Why does my dog have separation anxiety (and what can I do about it?)
During the last few years, I’ve had a noticeable uptick in clients wondering what can be done about their dog’s separation anxiety. This sharp increase started with the Covid pandemic as more people adopted dogs, and people with existing dogs were home and now witnessing — on a more consistent basis — their dog’s anxious behaviors and bids for attention. With many people now back in the office at least part time, it’s no wonder that dogs have had a hard time adjusting to the various changes of the last few years.
Covid adoptions aside, I find that dogs in general are quite prone to anxiety. It’s not that cats aren’t as well, but it’s different — it’s more pronounced in dogs because they haven’t evolved to be “loners” like cats — they are, after all, pack animals who look to a calm and confident leader for their sense of belonging and well-being.
Each week, I am working with pets who suffer from anxiety; it actually makes up around 30% of my cases. (Interestingly, statistics regarding people in the U.S. reporting their own anxiety comes in at a similar percentage!)
Within this “anxious pet” population, there are many that have what therapists would refer to as “generalized anxiety.” They might be quite afraid of loud noises, a visit to the vet, a delivery person at the door, or people they don’t know. A subset of this anxious group are dogs who have the additional burden of suffering from extreme and sometimes debilitating anxiety that is specifically centered around separation from their caretakers.
This separation anxiety manifests in difficult behaviors, and it is unfortunately a significant reason that people choose to return or
re-home their dogs. Each time this happens, the dog’s emotional problems only get worse. After such a sad history, the next person to adopt them can end up feeling like they have no choice but to just live with it. Many of my new clients are committed to keeping the dog they’ve now grown fond of and feel compassion or responsibility for, but they feel they are out of workable options.
Behaviors can run the gamut from occasional, based on the situation, to very extreme. I’ve worked with some dogs who are so terrified to be left in the house by themselves that they have full-blown panic attacks, which they describe to me in terms that are eerily similar to the way humans describe their panic attacks.
Fortunately, there are solutions, which will be later outlined in this article.
So how do I know if my dog has separation anxiety? Here is a list of typical symptoms provided by the AKC, (though your dog may not have every symptom on the list.)
Anxious behaviors like pacing, whining, or trembling while you’re gone, or as you prepare to leave.
Excessive barking or desperate-sounding howling.
Destructive acts, such as chewing or digging, particularly around doors or windows. (I worked with a dog who chewed a chair leg completely into pieces, and another who broke apart the front door to my client’s house.)
Accidents in the house – urinating or defecating due to nerves.
Excessive salivation, drooling, or panting.
Desperate and prolonged attempts to escape confinement, potentially ending in serious injury.
What are the reasons behind separation anxiety?
The reasons vary from case to case, and are sometimes complicated and/or interrelated. Here are some typical causations that I’ve observed in my work with clients:
Trauma: physical or emotional abuse, living in chaotic environments (hoarding situations, crowded and noisy shelters), having multiple returns and re-homings, traumatic separations from loved ones. Being left behind when their people move. Also, weaning at too early of an age, which is unfortunately all-too common.
Some of the traumatized cases I’ve specifically worked with the past two years have been:
Dogs who come from other countries: most commonly, Mexico, but also Korea, India, and Southeast Asia. Their young lives are terribly hard before they even get here, and the trip to the States is arduous and scary, including the quarantine period once here. I’ve also worked with some greyhounds from Ireland, which is a category in and of itself — their conditions are quite punishing, and these delicate animals usually end up quite emotionally damaged.
Dogs from high-kill shelters in the South (often Texas) that are shipped to northern states. Many of these southern dogs were picked up off the street after becoming separated from their homes during traumatic major weather events like hurricanes and floods.
I worked with one dog last year who had witnessed two men break in and rob the home while their human was away, and another one from a valuable breed who was stolen at gunpoint (eventually returned) during a terrifying robbery at the small retail store my client worked at!
Other reasons: It’s also possible for a dog that hasn’t had any trauma in their past to develop separation anxiety. Just like humans (perhaps due to their chemistry and genetics) they suffer from internal anxiety that can be felt in the brain, body, or both.
Some might need something that they missed during an important developmental stage.
Some fail to develop confidence and they become overly dependent due to “helicopter parenting” by their humans.
Some have an inability to self-regulate, hence the fear of something outside of themselves—noises from trucks, fireworks, encountering new people.
I’ve even worked with dogs who were so afraid of anything outside of their house that they essentially became agoraphobic — completely housebound. I’ve also worked on several cases where the separation anxiety for their "Mom" became much worse after a divorce.
Often, a behavior will start for one reason (self-soothing, or feeling like protecting their human is their “job”) which then becomes an undesirable habit. And often, these habits inadvertently get reinforced.
