Separation Anxiety In Dogs: How to Properly Diagnose and Fix
Your dog probably doesn’t have true separation anxiety.
That’s the good news!
However, your dog may develop separation anxiety if you don’t make these easy and simple changes I’ve outlined in this guide.
For severe cases of separation anxiety, I highly suggest implementing as many of these strategies outlined below and contacting the professionals at Tully’s Training for a free consultation to learn more about how you should combat this unfortunate condition.
WATCH: How to Cure/Prevent Canine Separation Anxiety
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Canine separation anxiety can be caused a variety of different ways. One of the most common ways a dog develops separation anxiety is when the environment drastically changes.
For example, when someone brings home a new dog, they shower that dog with attention. They take their dog everywhere. They make their new dog the center of their universe. During this time, the dog doesn’t learn how to be alone. The dog doesn’t learn independence. The dog learns to rely on the owner for everything. My friend was telling me about their new Goldendoodle and she was asking me How to groom a Goldendoodle and we found out together that its so much fun!
After some time has passed, the novelty of having a new dog wears off.
Suddenly, the dog is no longer showered with attention. The dog is left at home more often and for longer periods of time.
This is really confusing to the pup!
This drastic change in environment often creates a drastic change in a dog’s behavior – diagnosed as separation anxiety.
However, separation anxiety is most often mis-diagnosed. It is likely that your dog does not have true separation anxiety – which is a good thing!
How To Properly Diagnose Separation Anxiety
True separation anxiety involves psychological stress that results in destructive and incessant behaviors, such as; digging, chewing, urinating, defecating, destroying items in the house, barking, and howling.
If your dog whines before you leave the house, barks for a few minutes after you’ve leave, and looks out the window for you to return, this is unlikely true separation anxiety. (It is a sign that your dog may be on the way to developing true separation anxiety, however.)
To see if your dog has separation anxiety, setup a video in your home before you leave. Leave the video recording while you are gone. When you return home, review the video.
If your dog barks for a few minutes and then stops – it is likely that your dog does not have separation anxiety.
If your dog whines, barks, howls, paces, and digs for an extended period of time, then it is likely your dog does have separation anxiety. (There is no set time your dog has to do any of these behaviors for it to be diagnosed with separation anxiety, however, anything over 15-20 minutes is cause for alarm.)
If your dog is defecating and urinating while you are gone, it doesn’t always mean that your dog has separation anxiety – it may just not be potty trained. If your dog chews something up while you are gone – it also doesn’t always mean separation anxiety is to blame. Your dog may just not have access to reinforcing toys and/or has not been trained on what is acceptable behavior.
Now, just because your dog passes these simple tests and doesn’t have true separation anxiety, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat the symptoms your dog does have.
Additionally, if your dog doesn’t have any of the symptoms of separation anxiety, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be actively preventing separation anxiety from occurring.
For the most part, the same techniques are used to prevent and treat all degrees of separation anxiety.
How to Get Rid of Separation Anxiety In Your Dog
Every interaction with your dog is shaping their behavior.
If your dog is anxious and you reward them with talking and petting, you are, in fact, encouraging anxious behavior. Any behavior that you encourage, you will see more of.
Instead, we want to encourage and draw attention to behavior we like – which is your dog being calm and cool.
Tip #1: Leave and Enter The House Calmly and Cooly
When you leave and come home, don’t make it a big deal.
Most dog owners make their departure and arrival a big event. There is lots of petting and talking that riles up their dog.
“It’s okay! I am only going to be gone for a few hours. But I love you. Yes, I do. Don’t be sad!”
“Hi! Did you miss me? I missed you! What did you do while I was gone? huh? Awe, do you need to go outside?”
This type of interaction only makes existing anxiety worse and can create separation anxiety over time.
If you make your departure and arrival not a big deal, your dog will learn to make it not a big deal.
Tip #2: Leave Your Dog With Stuff To Do
Leaving your dogs with puzzle toys, a frozen kong with peanut butter, or other enriching items, helps both as a great distraction and provides your dog with much needed mental stimulation. (See some of the best selling dog puzzle toys.)
We want to show your dog that when you leave, great things happen.
We’re trying to get your dog to want you to leave! (Don’t worry – your dog will still love you and want you more than any toy! This method just helps de-stress your dog. :))
Clients of mine often say, “But Kyle, my dog has, like, 40 toys, she just doesn’t play with them.”
Of course she doesn’t. If she always has access to those 40 toys – why would she? I love to watch TV – but not the same episode over and over again. The variety is what brings me back.
It’s important to rotate your dog’s toys. Meaning, don’t just leave with the same 5 to 10 toys everyday. Instead, give them a ball and a rope one day, and then the next day swap those out for a kong and a bone. On the third day just add the ball back into the mix, for example.
Keeping a variety of toys in rotation is a must and keeps your toys novel and interesting to your dog.
Pro Tip: Choose your dog’s most rewarding toy and only give it to them when you leave. Maybe your dog really like a specific type of treat. Now, the only time they get that treat is when you aren’t around! Stick that treat into a kong, casually lay it in front of your dog, and then walk out of the house with not so much as a “goodbye.”
