Separation Anxiety In Dogs - Tips From a Professional Dog Trainer

Separation Anxiety In Dogs

Small dog lays on bed near a pile of pillow chewed pillow stuffing.

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Many dog owners struggle with separation anxiety in their pets, from minor symptoms, to severe signs of dysfunction. In particularly harsh cases, a dog can become quite destructive when left alone for even short periods of time.

Unfortunately this is an issue that may not be knocked out using a few simple tips. In cases of severe separation anxiety your dog should be assessed in person by a professional dog trainer. 

For minor cases of separation anxiety, or for dogs that you suspect may be developing separation anxiety, the following steps can help you to alleviate their discomfort. As discussed in How to Stop a Puppy From Biting, addressing the source of the behavior is an important first step in behavioral modification.

The Development of Separation Anxiety

During the course of a puppy’s social development they go through a particularly important stage that aids them in the establishing of coping mechanisms. This typically occurs through interactions with the puppy’s mother and siblings, as well as the initial time a pup spends away in their new home. 

During the time a puppy learns bite inhibition from its siblings and its mother, it is also learning to cope with being alone for periods at a time. While going through the process of weaning, the mother dog is naturally less tolerant of the pups, and will typically begin seeking more time to herself. 

Anyone who has experienced just how sharp a puppy’s teeth are can relate to momma dog’s need for some me-time! Though mom is giving them a bit of a cold shoulder, the pup still has the comfort of their siblings and thus begins the first steps in learning to cope with separation. 

This is one important reason why puppies are typically kept with their mother until 8-9 weeks of age, and many states require a puppy to be at least 8 weeks prior to being sold. If separated from their mother earlier than 8 weeks of age, the pup loses valuable time spent learning social cues and developing coping mechanisms. 

The end result of a pup separated early can be an adult dog more likely to develop separation anxiety, or socialization issues such as leash reactivity or dog aggression. 

This is by no means a one-size fits all rule, and dogs who have to be separated from their mothers can go on to become a well-behaved adult dog, and dogs who were not separated early can also develop problems coping with being left alone. 

The second “stage” 

This stage in a pup’s social development occurs in their new home. For a puppy, leaving his mother and siblings can be quite traumatic, and if the puppy is not given the proper affection, mental stimulation, and behavioral feedback, they can begin having panicked reactions to being left alone.

It is entirely normal for a puppy to whine and cry when left alone, but not normal for them to continue to do so for hours on end. In order to prevent a puppy from developing separation anxiety a responsible pet owner should be giving their pup plenty of mentally stimulating activities to keep them occupied during times alone, and they should be watching for warning signs that the pup is beginning to struggle. 

A “nanny cam” can be a useful tool when leaving your puppy alone, as monitoring the length of time they spend in distress when you leave is an important measure of a possible problem. 

Signs Your Dog May be Developing Separation Anxiety.

If your dog is showing any of the following signs, you may benefit from doing some additional work with your pup to help them learn to cope properly. 

  •  Whining, crying, or howling for longer than 20 minutes straight when left alone. 
  •  Pacing for longer than 15 minutes when left alone. 
  •  Having accidents only when left alone. 
  •  “Screaming” for longer than 5-10 minutes. If you aren’t sure if it’s screaming it is   probably not. 
  •  Chewing or destroying things. 
  •  Extended panting or excessive amounts of drooling. 

How To Help a Dog With Separation Anxiety

If your dog appears to be struggling in their ability to cope with being left alone it is important to help them before the problem becomes more severe. If your pup shows even one of the symptoms of separation anxiety you should immediately take steps towards lessening their discomfort and preventing further escalation of stress levels. 

Your initial efforts should be to amp up the amount of mental stimulation your dog is getting throughout the day, and save their favorite treats and chews for when you leave them alone. 

When explaining this to dog training clients I like to use children at the doctor’s office as a comparison, as we tend to use mental stimulation to keep them distracted from uncomfortable situations as well. Countless parents and nurses have used toys and games to distract their child during an unpleasant doctor’s visit, even opening their child’s favorite cartoon on the iPad to distract them during a shot or blood draw. 

Puppies actually have many similarities to children, and distracting them during unpleasant situations is definitely a parallel that works for both! For puppies having difficulty with separation, being left alone can be just as unpleasant as a child’s visit to the doctor. Use something high value that your dog really likes, like a bully stick or other favorite chew, to keep your pup relaxed and entertained.

Make sure whatever you give your pup during this time is special, and is not given as frequently in other situations. For example, if you give your dog a bully stick when you go to work, and then again when you get home, and then again while you are watching a movie that night, your dog will get quite bored of bully sticks.

Also ensure you are spending time playing, interacting, and training your dog. All of your pup’s mental stimulation should not be coming from toys and chews, we should have a happy balance of hands on interaction and work-to-eat toys. Please see Combatting Dog Boredom with Mental Stimulation for more information on how to keep your pup mentally satisfied!  

If you have been increasing the amount of mental stimulation that your pet is getting, and you have not seen enough of a decrease in your pet’s anxiety, additional steps may be necessary. Create a safe place for your pet to be confined, if they are doing poorly in a crate it may be preferable to place a gate in your laundry room or kitchen and dog-proof the area.

Determining the Threshold 

The next step is to determine your pup’s separation threshold. For example; you give your puppy Rover a bully stick and place him in his “room”. You then go into the living room to watch TV. 

The next day, you give Rover a bully stick and head out to the store. When you return home he has ripped apart his dog bed, and the bully stick is left uneaten. In this instance Rover’s threshold is when you leave the house. This is where you should start expanding his comfort level. 

Once you’ve identified your dog’s comfort level you can slowly acclimate them to higher stress situations. Building upon our previous example with Rover; begin by giving Rover a work-to-eat, and leave the house for just a minute or two at a time. 

Once he is comfortable with you leaving the house, begin driving around the block and coming back home within 5-10 minutes. Continue to increase the amount of time spent outside of the house, and only extend the time when Rover is completely comfortable. 

You must build up your dog’s ability to cope with being left alone on a minute-by-minute basis. You can always take a few steps back if your dog has any setbacks. If you have built your pup up to being left alone for 45 minutes and he begins to have difficulty, you can simply go back to 35 minutes and continue to practice until he is comfortable enough to move on.

Always make sure your dog is entirely comfortable. You are building their confidence slowly over time, and every milestone achieved should be done at their own pace.


Marina Somma
Marina Somma

Head Trainer and Co-Owner of Tipsy Turvy Dog & Exotic Animal Training.

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Discussion

  1. John

    Several years ago my wife spent some time in the hospital and later rehab. She was separated from Sassy for about 2 months until we found a dog friendly rehab facility that realized that a patient being away from their dog was stressful and also realized that visiting dogs have a positive effect on the patients rehab and also the other patients like to see the animals. The scene was incredible when Sassy saw her Mother and my wife’s whole attitude was incredible. After the nurses saw how Sassy impacted my wife they asked me to take her to the activity center and let the people in there pet her. To this day we are very careful to let Sassy know we are not going to be gone long and remind her when we return that we were not gone long. We both tell her “We will be back in a little while, and she understands”.

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