How to Help your Dog with Separation Anxiety

By Alisha Navarro

yellow lab in harness

Does your dog get nervous when you prepare to leave the house?  Does he bark and howl when you head out? Do you often come back to find your favorite pair of shoes destroyed or that your otherwise house-trained pooch urinated on the rug? Your dog could have separation anxiety.

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety occurs when your dog is hyper-attached to you and becomes extremely stressed when left alone. Separation anxiety can be identified when your dog exhibits out-of-character behaviors when you’re not home. If your dog regularly chews up items while you’re home, it probably isn’t separation anxiety. On the other hand, if your dog only becomes destructive when you leave the house, that’s a clear indicator. While we don’t fully understand why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others don’t, there are some common triggers:

  • Being left alone for the first time
  • Being left alone when accustomed to constant human contact
  • Moving from a shelter to a home
  • Change in routine or schedule
  • Loss of a family member
  • A traumatic event, such as time spent in a shelter or boarding kennel

dog walking on a harness

How to Treat Separation Anxiety

If you suspect your dog has separation anxiety, talk to your vet to rule out any medical issues. Sometimes, behaviors can be attributed to infections, health problems, or training issues. If the vet determines your pup’s behavior has no medical cause, use the following tips to help your dog overcome separation anxiety.

dog tips for separation anxiety

  • Exercise your dog before you leave. Give your dog a walk or other exercise session to help wear them out. If your dog is tired, they’ll have less energy to be anxious or destructive. Aim to end about 20-30 minutes before you leave so your dog has time to calm down. The Freedom Harness can help with this tip because by allowing you to enjoy walking with your dog if it is normally a difficult dog to walk, it’ll give you more confidence to keep up the exercise regimen.
  • Give your dog a special treat. Give your dog a puzzle treat (like a Kong stuffed with peanut butter) each time you leave. Remove the toy as soon as you get home so your dog associates your departure with the special treat. If your dog has severe separation anxiety, work up to this tip; super anxious dogs aren’t likely to eat while you’re not there.
  • Keep your routine unpredictable. If your dog has pre-departure anxiety, change up your routine. Eat breakfast before you shower or put your briefcase in your car while wearing your pj’s. Pick up your keys and sit down and read a book, or dress in a business suit and cook dinner. Over time, mixing up your routine will teach your dog to become less anxious when he sees you putting on your shoes or grabbing your purse.
  • Be calm during arrivals and departures. As much as we love our dogs and hate to leave them, avoid giving them an emotional goodbye or hello. If you feel the need, give your dog a brief, calm goodbye a few moments before you actually leave. If your dog jumps all over you when you come back, ignore him. Once he settles down, say hello and greet him calmly. Although it’s tough to keep your emotions hidden, showing your dog that your comings and goings are no big deal can help him follow your lead.
  • Start slow. Start by leaving your dog alone for just a few minutes at a time. Plan for your absences to be shorter than the time it takes for your dog to become upset. As your dog becomes more accustomed to short absences, you can increase the time you’re gone. During training sessions, be sure to wait a few minutes between each absence. Your dog should feel completely relaxed before you leave again.
  • Stay calm. Although you may be frustrated, remember your dog isn’t choosing to behave this way out of malice or disobedience- he’s truly panicked about his survival without you. Punishing or scolding your dog may upset him even more and the problem could get worse.
  • Consider working with a professional. If your dog has severe separation anxiety and these tips aren’t working, consider working with a behavior professional. They can make sure you’re on the right path and recommend specialized behavior interventions to help your dog understand they’re safe when you’re not there.

Take your time with each of these tips. Depending on how long your dog has dealt with separation anxiety, it may take several weeks of practice to work up to leaving your dog for just a few hours. But, with lots of practice and patience, your dog will learn that your departure is no big deal – and you both can enjoy a happier, healthier life together!

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