Training Tip: If you want to take this training even further, pretend you’re going to leave and leave your dog with this special treat/toy. Leave the house for just a minute or so and then come back inside. Walk calmly over to your dog and take that treat/toy away. This shows your dog that when you are in the house – they don’t get that treat. When you are away – they do get the treat. Guess what they’ll want to have happen? They’ll want you to be away! This little exercise can take a dog from never wanting their owners to leave to being completely fine having their owners walk out of the door.
Again, your dog isn’t going to stop loving you. You are helping your dog live a better, more well-rounded life. Do this for your dog – they will actually love even more for it!
(Check with a veterinarian before giving your peanut butter or any other treats or food.)
Tip #3: Change The Meaning of Your Dog’s Triggers
Many dogs will start to become anxious once they figure out their owners are about to leave.
Have you noticed that your dog starts whining when you grab your car keys, put on your shoes, jacket, etc?
Dogs pick up on everything!
Their obsession with observing us can work in our favor. Here’s how…
First, find out your dog’s triggers
- picking up car keys
- grabbing purse or wallet
- putting on jacket
- grabbing a to-go mug
- heading to the door
- opening or closing the garage
- taking the trash bags out of the trash can
Then, do that trigger and don’t leave the house.
For example, you could get a car key replacement, and then next time you go to pick up your car keys, go sit down on the couch and watch television instead of leaving the house.
Or, put on your jacket and sit down in front of your computer and write an e-mail.
This changes the meaning of those triggers for your dog.
“grabbing car keys” = alone for 5 hours,
“grabbing car keys” = alone for 5 hours OR MAYBE NOT!
Redefining those triggers helps your dog de-stress.
Common Question: About this point people will ask, “but if I leave a toy for my dog, won’t that end up becoming a trigger that I am about to leave?” The short answer is, “yes, and that’s okay.” That trigger is reinforcing to your dog. You grabbing your car keys is not reinforcing.
Why Does My Dog Destroy My Home When I Leave?
The short answer, because your dog is bored, under stimulated, and under exercised.
Don’t want your dog to remodel your living room while you are gone? Practice the tips in this article and implement these following two pillars to a better, well-behaved dog. (See all 3 pillars here: 3 Pillars to a Better Dog)
Exercise Your Dog
Very few dogs are getting enough exercise. That walk around the block? Not enough.
Think your dog gets enough exercise because he’s running laps in your yard? Nope – that’s actually a sign he’s not getting enough exercise.
If you do nothing else from this article on separation anxiety – exercise your dog more.
Play fetch, go to the dog park, run, figure it out. Your dog needs to get moving.
Cardio is a dog’s best friend.
In my opinion, upping your dog’s exercise will improve overall behavior by 50%.
Train Your Dog
The majority of dog parents only train their dog when their dog is doing something they don’t like.
For example, their dog barks so they train their dog to stop barking.
While I am very pro training to get rid of undesirable behaviors, I also advocate training your dog even when there isn’t anything to “fix.”
All animals require mental stimulation. Without it, they/we go crazy. Additionally, it exhausts them in a way that exercise cannot. Remember, a tired dog is a happy dog.
Think about the accountant who works at a desk for 8 hours. They aren’t physically active during that time but they still come home exhausted.
Your dog wants to be both physically and mentally active.
Train your dog to do something. Anything!
Just do something to get them mentally engaged.
A dog who is well exercised and mentally stimulated is less likely to destroy your home while you are gone or lash out in public. You’d be surprised at the amount of dogs who would never bite anyone if they were walked and engaged properly but unfortunately, they aren’t so they lash out which leads to firms like www.nehoralaw.com being contacted.
Other Ways to Decrease Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
There is no one way to train a dog. These tips can all be used together, or you may find that you only need to implement one to see changes.
I have seen dogs recover from their separation anxiety in just one day utilizing these tips. I have also seen dogs who require incredibly patient owners and up to a year of work (or more) before they saw any improvement. For more information you can also check out this article by the ASPCA.
- Leave the TV or radio on. (Don’t turn it on immediately before you leave – doing that will teach your dog that the TV turning on means you are about to leave.) Instead, have the TV on while you are getting ready and then leave it on while you drop off your highly rewarding treat or toy and casually walk out the door. Some people have found that specific types of music helps calm their dog, however, there isn’t a ton of evidence to support this.
- Leave them with a used shirt. Sleep in a shirt for three or four nights. Don’t wash the shirt. Before you leave, place the shirt in your dog’s crate or bed. Often times, just the scent of your shirt can help alleviate your dog’s stress.
- Vary the time you are away from the house. If you leave the house Monday – Friday at 8am from 8 hours, your dog will learn to expect this each time you leave. To counter this, try leaving at 7:45am and come back immediately. Or, try coming home randomly throughout the day to show your dog that just because you leave at 8am doesn’t always mean you will be gone that long. For example, if I am taking my dog Callie to the vet, I will sometimes leave the house, wait outside for 15 minutes, go back inside and then leash her up and take her with. This variability helps teach your dog that just because you walk out that door, it doesn’t mean they’ll always be alone for a long period of time.
- For more severe cases of separation anxiety, try putting your dog in another room by him/herself with a high value reward. If you have an extra phone, setup a FaceTime so you can watch your dog’s behavior. If your dog is cool and calm, calmly enter the room and leave another reward, or simply open the door and walk away.
If you have any dog training questions you can find me on all social media at @KyleKittleson or you can contact me here.