30 Oct, 2023

How to help your dog with separation anxiety

Irina Turcan
How to help your dog with separation anxiety

As dog owners, we love the fact that our beloved pups enjoy spending time with us. Seeing their faces light up and their tails start wagging when you get home will never fail to bring a smile to your face! However, it’s an inescapable truth that we sometimes need to leave our pets on their own for a while. And unfortunately, some dogs struggle with this. Thankfully, there are ways you can help to ease dog separation anxiety and ensure your pup is happy and relaxed when home alone.

What is dog separation anxiety?

Dogs are very social animals by nature. In the wild, they live in packs. Meanwhile, over the years, domesticated breeds have evolved to live and work alongside humans. This means that being on their own doesn’t necessarily come naturally to our canine companions.

Dog separation anxiety is where being alone causes pups to become very distressed. It can affect dogs of any age and breed, and result in a number of associated behavioural problems. The condition generally arises when a pooch is separated from a person with whom they have a strong bond. Interestingly, dog separation anxiety might also occur if you separate them from another pet who they’re very close to.

According to research by the RSPCA, 85% of pups may struggle with some level of dog separation anxiety.(1) So if your pet shows signs of the condition, don’t worry – you’re not alone. On top of which, dog separation anxiety is treatable. There are lots of techniques you can use to help your pooch feel more at ease when they’re home alone. We’ll discuss these later in the article!

How long can I leave my dog alone for?

As much as we’d love to always bring our dogs out with us, sometimes it’s not possible. But how long can you leave your pup at home by themselves? Well, there’s no hard and fast rule about this. It will depend on factors such as your dog’s age, breed, and temperament. For example, you can normally leave older, calmer dogs on their own for longer than energetic puppies. Where you leave them may also affect how long they’ll be happy for.

Having said that, four hours is a good guideline for the maximum amount of time dogs can be home alone. However, if your pup has dog separation anxiety, this might feel too long for them. Employing some of the tactics we discuss below should help your pet build up to longer stretches of time alone.

Need to leave your pup for more than 4-6 hours? Regardless of whether they have dog separation anxiety, it’s best to consider a pet sitter or dog care service.

What causes dog separation anxiety?

There are many different reasons why your pup may struggle with dog separation anxiety. In some cases, it’s because of a lack of training or poor socialisation when they were puppies. Other times, a change in routine or moving to a new home can trigger dog separation anxiety. The condition might also arise due to boredom, or because something in or around the house has frightened your pet.

Dog separation anxiety boils down to pups being unhappy when left alone, and unsure how to cope with the situation. There are plenty of ways you can help with this, but first let’s discuss how to identify the condition.

Symptoms of dog separation anxiety

It’s not always easy to spot the signs of dog separation anxiety – not least because, by definition, you won’t be around to see them. Moreover, some dog anxiety symptoms are subtle or can be mistaken for signs of another condition.

It’s therefore important to keep a close eye on your pup if you think they may have dog separation anxiety. One of the best strategies is to set up a camera in your home. That way, you’re able to see how they behave when you’re not there. The footage should reveal whether the symptoms arise in response to you leaving or have another cause. For instance, you might spot that your pup spends a lot of time waiting by the door for you to return. This is a good indication that dog separation anxiety is to blame.

With all this in mind, some of the most common symptoms of dog separation anxiety are:

  • Whining, barking and/or howling
  • Pacing
  • Destructive behaviour (e.g. chewing furniture, scratching doors and carpets)
  • Urinating and/or defecating inside the house
  • Panting
  • Drooling
  • Trembling
  • Hurting themselves by biting their tails or grooming excessively
  • Trying to escape from the house
  • Not eating while you’re gone
  • Showing excessive excitement when you return home

In some cases of dog separation anxiety, pups display symptoms as soon as they realise you’re getting ready to leave. In others, the signs might not occur until after you’ve gone out.

If you notice any signs of dog anxiety in your pup, it’s worth making an appointment with the vet. This is so they can rule out the possibility that another health condition is causing the symptoms. Once you’re confident it’s dog separation anxiety, you can begin to implement some strategies to treat it. Here are some effective options.

How to help a dog with separation anxiety

When thinking about how to help dog anxiety related to being home alone, we can divide the tactics into two main categories. First, making the house a happy place for your pup to be on their own. And second, changing the way your pooch feels about being by themselves. Taken together, these ideas can be effective at reducing – or even eliminating – dog separation anxiety.

Create a safe and comfortable space for your dog

Ensuring you have a suitable area for your pup to stay when they’re home alone is key for reducing dog separation anxiety. For example, you want to choose a quiet room where they won’t be disturbed by loud noises outside. They should have a cosy bed to relax in, and a bowl of water in case they get thirsty. It’s also important to make sure that the temperature of the room is comfortable. All of this will help your pooch to feel at ease when you’re away.

