Arts & Culture

Preventing Canine Separation Anxiety

by Valerie Broadway

Dogs are social beings and most of them feel some sort of stress when left alone. Dogs may whine and mope as they wait for the return of their human pack members, and that’s the extent of their anxious behavior. When the behaviors become more extreme, it is called separation anxiety. It can be displayed in a wide variety of ways. Some dogs bark frantically and incessantly, while others tremble, drool, and pee and/or poop inappropriately. In extreme cases, dogs tear up things in frustration or while attempting to get out of the house and find their humans. Dogs have been known to even break their teeth trying to get out of their crates. These extreme cases are the equivalent to what humans experience as panic attacks.

In the coming months, there will likely be a rise in cases of separation anxiety as people begin to return to work and school outside of their homes. It will be especially difficult for the puppies which people got during the shutdown, some of whom may have never spent a moment alone. It’s never too early to help them ease into the transition of spending time

by themselves. 

Follow these tips to prevent or help dogs with separation anxiety: 

1) When dogs are young, likely to soil the house, and/or chew up things, they should be crated when left unsupervised. For dogs who are not used to being in a crate, start by placing them in the crate and giving them a treat reward. Close the door for five seconds intervals several times in a row. Next, vary the amount of time they spend in the crate, as mentioned in Step 2 below. Only open the crate door when they are quiet, even if only for a few seconds. Crates should be kept in a busy area of the house, not in back rooms where dogs may feel like they are being ostracized from the pack. Once the dog is comfortable in a crate, continue with the following steps to help prevent canine separation anxiety.

2) Leave them with a favorite toy or chew while the humans leave the home Several times a day leave the dog/puppy alone for short periods of time. Vary the amount of time. Sometimes 5 minutes, then 1 minute, then 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 5 minutes again. Each day increase the amount of time the dog spends alone. 

3) Keep the energy level consistent when leaving and returning. If dogs get tons of loving as the humans leave and/or when they return, dogs may have more diffculty being by themselves in between. 

4) Give a special toy or chew the dog only gets when left alone. This gives them something to focus on other than the fact that their human(s) just left. If they won’t rip it up, place something that smells like their favorite person to lie on, like an old tee-shirt.

5) Leave on the tv or play some relaxing music while the humans are gone. This helps drown out the outside noises that could cause dogs to become nervous and bark. It may also make dogs feel like the people are still home and perhaps just in another room.

6) For dogs who are visually overstimulated when looking out the windows, it may help to block the view. Perhaps cover that side of the crate with a sheet. Window clings placed on the lower part of windows and doors disrupt the view for the dog but allow the humans to still see out. They also allow sunlight in. Rolls of cling material in a variety of designs can be found at home improvement stores and online.

When people are back to work and school, dogs will be left alone for many hours at a time. In addition to continuing to follow Steps 2–4 above consider the following:

Before leaving, be sure the dog has had a good exercise session. If they have a lot of pent up energy it will be difficult for them to be contented to lie around all day waiting for the humans to return. 

Consider having someone visit the dog in the middle of the day to take them for a walk and/or play with them. This could be a friend, neighbor, or family member. There are also professional dog walking services around that can be found via an internet search.

Sending dogs to doggy daycare at least a couple of times a week can break up the monotony of being alone every day. It can also be good for socialization as well as an outlet for energy and play.

In severe cases of separation anxiety dogs may require additional help. Sometimes anti-anxiety medication(s) prescribed by your pet’s veterinarian are needed. Cases vary. Some dogs may need them for a short period of time while others may need them for the rest of their lives. 

Another tactic needed to prevent separation anxiety is helping dogs understand that the humans are in charge, and good at it. Dogs must trust that their leader would never leave them alone if it wasn’t going to be okay. One way to convey this is to teach dogs to heel when walking on a leash. The

relationship that is established with dogs while they are on the leash is often a reflection of the relationship when off the leash. It should be clear that the human is the one in control. Dogs can be given opportunities to have some free-time to sniff around and relieve themselves but, until dogs have accepted their follower position, most of the on-leash time should be structured.

Once dogs understand their place on the leash, the next step to prevent or correct separation anxiety is to socialize them. Often dogs are afraid of the outside world because they have not experienced it. So when left alone their perception is that something in that big, scary world is going to come and get them. It is important to introduce dogs to all kinds of different places that the world is, such as parks, stores, busy downtown areas, etc. This should be done with dogs walking under control on the leash.

Dog trainers, behavior specialists, and veterinarians are bracing themselves for the onslaught of separation anxiety calls that will inevitably occur as people begin to spend more time away from their homes. Taking steps now to help dogs cope without us will have immense benefits in the future for everyone.

Valerie Broadway, the Canine Coach, is a dog trainer and behavioral specialist. For
more information, call her at 919.542.4726 or visit