What is separation anxiety in dogs?


When a dog is left alone in the house and during this time howls, barks, and destroys, usually the diagnosis is – separation anxiety. Or at least, that’s what most dog owners think. But what is it like? What is separation anxiety? How does it manifest itself and how can you help your dog get rid of it?

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety in a dog is called severe anxiety that occurs when he is left alone in the house, or when his owner disappears. It is estimated that 20 to 40% of dogs suffer from this type of anxiety. The symptoms most often associated with it are physiological urges in the house, destruction and vocalisation, i.e. barking and howling, because they are the most annoying for the owner and neighbours. However, these are not the only symptoms of our pet’s suffering. It is important to keep this in mind, because if ignored, separation anxiety will worsen and perpetuate, making it much more difficult to work with the dog in the future.

What is separation anxiety not

Before diagnosing separation anxiety, it is worth ruling out the health and external causes of the undesirable behaviour. First of all, we should ask ourselves whether the symptoms occur only in our absence and spend some time observing the dog closely.

  • For example, punishing a dog for defecating may result in it continuing to do so, but only when it is left alone.
  • Anxiety may not be about separation from the owner at all, but about an enclosed space or sudden, untamed stimuli such as a storm or renovation or a loud argument with the neighbours.
  • Another reason may be quite trivial and relatively simple to eliminate – boredom. If the dog doesn’t have much entertainment in everyday life, it lacks physical and mental activity, and in the absence of household members, it can give vent to its energy with impunity. Although the damage will be, perhaps even quite considerable, it does not have to be an indication of separation anxiety.

As already mentioned, the key to diagnosing separation anxiety in a dog is observation. Symptoms can appear up to 30 minutes before the owner leaves the house, during routine activities that herald them, such as a characteristic sequence of actions – taking the car keys, putting on shoes, jacket, etc. Recordings from a camera set up in our absence can be very helpful.

What are the causes of separation anxiety in dogs?

It is difficult to determine the cause of separation anxiety unequivocally. At higher risk are dogs that have been abandoned before – pets from shelters, frequently changing owners, etc. But this is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition because the anxiety often appears in dogs that have lived in the family since they were puppies.

One possible cause of separation anxiety in dogs mentioned in the literature is that the dog is not properly used to being alone. Nicole Wilde, author of My Dog Isn’t Afraid, points out that families often take a puppy at times such as holidays or holidays, wanting to spend as much time with them as possible at the beginning of their presence in the house.

Unfortunately, they forget that when they have to go back to school and work – the dog, which up to now has had company and attention all the time, will suddenly be left alone and completely unable to understand why it has been 'abandoned’. It is therefore very important to teach the dog from the very beginning that it is perfectly natural and safe to be left home alone.

Another possible reason is traumatic or even „just” unpleasant events at home in the absence of the owner. The dog may associate the feeling of discomfort caused by a loud noise, for example, with a place where it was alone at the time, without the support of a carer.

A final possible cause is that the dog has been improperly socialised. It can involve both too early weaning from its mother and siblings and an inappropriate relationship with its owner, on whom the dog becomes completely dependent.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs?

As I have already mentioned, the main symptoms that come to the attention of owners are urinating and defecating in the house, disruptive vocalisation and destruction. But these are neither the only symptoms present in dogs with separation anxiety nor are they necessarily indicative of it.

Separation anxiety in a dog can be indicated by both an increase and decrease in the dog’s activity as the owner prepares to leave the house.

Increased activity manifests as motor excitement:

  • jumping,
  • following the owner step by step,
  • restless walking and sniffing,
  • rolling around,
  • difficulty in focusing attention,
  • curling up and chasing its tail.

These behaviours often take the form of compulsive behaviour.

The reduction in activity manifests itself in the form of marked resignation, apathy and sadness.

These behaviours often go hand in hand with the refusal of food and drink and eating only in the presence of the owner.

It is also worth observing the dog’s behaviour when it returns home. A dog with separation anxiety may greet you in a very effusive manner, jumping, barking, squealing and running around the owner.