Another top tip is to leave an item of clothing, blanket, or something similar that smells like you in the room. This can help to increase your pup’s sense of security and alleviate dog separation anxiety. Likewise, some pet parents find that putting the radio, an audiobook, or a podcast on at low volume is helpful. It provides some background noise to muffle sounds from outside, plus hearing human voices may make pups feel less alone.

Finally, it’s also vital to ensure that your canine companion doesn't get bored when home alone. Interactive toys and puzzle feeders are brilliant for this. They help to keep pets busy and engaged while you’re out, decreasing dog separation anxiety. Some people find it’s useful to have a special toy that they only give their pup when they go out. Just be careful not to overfeed your pooch by leaving them with too many treats!

Teach your dog that it’s ok to be on their own

Having prepared a calming and entertaining space for your pup, it’s time to show them that being alone isn’t scary! One technique is to first encourage your dog to spend time on their own while you’re still in the house. Try leaving your pet in another room, then rewarding them for staying there quietly and calmly. Gradually build up the length of time you stay away for.

After that, progress to leaving your pup alone while you go out of the house for a few minutes. Again, you can slowly increase the amount of time you’re away for. If at any point your pooch shows signs of dog separation anxiety, move back a stage until they’re comfortable.

Another useful strategy to help with dog separation anxiety is to desensitise your pup to your departure cues. Dogs are smart. They will quickly learn that you putting on your shoes or grabbing your keys means that you’re about to leave. These activities alone might then induce dog separation anxiety. To prevent this, act as if you’re going to leave the house – then don’t. That breaks the association of those actions with your pup’s distress over being left alone.

One additional tactic many pet parents find useful is to exercise your pup before you leave them home alone. Taking them outside gives your dog a chance to go to the toilet. Plus, if your pooch is tired then they’re more likely to sleep while you’re out, instead of getting bored or anxious. It’s also a good idea to feed your pet a small meal before you leave, so they don’t get hungry.

Supplements for dog separation anxiety

In addition to the above techniques, you might also like to consider using functional foods to ease dog separation anxiety. Adding these to your pup’s diet can be an effective, holistic way to relieve stress and boost their overall wellbeing. And one of the most promising options is ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha is a traditional herb that practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine have been using for generations. As a potent adaptogen, it has the ability to help the mind and body cope better with stress and anxiety. This is not only true for us, but also for our canine companions struggling with dog separation anxiety.

Research has found that ashwagandha is able to significantly reduce stress-related symptoms and signs of dog anxiety.(2) Moreover, it may decrease your pup’s cortisol levels, helping them to feel more relaxed. The best part is that ashwagandha doesn’t cause the unpleasant side effects that some pharmaceutical medication can. As a bonus, the herb might also help to reduce pain and inflammation in pets with conditions such as arthritis.

If you want to use ashwagandha to ease dog separation anxiety, simply blend the powder into your pup’s wet food. We recommend using 250-500mg per 10kg of your pooch’s body weight, either in one meal or split into two doses.

It’s important to note ashwagandha might not be suitable for pets with certain health conditions or who are on medication. This is because the herb can interact with sedatives and drugs that affect the immune system. In addition, some animals may be allergic to ashwagandha. As with all functional foods, consult a vet before using the herb for dog separation anxiety in your pup.

Dog separation anxiety: what not to do

With cases of dog separation anxiety, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. For instance, many people like to give their pup a long goodbye with plenty of kisses and cuddles when they leave the house. However, this may actually do more harm than good. That’s because quickly going from having lots of attention to none at all can leave your pooch feeling lonelier. You going out should be a normal, everyday event – so treat it that way. And try not to fuss over your pup too much (as difficult as that is!)

One key thing to remember is to never punish your pup if you come home to damage and chaos. Dogs don’t go to the toilet inside or destroy furniture out of revenge because you left them alone. And if you scold them for it, they won’t link the punishment with their actions. Instead, they will associate it with you coming home. This means that not only does punishment not help with dog separation anxiety, it could even make it worse. As well as being anxious about being home alone, your pup will also become anxious about you returning.

Finally, don’t leave your pooch alone for prolonged periods of time – especially if they’re still getting over dog separation anxiety. You need to slowly build up their tolerance for spending time on their own. Moving too fast might undo all the progress you’ve made using the techniques discussed above. Similarly, leaving your pup alone to ‘cry it out’ can cause them a huge amount of stress. This may have long-lasting negative effects on both their physical and mental health. It goes without saying – always treat your pet with kindness and love!

Final thoughts on dog separation anxiety

While dog separation anxiety can be heart-breaking to witness, there are lots of ways you can tackle it. In most cases, the steps discussed above will be sufficient to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, your pup’s distress. Alternatively, if your pet has particularly bad dog separation anxiety, it could be helpful to consult a clinical animal behaviourist. All pets are individuals, and what works for one pup with dog separation anxiety might not work for another. However, rest assured that recovery is definitely possible for your nervous pooch!