Understanding and Managing Dog Separation Anxiety: Are You to Blame?

Knowing the emotions of our beloved dogs and understanding their behavior is the essence of creating a strong and healthy bond with them. It's common for many dogs to struggle when they're home alone, and you can recognize this by them showing signs of distress. 

If you've ever wondered, “Did I cause my dog's separation anxiety?” then this article will help to ease your worries, as well as understand the potential triggers and signs of separation anxiety in dogs. It also provides recommendations on fixing separation anxiety and how to help your dog overcome this stressful condition.

BTW if you're a bit of a TLDR person – the answer is ‘no, it's highly unlikely that you caused your dog’s separation anxiety.' You're welcome! 

Ok let's get into it, learning more about the causes of separation related behavior in dogs…

Yellow Labrador looking out of the window with a sad face for dog separation anxiety article

What is Dog Separation Anxiety?

Dog separation anxiety is a catch-all term that is used for a number of separation related problems but generally relates to the distress associated with being left alone, which is a condition many dogs experience. Separation anxiety in dogs can lead to various signs and symptoms of stress, which we'll cover in following sections.

Separation Anxiety in Dogs: The Basics

Dogs are social animals, and it's natural for them to feel unhappy about being left alone or isolated. The severity of a dog's separation anxiety can range from mild distress to a fully-fledged panic attack. These dogs become overly concerned when they anticipate their owners' departure, displaying stress signals, often even before their owner leaves the house.

Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

The signs of separation anxiety can be obvious, but they can also be subtle to begin with. The dog may become restless, start to pant or whine, pace around the house, or show other clear signs of anxiety, but they may also just not interact with toys or treats when you're gone. Other symptoms of separation anxiety include destructive behavior such as chewing furniture, digging, or even self-harming.

Border collie lying on a green sofa - sofa is shredded and dog is surrounded by stuffing

Can I Cause My Dog's Separation Anxiety?

It's unlikely! As a dog owner, there's often guilt and confusion about whether your actions have contributed to your dog's separation anxiety. The truth is, dogs develop separation anxiety due to various factors and not just because they have been left alone at home. We actually still don't know the true reason behind why some dogs develop separation problems, while others don't.

Causes of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

The Human Factor

Certain human behaviors can contribute to a dog's separation anxiety, but that doesn't mean it's your fault. For instance, sudden changes in routine, frequent relocations, or simply a lack of mental or physical exercise can make your dog feel stressed and uneasy. For some dogs, exciting arrivals home, can lead to anticipation, which can be a contributing factor in frustration related separation related difficulties. 

Despite what some people may say, one recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior says that saying goodbye to your dog may actually help them cope with being alone better. Clearly, more scientific research is needed on this one! 

Separation and Isolation: A Trigger for Distress in Dogs?

Isolation can certainly trigger separation anxiety in dogs. When a dog is left alone in a place without any stimulation, they can feel bored which can contribute to being anxious and distressed. It's crucial to give your dog a safe and comfortable environment where they don't feel isolated or bored.

Genetic factors for separation problems in dogs

Anxiety can be passed down to puppies if they have anxious parents, or the mother is stressed when pregnant, despite what you may read online there is little evidence to show that separation anxiety is breed specific. What is probably more likely is that different breeds are treated in different ways, and some breeds may be more human-centric.

Anxiety graphic made up of words like anxiety, panic, disorder, in the shape of a dog.

Helping a Dog with Separation Anxiety: An Owner's Guide

If you have a dog with separation anxiety, then helping them overcome this involves understanding their behavior and distress and taking the needed steps to change the way they feel about being left on their own. A Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer can help you with this.

Understanding Your Dog's Behavior and Distress

Observing your dog's behavior when you're about to leave the house, and right after you leave, is crucial. You should also keep an eye on their behavior when they're alone. CSATs do this by using home CCTV cameras, or laptops, smartphones or tablets that can connect to our mobile phones and allow us to watch the dog at home. Paying attention to their behavior when you're gone provides valuable insights into their level of distress and the ways to help them.

Steps to Help Your Dog Overcome Separation Anxiety

Once signs of separation anxiety are identified, you'll want to take steps to make your dog feel safer and more secure when you're not around. This will include the following

  • Making sure your dog's needs are met – both physical and mental, through appropriate physical exercise as well as breed specific training and enrichment
  • Create a management plan by utilizing pet sitters, friends, family, a dog walker, or other solutions, so they're not alone for longer than they can handle. Some people take their dogs to work with them, or even do dog swaps with other local dog owners, so find a dog care solution that works for you. 
  • Start separation training – this involves teaching your dog that it's safe to be at home, we want to change the way they feel through behavior modification.
  • Employing a CSAT who specializes in this behavior problem, and potentially getting your Vet onboard with some pharmacological or complementary medicines to support the training.
Westie looking out of the window for dog separation anxiety article

How do Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?

I'll be honest, we aren't 100% sure why some dogs develop separation difficulties, and others don't, but there are contributing factors. It's important to explore these causes and the role of both their environment and learned behavior in triggering home alone distress.

