The term “separation anxiety” describes the distress a dog can feel when left alone by their human companion. Some dogs show signs of this distress as soon as their caregiver gets ready to leave the house (putting on a coat, fetching a bag, etc.). The condition is stressful for animals and owners alike. It is not uncommon for affected dogs to cause damage in the home, or to wee or poo, or to whine, bark or howl – all behaviours that express how distressed they feel to be left on their own. This can cause friction with neighbours or landlords, and in extreme cases it might even lead to an owner giving up their dog. However, proper socialisation and good training can prevent or relieve separation anxiety.
Learn more about separation anxiety:
What causes separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety can have many causes, including:
- Too much or too intense attention from an owner (especially common when an animal is ill)
- Lack of relevant training (the dog wasn’t trained to spend time alone when they were young)
- Traumatic experiences when alone (e.g. the dog hears loud noises that they find threatening)
- Sudden periods alone (a dog that is used to spending most of the time with their human companion is suddenly left to their own devices)
Separation anxiety can also be triggered when the family structure changes (e.g. the caregiver is suddenly no longer around), when working from home comes to an end (so the dog suddenly has to spend long periods alone), or when there is a change of environment (e.g. a dog is temporarily placed in an animal shelter or moves in with another family). It can also occur if the animal has been abandoned in the past or has never learned to be alone. The extent to which a dog suffers from separation anxiety partly depends on their level of attachment to the absent person.
Your dog damages objects around the home. The damage may be caused by their efforts to escape, including scratches and bite marks on doors and door frames or on window frames. If your dog is left alone in the car, the window seals may be bitten or the doors scratched.
Your dog howls, whimpers or barks when left alone.
Your dog trembles, salivates or vomits.
Your dog tends to follow you around constantly, which means they don’t get enough rest.
Your dog “freaks out” when you come home.
If your dog tends to retreat to a secluded spot, this can sometimes wrongly be seen as a sign that they don’t mind being alone. In reality, they may be suffering in silence.
Your dog paces back and forth and seems unable to settle down.
Your dog wees or poos in the home uncontrollably.
When left alone or separated from their caregivers, some dogs will poo and then eat some or all of their faeces.
Before you take action, check whether your dog is showing the above signs only while you’re away or at other times too. Some of the signs may have other causes. For instance, soiling may be due to medical problems, howling may be a response to sirens, barking may be caused by boredom, and destructiveness is typical of very young dogs.
If you have reason to think your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, there are several things you can do to help:
If your dog is still young, gradually get them used to being alone – initially for short periods – and each time give your dog a positive experience that they will learn to associate with being separated from you. Whether your dog is a puppy or fully grown, they shouldn’t feel uncomfortable or anxious at any point during the training.
- Decide which behaviours your dog should be rewarded for (e.g. not getting agitated or overexcited, or no longer following you around all the time). Focus on keeping your dog relaxed.
- Establish a routine so your dog knows when they should expect attention from you (mealtime, playtime, training sessions, relaxing together, etc.) and when they should occupy themselves or take a nap.
- Make sure there are places in your home where your dog can go and feel safe while you are away.
- Leave the room/home from time to time, initially very briefly (perhaps just for a few seconds). Depending on your dog’s reaction (they should be relaxed when you come back), you can gradually increase the time you are away. Always aim to return before your dog gets agitated.
- Help your dog to associate being alone with something positive, such as treats. For example, give your dog a treat just before you leave the room (but remember to adjust their meal portions accordingly to maintain a healthy diet).
- Make sure your dog is challenged both mentally and physically. A tired dog is more likely to feel relaxed.
- Train your dog to become desensitised to perceived threats such as loud noises (thunder, fireworks, sirens, etc.). Dogs that don’t like being alone will feel even more stressed if they are panicked by noises too.
Also, try to tone down any obvious signals that you are about to go out. Avoid saying goodbye to your dog. Instead, just calmly and discreetly gather up everything you need to take with you. Then put your coat and shoes on and leave without making a fuss. The less aware your dog is that you are getting ready to go out, the better.
Depending on the severity of a dog’s separation anxiety, the measures described above may not be enough. In some cases you may need to seek help from an expert, such as a dog behaviourist or trainer.