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San Diego Humane Society

Behavior Challenges: Separation Anxiety in Dogs

What Is Separation Anxiety?

When left alone, a dog suffering from separation anxiety or isolation distress is experiencing fear and panic. Symptoms of this panic can vary from dog to dog and may include (but are not limited to): panting, pacing, vocalizing, scratching/pawing at the door, self-harm or overgrooming, and eliminating in the house (when otherwise house-trained). 

Please keep in mind that your dog is not misbehaving or acting out. Using equipment or training techniques that might be painful or scary for your dog will only mask the symptoms of anxiety and can actually increase your dog’s fear. They will not just “get over it.” Your dog is scared and needs help. Dogs suffering from moderate to severe separation anxiety are in distress and will require the help of a professional to learn to overcome this anxiety, and some of these dogs may benefit significantly from anxiety reducing medications.

There are many reasons why a dog might find being left alone stressful. Some causes of separation anxiety might be early life stress, multiple rehoming episodes, trauma, moving locations. The most important thing to know is that your dog’s separation anxiety is NOT your fault and it IS treatable. You can learn more about this topic on our separation related behaviors playlist

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For New Dog Owners

Leaving Your Dog Alone

One of the best ways to set your dog up to be successful when you are gone is to arrange for them to only be left alone for short periods of time after bringing them home until you know they are not going to panic.

  • Observing your dog using a video chat program in real time is key to understanding how they handle being alone. You can start out by using any video program on a laptop or tablet. Open the program on your device and also the app on your smartphone (apps such as ZOOM, Skype or Facetime work well).
  • Keep the initial absence short (2-5 minutes max). Drive around the block and watch how your dog reacts.
  • If your dog appears to be comfortable and not too concerned with a 5-minute absence, you can gradually start increasing the time you are away and work up to running short errands.
  • If you see that your dog is showing signs of stress return immediately.

Using a Crate

If you plan to use a crate or confinement area, be sure that your dog is happy and relaxed in this space before you leave him alone.  A stronger crate is NOT the answer!

  • Many dogs love their crates and can be safely left alone in them, but they need to be properly trained to do so.
  • A dog who experiences stress when left alone will not be calmer just because they are in a crate. This can actually exacerbate their discomfort and cause confinement anxiety.
  • If you need help with crate training, contact a force-free trainer who can guide you through the process.

Treating Mild Separation Anxiety

In order to help your dog feel more comfortable when left alone, we need to build up departures in a slow, systematic manner with gradual absences so that the dog is not experiencing any fear. For some dogs, this might be five seconds or one second or even just their human stepping outside to begin with. It’s important to start where your dog is comfortable and build up from there.

Observe your dog closely and only increase the duration as your dog remains comfortable. Remember that you want to move at a pace that keeps your dog below the point where they are feeling fearful.  Every time you push your dog too fast and go over that threshold where the dog starts to experience panic, they are no longer able to learn or understand that you’re always coming back — this is counterproductive to the whole process.

There’s no way to explain to your dog when you’re doing training and will be coming back and when you’re going to be gone for an undetermined length of time (for them). So while your dog is going through treatment for separation anxiety, it’s crucial that they are never to be left alone for longer than they can handle.  Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that your dog has to be with you all the time. You can use a dog walker, day care, family member, friend, neighbor or anyone your dog can stay with, so they’re not alone and panicked when you need to go somewhere without them.

Pre-Departure Cues

You may notice that your dog is picking up on the fact that you’re leaving and showing signs of stress before you even walk out the door. Dogs are masters at picking up on patterns and are often anticipating departures before you even realize it. For dogs suffering from separation anxiety, actions like picking up keys, putting on shoes, grabbing a bag or purse are triggers that the scary thing (their human leaving) is about to happen.

To help desensitize your dog to these leaving cues, first make a list of potential triggers. This includes all the things you do prior to leaving (closing bedroom or bathroom doors, turning lights on or off, collecting items you take with you, etc.) as well things your dog may be picking up on AFTER you step outside (locking the deadbolt, sound of the garage door, car engine, etc.).

When you start working on gradual departures, avoid as many of these cues as you can. Once you’ve built up some duration (for example, your dog is comfortable with you being out of the house for 5 minutes), you can start slowly incorporating some of the pre-departure cues into your absences. Introduce each trigger slowly and separately, so you don’t overwhelm your dog with too many things all at once. Once your dog starts to understand that you being gone isn’t so scary, all of those things that signal you’re leaving won’t be as much of a trigger anymore.

You Are Not Alone

If your dog does not seem to be tolerating the short absences that you are practicing or you are unable to increase the time you are gone without them showing signs of stress, don’t despair! There are veterinarians, veterinary behaviorists, and certified separation anxiety trainers who can help. Write down your observations to help your veterinarian and/or trainer understand what your dog is experiencing when left alone.

Dogs with separation anxiety can improve with proper treatment and an expert can help you and your dog on this journey!

When Isn’t It Separation Anxiety?

Sometimes our dogs will display behaviors that might look like separation anxiety — barking and whining, pawing at the door, accidents in the house, chewing and destruction, attempts to escape confinement and more— but they are symptoms of boredom, excitement or stress in regards to other stimuli. This might happen because of sounds of dogs or people outside the home or an unclear understanding of expectations in the home and can be remedied with training, enrichment activities and other management. If you aren’t sure why your dog is behaving in a certain way, please contact our Behavior Helpline below.

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

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