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How to Help a Dog with Separation Anxiety

Today's blog post delves into the topic of separation anxiety in dogs, including the symptoms and things your vet may recommend trying to help your dog feel less anxious when left alone.

Dog Separation Anxiety

Pet parents often find themselves at wit's end when trying to cope with their dog's destructive behavior caused by separation anxiety.

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety often bark relentlessly, urinate, howl, chew on furniture or their owner's shoes and clothing, or even dig to try and escape. In fact, escape behaviors can become particularly problematic, resulting in self-injury, and large amounts of damage to the home (especially near doors and windows).

While it's easy to see that these behaviors need to be addressed and corrected it's important to understand the emotional toll that separation anxiety takes on your pet. Dog separation anxiety is an indication that your pooch is feeling emotional distress.

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

A dog suffering from separation anxiety will become emotional whenever they are separated from their owner, and not when the owner is home.

Signs of dog separation anxiety include the following behaviors (when their owner is away):

  • Urinating or defecating inappropriately
  • Pacing
  • Barking or howling
  • Chewing on inappropriate objects such as furniture or shoes
  • Digging
  • Ripping apart furniture

Causes of Separation Anxiety

Because our beloved pets are unable to tell us how they are feeling there is no conclusive evidence telling us why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety while others don't.

That said, rates of separation anxiety are higher in dogs that have been rescued compared to dogs who have lived with their owners since puppyhood. This leads us to conclude that losing their pack or important person plays an important role in the development of separation anxiety in some dogs.

Other changes that can trigger anxiety in dogs include:

  • Death of their owner
  • Being rehomed (change of owner)
  • Change in schedule
  • Moving house
  • New person in the home

Ruling Out Alternative Causes of Behaviors

When trying to determine whether your dog is suffering from separation anxiety you should first aim to rule out whether your dog has incontinence caused by an underlying medical problem and/or reactions to medications.

Other possible reasons for behaviors common to separation anxiety include:

  • Submissive/Excitement Urination - Some dogs will accidentally urinate when excited (ie: greeting you when you arrive home), during play, or when meeting other dogs. 
  • Incomplete House Training - If your pup has not been adequately house-trained, urination or defecation could be down to a need for more training rather than anxiety.
  • Scent Marking - A key sign that your dog is scent marking is lifting their leg to urinate (males and females). Speak to your vet for solutions to this issue.
  • Immature Behavior - Much like a rowdy teen, your young dog could be going through a short phase of poor behavior. Your vet or trainer will be able to offer advice on how to curb these behaviors.
  • Boredom - If you are out of the house for long periods of time, your dog's bad behavior could be an indication of boredom. Provide plenty of exercise before heading out in the morning and ensure that your pup has access to plenty of toys that are mentally stimulating.

How To Deal With Your Dog's Separation Anxiety

Helping your pup to get over separation anxiety is going to take some time and patience.

Reducing Mischief While You Are Out

A tired dog is typically a good dog. Ensuring that your pooch receives adequate exercise and mental stimulation for their age, breed and overall personality is essential.

While some dogs feel relaxed and content with just a half-hour walk around the block, many dogs will require much more exercise and social interaction. Speak to your vet or breeder to learn more about the level of exercise your dog requires. 

Your vet may suggest taking your dog for a long brisk walk or for a fun exercise session at the dog park before you head. Exercise before being left alone may help your dog to feel calm while you are gone. Spending a few minutes working on a mentally challenging tricks such as a high-five, roll over, or scent tracking before you leave, might also be helpful.

Positive Association Techniques For Mildly Anxious Dogs

It is believed that a dog with mild separation anxiety associates their owner's absence with something bad. Positive association techniques can help to connect a positive reinforcement with you leaving the house.

To develop a positive association, try providing your dog with a long lasting treat, or puzzle toy that they can work on, every time you leave the house. Such toys include stuffed Kongs filled with a tasty treat that will take more than 15 minutes to finish. 

It is generally recommended that you start by giving the toy then leaving for just a few minutes. When you return, remove the toy. Repeat this a few times a day over the course of a number of days, making the length of your time away slightly longer each time until your dog associates being alone with a fun treat.

Do not give your dog the toy when you are home. The positive association is that the toy with the treat appears every time you leave, making time alone fun.

Treatment for Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety

More severe cases of separation anxiety will take longer to address and will require more complex desensitization and counterconditioning.

It may be best to turn to a professional for help in severe cases, since one wrong move could increase your dog's anxiety rather than decrease anxiety.

Ask your vet to recommend a Certified Veterinary Behaviorist (ACAV), Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), or a Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) to help you.

Prescription Medications for Dog Separation Anxiety

In some cases, anti-anxiety medications can help dogs to feel more relaxed when their owners are away. 

Anxiolytic drugs take about four to eight weeks to begin working but can prove very effective in some cases. These medications are typically used long-term and can help to calm your dog while you work with a trainer on resolving your dog's separation anxiety. Your dog will require regular veterinary checkups while taking these medications.

Event-specific medications can be useful in cases where you are able to predict that the trigger will occur. These medications can help with separation anxiety in dogs when used in conjunction with positive association techniques.

See Your Vet If Your Dog Is Experiencing Separation Anxiety

It is important to have your dog examined if they are suffering from separation anxiety. Your vet will be able to rule out any other possible causes for your dog's symptoms and offer appropriate treatment strategies to help resolve your dog's anxiety.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Whenever your dog requires urgent or specialist care our vets at Veterinary Specialty Center of Tucson are here to help! Contact our specialty and emergency animal hospital anytime.

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Our board-certified critical care specialists and skilled emergency veterinarians are here for you and your pet. If your dog or cat needs emergency care, get in touch with us right away.

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