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San Diego Humane Society

Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety is the fear or dislike of isolation, and many common canine behavioral problems stem from it. If you think your pet may be experiencing separation anxiety, it is important to take measures to quickly alleviate the problem. Unfortunately, this is not a problem that will simply disappear with time.

As social animals, it is normal for puppies to form attachments to their mother and littermates. Once a puppy is separated from their familial pack, they form a new attachment to their owner. This trusting relationship is the basis of a positive, healthy bond between an owner and pet. However, when a dog becomes overly dependent on their owner, problematic behaviors may arise. 

Separation anxiety is most often seen in dogs who have a strong predisposition to dependency. Traumatic events early in a dog’s life — such as early separation from a canine mother, lack of attachments early in life, a change of environment, a change in the owner’s lifestyle or the sudden loss or addition of a family member — can increase the likelihood of developing very strong attachments. 

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For New Dog Owners

Taking small steps can help foster a healthy owner-pet relationship and prevent separation anxiety. When bringing home a new dog or puppy, it is important to avoid situations that may encourage an excessive attachment to develop. Crate-training is encouraged for younger pups to get them accustomed to being alone. Training a dog to not constantly follow the owner around the house will also help the dog gradually adjust to being alone in the house.

Common methods for treating problem behavior — including crate-training, enrichment and obedience training — may assist in correcting problem behavior, but they don’t identify the source of these behaviors. One undesirable behavior may simply be replaced with another as the dog searches for an outlet for their anxiety. 

Common Behaviors

Separation anxiety can present in dogs in a variety of behaviors, and not all dogs will exhibit all of the behaviors. Generally, these behaviors will occur in response to an absence by the owner — either shortly after an owner’s departure from the home or during a prolonged greeting in response to the owner returning. Many dogs can also sense when their owner is leaving and become anxious even before the owner leaves the house. A dog's anxiety level typically peaks within 30 minutes of the owner’s departure, and this is when most behaviors will show and the most damage is done. Here are some behaviors and when they might occur.

As you prepare to leave, the dog may:

  • Follow you from room to room.
  • Become aggressive as you try to depart.

When you leave, dogs may:

  • Scratch and dig at doors and windows in an attempt to follow you.
  • Chew on household objects.
  • Urinate and defecate in unacceptable locations, such as by the door or on your bed.
  • Whine and bark for an extended period.
  • Become depressed.
  • Not eat or drink while you are gone.
  • Rarely, have diarrhea, vomit or engage in self-mutilation (such as chewing on themselves or excessive licking).

When you return home, most affected dogs will:

  • Become overly excited.
  • Engage in an unusually prolonged greeting.

Treatment: Planned Departures

Adjust a dog to being alone by exposing them to many short departures. As the stress response is generally triggered within the first 30 minutes of an owner’s departure, the dog should only be left alone for very short intervals at first (seconds to minutes) to ensure the owner returns before the onset of anxiety.

Departures and returns should be as quiet and uneventful as possible to avoid overstimulating the dog. Giving excessive attention prior to the owner departing and upon your return can increase a dog’s feeling of anxiety during separation.

Before extending departure periods, the owner must be certain that the dog is not showing signs of stress. The owner should closely monitor the dog for signs of anxiety and ensure that the dog does not engage in an extended greeting. After the departures have reached the 30 minute mark, the length of time the dog is left alone can be increased by larger increments. Once the dog can be left alone for 1.5 hours, they can usually be left all day.

To prevent anxiety during short departures, the owner can leave on the TV or radio, or provide a safe chew toy or stuffed Kong for the dog. However, it is important that this safety cue is not an item that the dog already associates with anxiety. These cues should help the dog relate to a previous safe period of isolation. 

Other Treatments

In dogs with severe separation anxiety, anti-anxiety medications are sometimes beneficial. For owners who have to leave their dog alone for extended periods while treatment is occurring, these medications may be used. While drugs allow a dog to spend extended periods of time free of anxiety, they do not offer a solution and should be used in combination with a treatment program.

A vet should be always consulted before administering drugs and for further information on the safest and most effective anxiety-suppressing drugs. At the same time, your vet can ensure that your dog does not have any underlying medical problems. Your vet may also be able to help get a treatment program started or can refer you to an animal trainer who may be more familiar with treatment alternatives.

In severe cases of separation anxiety, the owner may also have to take steps to weaken the dog's dependency upon a person. This requires the owner to ignore the dog for a period of time, sometimes up to three weeks. This will not break the bond between owner and dog, but it will help decrease the dog's extreme dependency. Ignoring your favorite pet may be difficult, but it is important to keep in mind that a much more healthy and happy relationship will result. 

It is important to remember that your pet is not bad or trying to make your life miserable. Your dog is simply dealing with an anxiety disorder that has an excellent rate of recovery if you are willing to spend time working with them.

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

Behavior Helpline

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

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.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-299-7012, ext. 2398. 

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