Separation Anxiety in Dogs: What You Need to Know

Aug. 13, 2015

Separation anxiety in dogs may not seem like a big deal, but it can have a tremendous impact on owners and pets.

Your neighbor confesses he can't go away for the weekend because he can't leave his dog. Your own pup barks nonstop when you're not around. Is this separation anxiety in dogs? It's no joke -- it can, in fact, be a serious issue. It can be hard as a pet owner to manage the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in your dog, and it's no walk in the park for your pup either.

Do All Dogs Experience Separation Anxiety?
"Your dog is born essentially with the temperament he has and it plays a pivotal role in his behavior, but the other thing that contributes to your dog's behavior is his environment, including you," says Dianna M. Young, canine behavior specialist and author of "Think Like Your Dog and Enjoy the Rewards."

She says that every owner "has a tremendous impact" on a dog's behavior, and while the breed of dog may also offer insight, it isn't always a predictor. "One might be able to say that there are breeds that are more prone to anxiety than others, but on the other hand, with proper training and critical socialization that doesn't have to be the case," she adds.

What Can Cause Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
"A new family member, such as a baby or a pet, is a very common trigger" of separation anxiety, says Tonya Wilhelm, a dog behavior specialist and author of "Please Stay -- Help for a Dog with Separation Anxiety." "Other events that may activate your dog's anxiety can include the loss of a family member, the loss of a pet or a traumatic event while left alone, such as during a thunderstorm, fire or home robbery." She states that sometimes even things that seem totally normal to dog owners can trigger anxiety in the animals.

What Are Some Signs of Separation Anxiety?
"Pacing, whining, barking, vocalizing and destructive behavior are all common stress signs," advises Young. Uncommon signs of separation anxiety and stress, she adds, may include "chewing or self-chewing, excessive body-part licking, tail chasing, loose stool and displaced aggression."

How Can You Help Your Dog?
"Dogs that have a strong foundation in obedience training statistically have a lower frequency of anxiety-related problems," Young says. She encourages owners to get involved in a training program with their new dog, regardless of age.

If your dog does experience separation anxiety, treatment is all about emotions. "Treating separation anxiety is about teaching your dog to tap into new emotions when left alone that will alleviate their anxiety," says Wilhelm. "It is not about teaching him not to, but rather how to, feel." She says the first step to helping your dog overcome anxiety is to ensure that your dog is not left alone.

She acknowledges that can be tricky for dog owners, but suggests finding dog walkers, neighbors or doggie day care to help out, or changing your work schedule to accommodate your pet, because it's a crucial step in helping your dog overcome anxiety. She also advises that owners seek the help of a dog behavior specialist to guide you through a step-by-step plan developed specifically for your pet. In doing so, you'll be able to teach your dog to be comfortable and safe when left alone.

"Treating separation anxiety can be a very daunting, time consuming and boring behavior problem to address, but your dog is worth it," believes Wilhelm. "He is counting on you to help him through his trauma." You may also be able to prevent some of the issues related to separation anxiety. Hide cues that you're leaving so you're dog isn't able to infer you're about to head out. Consider giving him a treat before closing the door so your departure is associated with something positive.

If you're worried about leaving your dog for an extended period, do your research to make sure you're choosing the right resources to help make the experience as painless as possible. Read 11 Questions to Ask When Picking a Kennel for more information.

Devan McGuinness is a Toronto-based freelance writer who specializes in parenting and lifestyle topics. 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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