In terms of destruction, our attention should be drawn above all to damage around doors and windows and, in the case of the garden, fences. These may indicate attempts to escape. In connection with these, damage to claws and skin may often occur.

Licking may also occur – on limbs, flanks, genitalia, and tail end. Damaged furnishings in the home are also very important information, as biting has a calming effect.

But it still doesn’t stop there, as the repertoire of symptoms of separation anxiety is much wider:

  • uncontrollable urination at home or, conversely, the inability to urinate while walking,
  • salivation,
  • vomiting and/or diarrhoea.

As can be seen, the symptoms of separation anxiety in the dog are non-specific, very similar to those of different disease entities. Their severity can vary depending on the individual characteristics of the dog.

Separation anxiety – how to overcome it?

If you suspect your dog has separation anxiety – you should not delay! It is worth consulting a behaviourist. The earlier we start working with our dog, the better the chances of success and eliminating the anxiety.

The first and basic rule when working with anxiety is not to reinforce it! This means that when a dog is showing anxiety, you should not stroke, cuddle or comfort it at the time, because by doing so you are perpetuating the behaviour in the dog and showing it that it really should be afraid.

It is therefore advisable to ignore your dog’s behaviour when you return, as long as he is excited and agitated, and for about 30 minutes before you leave the house. Before just leaving, it is a good idea to give him an absorbing toy, such as a kong filled with treats or a sniffing mat, to distract him.

Caution: remember that the dog should also be given the same toy in neutral situations when you are not leaving the house, otherwise he will associate it with fear and loneliness.

No physical or verbal punishment should be used. Not only will the punishment exacerbate the anxiety, it generally comes too late about the behaviour for the dog to be able to associate it.

The basis for working on separation anxiety is what is known as habituation, i.e. getting the dog used to anxiety-triggering situations.

First of all, it is necessary to observe and write down our behaviours that suggest to the dog that we are about to leave the house – such as putting on shoes, fussing in the hallway or, for example, taking a shower in the morning – and start performing them without the consequences of leaving the house afterwards. It is also a good idea to reward the dog in each such situation to associate our 'bad’ behaviour with something positive. Just remember to reward your dog only when he is calm and relaxed. For when he is already tense and stressed, we will reinforce this very behaviour in him.

At the same time, we must teach your dog to stay at home in very, very small steps. In the beginning, let’s not even leave the house, but, for example, go to another room for a while – if the dog remains calm, let’s quickly reward it. Gradually, we can extend this time and then, for example, close the bedroom or bathroom door for a while.

Once the dog has got used to us disappearing for a while, but nothing bad happens and we come right back (with a delicious treat!), we can practise the same procedure by leaving the house – at first only for a few seconds, staying behind the door. If the dog responds well, we can gradually lengthen the exits.

Remember to always remain calm and not to reinforce the dog’s arousal both when leaving the house and when returning. It is also a good idea to carry out, on these short outings, all those activities that we do when going out for longer periods.

An interesting idea is then to use a so-called safe exit signal, for example, a scent or auditory signal, something that signals to the dog that this particular exit from the house is just an exercise. Eventually, when extending the duration of the 'practice exits’, we will combine them with proper exits.

Before an extended planned absence, it is a good idea to take your dog for a long walk. It is important that this is a calm walk, without frantic play – instead of 'tiring’ and calming the dog, it may stimulate it further.

Therapy of separation anxiety in your dog in severe cases can be supported pharmacologically, but only under the guidance of a behaviourist and veterinarian!


Separation anxiety in a dog is a fear of being left home alone. Neither the causes nor the symptoms are clearly defined and unambiguous. Dogs exposed to this type of anxiety include both dogs that have been passed over or abandoned and those raised from a young age in the same home.

It is very important not to underestimate the first symptoms of anxiety because if left untreated it will perpetuate and increase over time. The sooner we react, the easier the road to recovery will be.

Do not punish your dog for undesirable behaviour. Punishment can reinforce undesirable behaviour and even cause anxiety. Positive training strengthens the relationship with the owner, which, when good and healthy, can do wonders. If you are not coping on your own, seek the help of an animal behaviourist.




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