognizing these behaviors, you can begin to explore solutions tailored to your dog's specific needs, ensuring they feel secure and loved, even when you're apart.

Diagnosing Separation Anxiety 

Diagnosing separation anxiety in dogs involves a collaborative effort between pet owners, veterinarians, and sometimes animal behaviorists. It's essential to distinguish separation anxiety from other behavioral issues, as symptoms can overlap with conditions like boredom, territorial behavior, or medical problems.5

A visit to a veterinarian is always a good first step to rule out medical issues. A vet will start by asking about your dog’s history, including routines, behaviors, and any recent changes in their environment or family structure. This conversation helps to identify potential triggers and whether the behaviors are specific to the owner's absence.

Observation is another key tool. Veterinarians may ask you to monitor and record your dog's behavior when left alone, using video recording if possible. This direct evidence can be invaluable in understanding your dog's anxiety levels and pinpointing specific triggers.

In some cases, the help of an animal behaviorist might be needed to provide a deeper analysis and to come up with behavior modification strategies. Their expertise can offer tailored solutions that address both the symptoms and underlying causes of separation anxiety.

Ultimately, a diagnosis of separation anxiety opens the door to effective treatment plans, so it’s the best way to help your furry friend lead a happier, more relaxed life even when you're apart.

How to Treat Separation Anxiety in Dogs: A Step-by-Step Guide 

Understanding how to help a dog with separation anxiety is a critical first step in ensuring they feel secure and loved, even in your absence. This guide will walk you through practical steps, from gradual desensitization to creating a comforting environment aimed at easing your dog's distress. By addressing the issue with patience and consistency, you'll not only improve your dog's quality of life but also strengthen the bond you share. Let's dive into the methods and strategies that can make a difference.

STEP 1: Prepare in advance

  • Start with gradual desensitization to pre-departure cues: Start by identifying the actions you take before leaving the house that signal your departure to your dog—grabbing your keys, putting on shoes, etc. Begin to perform these actions randomly throughout the day without actually leaving to help your dog stop associating them with being alone. This process should be done gradually, increasing the time your dog is desensitized to these cues.6
  • Create a safe and comforting environment: Ensure your dog has a comfortable space in your home where they can relax while you're away. This could simply be a cozy corner with their bed and favorite toys, or it could be a kennel or soft carrier, but keep the door open. Some dogs find comfort in items that carry their owner's scent, so consider leaving a worn piece of clothing with them.

Step 2: Have a plan for when you’re gone

  • Provide plenty of engaging toys and activities: To keep your dog mentally stimulated and physically occupied while you're away, provide them with engaging toys. Puzzle feeders, treat-dispensing toys, or durable chew toys can help distract them and make time pass more quickly.
  • Consider doggy daycare or pet sitters for longer absences: For longer periods of absence, consider enrolling your dog in a reputable doggy daycare or hiring a trusted pet sitter. This can provide your dog with much-needed socialization and prevent them from feeling isolated.

STEP 3: Look into training and behavior modification techniques

  • Learn about counter-conditioning and put it to use: Counter-conditioning is a powerful method to help dogs overcome separation anxiety. It involves associating the fear-inducing absence of the owner with something positive. Once your dog has become comfortable with you picking up keys or putting on shoes, start by opening the door, walking outside, and walking right back in. Give your dog a treat before you leave and one when you get back in. Gradually introduce slightly longer absences, always ensuring to pair your departure with something positive, like a favorite treat or toy that they only get when you're away.
  • Use obedience training as a way to teach independence and confidence: Commands like "sit," "stay," and "come" can help manage your dog's behavior and make them feel secure even when they're alone. Focus on positive reinforcement techniques, rewarding calm behavior with treats, praise, or playtime. Training sessions also strengthen the bond between you and your pet, reinforcing their trust in you.
  • Implement a predictable routine: Dogs thrive on routine as it gives them a sense of security. Establish a consistent daily schedule for feeding, walks, playtime, and quiet time. This predictability can reduce anxiety by letting your dog know what to expect each day. Ensure the routine includes time spent alone, gradually increasing the duration to help your dog become more comfortable with being by themselves.7
  • Keep things positive: No yelling, no shock collars, no scare tactics. Dogs with separation anxiety shouldn’t be crated either because they can hurt themselves trying to escape when they panic.8 However, you can use crate training (at a very slow pace) under the guidance of an experienced trainer or behaviorist if your dog has already developed separation anxiety. 

STEP 4: Seek help from a professional trainer or behaviorist if things don’t get better

  • Consult with a professional if your efforts at home don't seem to alleviate your dog's separation anxiety: A certified dog trainer or animal behaviorist can assess your dog's behavior, identify the root of the anxiety, and develop a customized treatment plan. They can offer more advanced techniques and support to help your dog overcome their fears.
  • Talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medications and behavioral therapy: In severe cases, a veterinarian might recommend anti-anxiety medications as part of the treatment plan. These medications can help reduce the immediate symptoms of anxiety, making it easier for your dog to learn new behaviors and coping mechanisms. It's crucial, however, to use these medications under the guidance of a veterinarian and as part of a broader behavioral therapy plan, as drugs address the symptoms but not the underlying cause of the anxiety.

Remember, overcoming separation anxiety is a process that requires patience, consistency, and sometimes professional help. Each dog is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. The key is to approach the situation with understanding, empathy, and a willingness to find the best solution for your furry friend.

Preventing Separation Anxiety  

Starting on the right paw with your new dog can help lay a solid foundation to prevent separation anxiety. Puppy separation anxiety can manifest early, so it's crucial to start addressing it as soon as you notice any signs of distress when your puppy is left alone. This condition can be tough on both you and your furry friend, but with some proactive steps, you can greatly reduce the chances of it developing.

Early socialization is key. Introducing your dog to a variety of environments, sounds, people, and other animals early on is crucial. It helps them become more adaptable and less likely to feel anxious when faced with new situations or when they're alone. Think of it as building their confidence in navigating the world without you by their side.

Exercise and mental stimulation also play a huge role in a dog's overall well-being. Regular physical activity will help keep your dog fit, but it will also burn off excess energy that might otherwise fuel anxious behaviors when you're not around. Incorporate activities like walking, playing fetch, or agility training into your daily routine.9

Mental stimulation is equally important. Dogs are intelligent creatures that need regular mental challenges to stay happy and healthy. Puzzle toys, training sessions, and interactive games are great ways to keep their minds engaged. This combination of physical and mental activity helps ensure your dog is content and tired, making them more likely to relax when they're alone.

By focusing on these areas, you can help prevent separation anxiety as well as enhance the quality of life for your dog. A balanced routine can help meet your dog’s needs for socialization, exercise, and mental engagement, and also foster a sense of security and contentment, making your time apart much easier on them.


Dogs with separation anxiety require a supportive and patient approach, as they navigate the stress of being apart from their owners. Remember, recognizing the signs early and taking action can transform your dog's experience of being alone from panic to peace.

If you're navigating this challenge, you're not alone. There's a wealth of support and resources out there, designed to guide you through. At Cola's Kitchen, we believe a healthy, happy dog starts in the kitchen, but we're also committed to supporting you beyond mealtime with advice, tips, and strategies for creating a calm, anxiety-free environment for your dog. 

So, take heart. With the right approach and resources, you and your dog can overcome separation anxiety together, paving the way for a more relaxed and joyful companionship.

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