The Role of the Dog's Environment

A dog's environment plays a major role in their emotional health. For instance, a dog who's spent time in a shelter or who's been through several homes could be more likely to develop separation anxiety. The solid human attachment isn't there for these dogs, so when they go to a new home, they can worry they're going to be left again. 

Can a Dog learn Separation Anxiety?

No, separation anxiety is an emotional problem and not a learned behavior. What we do see is that in some cases, a dog can learn to bark until their owners return. Dogs who have been left to cry it out, can learn they just need to shout louder, or cry harder as eventually their owner comes back because they're worried about what the neighbors think, or they can't stand the noise anymore.  A CSAT would be able to see this when you discuss your dog with them, and advise accordingly on how to work with this issue to get your dog to be happy at home alone. 

Treating Dog Separation Anxiety: Proven Strategies

On observing your pet's distress, it might be difficult to know when it's the right time to seek professional help for your dog's separation anxiety. Luckily, there are strategic ways to help alleviate your pet's anxiety.

Signs Your Dog May Need Professional Help for Separation Anxiety

If your dog's symptoms of separation anxiety don't improve despite your best efforts or if your dog's separation anxiety is severe, it may be time to consult a professional Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT). We can offer expert insights and treatments to help your dog cope better when left alone.

Effective Treatments for Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Professional treatments for dog separation anxiety vary case by case, but they should involve behavior modification techniques. CSATs can provide tailored solutions that work best for you and your pet's situation. Vets can also prescribe medication, to help reduce the stress levels in your pet. 

To work with me on your dog's separation anxiety get in touch via the contact page.

Separation Anxiety FAQ

What is separation anxiety in dogs?

Separation anxiety in dogs is a psychological disorder in which a dog displays signs of stress and anxiety when left alone. They may be hyper or overly attached to one single person (generally their primary caregiver) and can't cope without them even when other people are around, but what's more commonly seen is isolation distress where they need to just be with a human (any human) for company. Signs of separation anxiety may include destructive behavior, excessive barking or howling, as well as attempts to escape from their confined area.

What are the usual signs of separation anxiety in dogs?

If your dog has separation anxiety, you may notice a drastic change in behavior when you leave them alone. Common signs and symptoms include increased pacing, drooling, destructive chewing, soiling in the house and persistent howling or barking.

What causes separation anxiety in dogs?

Separation anxiety occurs when a dog becomes overly attached to their owner or needs to be around humans and can’t cope with being left alone. Changes in routine, traumatic events, lack of socialization, or other environmental factors can all cause separation anxiety in dogs, but there is also a neurochemical and genetic component to anxiety, with certain breeds sometimes more affected.

Did I cause my dog's separation anxiety?

No, it’s unlikely. While certain behaviors from owners, such as an erratic schedule, or the dog not being taught to cope on their own as a puppy, can contribute to a dog developing separation anxiety, it is rarely the sole cause. In many cases, separation anxiety is due to a combination of environmental, genetic, and neurochemical factors.

Can other dogs help a dog suffering from separation anxiety?

Sometimes, not always. While having another dog can provide comfort and distract an anxious dog, (hey, it's nice to have your friend around, right?) it's important to note that another dog wouldn't fix separation anxiety in your dog. This is because the root of this problem often lies in the dog’s relationship with their humans, not with other dogs.

How can I help my dog with separation anxiety?

You can help your dog by providing a quality amount of exercise and mental stimulation, allowing them to have an outlet for their breed specific needs. Teaching your dog that it's okay to be alone takes time, so you need to be patient. In most cases of separation anxiety, consulting a CSAT is beneficial. Never scold or punish your dog for exhibiting signs of stress, as it will likely cause more issues than it solves.

What are effective tips to treat separation anxiety in dogs?

The most effective way to treat separation anxiety in dogs is to gradually get your dog used to your absence. Start by leaving for short periods of time that they can cope with, and gradually increase the duration. You can also try leaving them with something that smells of you, leaving a TV radio on, as well as providing stimulating toys for them to play with in your absence. In many cases, medication or professional help is often required. Always consult with a professional Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) for the best help for your dog.

Can a change in routine cause separation anxiety?

Maybe. Drastic changes in a dog's routine, such as a change in schedule, moving to a new home, or loss of a family member or sibling dog, can cause a dog to feel anxious about being on their own. Dogs thrive on routines and consistency, and changes can cause feelings of stress and worry.

Can a lack of exercise cause my dog's separation anxiety?

We've heard the saying too ‘a tired dog is a happy dog' but getting the right kind of exercise is going to be more important than the amount. Too much exercise can leave a dog feeling stressed and full of adrenaline! It's about quality vs quantity. If a dog has plenty of mental and physical stimulation, they are more likely to rest when alone, so you'll see less boredom related behavior.

How can I ensure my dog doesn't feel isolated when alone?

To keep your dog from feeling isolated, you can leave the television or radio on. Providing them with toys when you leave home can also give them something to focus on in your absence. Also, giving them a cozy, safe space like a kennel or crate can help them feel secure, but make sure they actually like being confined, as confinement anxiety or barrier frustration can occur if not taught correctly. 

Do you need help with your dog's alone time struggles? Drop me a message on the contact page

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