Common situations resulting from separation anxiety.
Forming an unhealthy attachment is common. The dog gets extremely attached to one person in particular (in my experience, it’s almost always to “mom”) vs. not wanting to be alone in general. Since dogs evolved to stay with their pack, not being able to see their primary person can be really triggering for them. I’ve worked with quite a few dogs who became extremely anxious if their person left the room to merely go to another room in house — mom becoming out of sight is very upsetting for these dogs. (Just imagine how exhausting this is for the dog to keep up their “vigil.”)
I recall another case where my client and I realized that there were uncanny parallels between her husband and their dog. Her husband was not OK with any separation from her (he wouldn’t even take the dog out for a walk unless she accompanied them too) and eventually the dog became the exact same way. This made the case particularly tricky because the couple had such different ideas about what constituted healthy independence, and my client had two beings who were unhealthily dependent on her.
Giving them even more love. They’re craving physical closeness and reassurance, so the person thinks that showering the dog with love and attention will solve the problem, but love alone can’t fix this. (In fact, many times, it will reinforce the dependent behavior.)
Taking them someplace novel. Prevailing wisdom says to take them on new/interesting walks, but I’ve seen that backfire when an unfamiliar place or situation generates additional anxiety.
Behavioral training. In my experience, there is a big misconception that all that's needed is some "professional training." I have scores of clients who have turned to me after expensive training hasn’t made much of a dent in this behavior.
While I wholeheartedly agree that all dogs need to be well-trained, in my world, separation anxiety isn't a "lack of training" problem. It's an emotional problem. If we don't yet understand the dog's psyche, we can't know what to do to fix it.
The problem with behavioral training for separation anxiety is:
the trainer is only dealing with what is in front of them at that particular time — it's'a more artificial situation
training is merely trying to change behaviors with no inside knowledge and understanding of the dog's underlying psychological issues
dogs sometimes behave for the trainer, but home becomes another story
desensitizing them is not enough—it is trying to treat the separation anxiety after it has already arisen and the dog has become upset
Not understanding the reasons driving separation anxiety in the first place is like stabbing in the dark — we need to understand the entirety of the dog's makeup
Getting them a friend: Another dog in the house competing for attention could make this problem even worse.
Ignoring them: Letting them cry for long periods of time isn't effective —it ramps up their anxiety up to heartbreaking levels. I really hate to see this.
Disagreeing with your spouse/partner on the right things to do: This is obviously bound to fail...
How animal communication can help with separation anxiety
Animals with “issues” unfortunately bear their mental burdens alone — sometimes for years — until they are unable to unload this weight.
The techniques I’ve developed over almost three decades of animal communication have been very effective in helping dogs change their behaviors for the better, precisely because I know how to get to root causes. In even the toughest of cases, there is noticable improvement, almost immediately. People who unburden themselves feel lighter; it is the same with animals.
Once I understand the dog’s unique story and specific wounding, I’m able to to help them heal. It’s not a one-size-fits-all method; I pull from an eclectic mix of techniques that I’ve developed over time and experience with all kinds of situations. It is always tailored to address the specific dog’s history, personality and other characteristics. I then work with my clients on a customized plan to support them in carrying out and reinforcing any necessary changes. Clients report that there is a palpable shift in their dog’s ability to stay calmer; a calmer dog is a happier dog, and a calmer household is a happier household. Plus any training or corrections they subsequently receive is more likely to stick.
An aside: if your dog is still a puppy, NOW is the perfect time to work with them because you can’t count on them (wishful thinking) to just outgrow this problem.
Here are a few tips:
Establish routine. Try to organize your dog’s entire day into two categories: interaction and non-interaction. Free access to you at all times fosters dependency.
Try to stay calm upon leaving and returning. Don’t make a big deal with your entries and exits — keep your energy very low-key. Don’t say goodbye; avoid over-the-top reunions.
Make sure your dog has enrichment in their life so they don’t look to you as their “touchstone” for everything.
Treats and hugs can often reinforce the problem — I do see this a lot. I'm not blaming you — just be mindful that you might be rewarding insecure behaviors without meaning to.
Be firm with their crying and whining. The faster they settle down, the faster they’ll learn that quiet behaviors will receive acknowledgement. Any rewards — for good, calm behavior should only be given in their crate, so they continue to associate their crate with positivity.
How to receive my help
If your dog has been this way for a while, keep in mind that this could be a bit of a “long game.” Fortunately, the work I do really speeds their recovery. You can learn more about how I can help your household through my free Discovery Session. Contact me for scheduling details. (And feel free to forward this article to any friends or relatives who might be experiencing this problem.)