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How to Help Your Dog with Separation Anxiety

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Help your dog cope when you’re away.
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A close-up of a corgi mix.

One of the many great things about owning a dog is their unconditional love for you. But while it’s heartwarming to come home to a pet who is excited to see you, discovering scratched walls, torn couches and chewed-up pillows upon your return isn’t quite as pleasant. The root of these kinds of behaviors may lie in dog separation anxiety.

What Are the Signs of Dog Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is triggered in dogs when their owners leave them alone. Symptoms often begin as soon as nervous dogs realize their owners are preparing to exit, and may escalate once they find themselves alone. Signs of dog separation anxiety include:

  • Barking, whining and howling. Your dog may start vocalizing as soon as they see you gathering your keys and putting on your shoes — and it will likely get worse once you leave. While you won’t be around to hear their unhappiness, if your neighbors are home, you’ll probably find out about it pretty quickly.
  • Destruction of the home. Scratched walls and chewed household objects are some of the most obvious ways your dog is telling you they’re not happy you’ve left the house. This is problematic not only because you’ll need to replace items or repair the damage, but also because your pup could suffer from injuries like broken teeth and damaged nails.
  • Urinating and defecating. If your dog is usually house-trained but soils the house while you’re gone, separation anxiety may be to blame — especially if your dog is otherwise physically healthy.
  • Escaping. You can often tell if your dog tried to escape (even if they didn’t succeed) by examining them for broken teeth, scraped paws and damaged nails. Windows and doors will likely have scratches and chew marks as well.
  • Pacing obsessively. Unfortunately, this isn’t always an obvious symptom, as many dogs won’t start pacing until after their owner leaves. Some may walk in circles, while others may pace back and forth in straight lines.
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A terrier sitting on a couch with pieces of sofa chewed off.

How Can I Help My Dog with Separation Anxiety?

We all want our dogs to be as healthy as possible, and it can cause us stress if we feel like we can’t help ease their anxiety. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help calm a nervous dog.

  • Take your dog for a walk and play with them regularly. Not only is this bonding time an opportunity to show your pet affection, but it can also help wear them out so they are tired and happy when you leave.
  • Don’t make a show of leaving or returning. Keep it casual, paying them little attention for a bit before you leave. Do the same when you return, and then give them a calm greeting after a few minutes. You can also perform departure cues, such as jiggling your keys, without actually leaving to show your dog the anxiety-triggering noise or behavior is not always associated with you leaving.
  • Provide enrichment with food and stimulation. Giving your dog a task or some mental stimulation before you leave the house can be a good way to distract them from the unpleasant experience. For example, offering your dog some food in a toy that hides the food or presents a challenge for them can change the negative association of you leaving into a more positive one.
  • Prepare a safe space. Limiting your pup’s movement to a designated safe space may help ease their anxiety. If you’ve crate trained your dog, they likely already associate their crate with safety and security. However, if your dog begins to associate their crate with stress and anxiety, consider confining your pup to one room with a baby gate in your absence. Leave items with your scent, like dirty laundry or blankets, which may send a calming cue, as well as toys to keep them busy.
  • Consider health supplements. Stress can often throw off a dog’s digestive health and microbial balance. Giving your dog a probiotic can help maintain their GI health during such situations.
  • Discuss anxiety medications. Just like people, dogs can also benefit from prescription anxiety medication. Talk with your vet about finding the proper one.

How Serious Is Dog Separation Anxiety?

Like any other disorder, the acuteness of dog separation anxiety can vary. Talk to your vet about your nervous dog’s symptoms to determine the seriousness of the condition and whether there could be an underlying medical cause for some of the behaviors. Questions to discuss with your veterinarian include:

  • What is your dog’s history? If your dog was abandoned or homeless prior to adoption, then they may fear losing their guardian again.
  • Is this a new ailment? If so, what may have triggered it? If your dog has never shown symptoms of anxiety in the past, then a specific situation, such as moving or a new schedule, could be causing it. As dogs age and their hearing or vision starts to decline, they also may exhibit different or nervous behaviors.
  • Does your dog have other health problems? If so, what role do these illnesses play? Stress can worsen certain health conditions and vice versa, so it’s important to understand your pet’s overall health.

Remember that anxiety is a medical condition and disciplining or scolding your pup for these behaviors will not improve them. But with love, persistence and your vet’s input, you can help ease your dog’s nervousness.

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