Home Alone: Separation Anxiety in Dogs Is Spiraling
Are you psyched to re-enter society but your dog is stressed AF? A veterinary behaviorist offers advice.
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In the past year, most of us swapped long days at the office, late nights at the bar, and tropical vacations for time in the house, more time in the house, and exciting trips to the backyard. All that hunkering down has had some benefits, but chances are it’s also been a bit lonely or boring. Unless you’re a dog. Then it’s been the Best. Year. Ever.
While you’re gearing up to get back to your normal work schedule, normal social life, and normal pants (they would be the ones with buttons and zippers), your pack-oriented pup is blissfully unaware that change is coming. Some dogs will handle the transition well, while others may experience separation anxiety — which is no fun for pet parents but legit traumatizing for dogs. We asked Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and co-founder of Synergy Behavior Solutions, what to do if your doggo shows any signs of this condition.
First things first, what exactly is separation anxiety?
In a nutshell, separation anxiety occurs when a dog experiences fear or panic when they’re left alone. Sometimes it’s triggered by a specific person leaving the house, other times it happens when anyone leaves. Common signs of separation anxiety include barking, panting, drooling, destroying furniture, peeing or pooping in the house, pacing, or an inability to settle down. So, all the bad things.
Dr. Valli (she prefers to go by her first name) says it’s important to understand a dog’s state of mind: “It’s a situation where a dog is experiencing significant and repeated emotional distress. They’re not trying to ‘get back’ at their people, and they’re not acting out. They have been separated from their social group, and they’re anxious or stressed about it.” In other words, it’s not their fault, and it’s up to you to help them manage it.
My dog has never had separation anxiety before. Will they now?
Short answer: maybe. “We’ve seen instances where dogs that never showed signs of separation anxiety before the pandemic are now starting to show them when left home alone,” says Dr. Valli. “It’s also possible that the signs are more obvious now that pet parents have been able to monitor their dogs more closely.” And then, of course, there are puppies and dogs adopted during the pandemic that have never spent a lot of time away from their families, so there’s no history to go off.
Now this is stressing me out. How do I help my dog?
The best-case scenario, at least if you ask your dog, is to literally never leave the house without them again. (But they might say that even if they don’t have separation anxiety.) The next best thing is to figure out if your dog is showing any signs of the disorder, and then try to address them while you’re still able to spend time at home. Start by paying attention to how your dog acts when you’re getting ready to leave the house. According to Dr. Valli, signs to look for include pacing, panting, pulling their ears back, following you around, hiding, and — the ultimate sign that something is wrong — refusing treats. Also, check to see if your dog seems panicked when you close a door between you and them or leave the house briefly to take out the garbage. These are all signs of distress.
If you can’t tell if your dog is acting fearful or anxious, a little spying can come in handy. Try leaving your pup home for very short periods while watching them through a webcam to see how they react while you’re out. Not only can you get a good look at their behavior, you may also be able to tell if there are any other triggers (loud noises, Amazon drivers dropping off another package at the door) contributing to the problem. If your dog is truly miserable being home alone for more than just a few hours, doggie daycare could be a godsend. There, your pup can socialize with people and other pets, while getting in their daily exercise to boot. Win-win.
What can I do to relieve anxiety (mine and my dogs)?
Separation anxiety is tough — for both of you. Your dog is upset, and you’re upset that your dog is upset. It’s all...very upsetting. Luckily, there are a few steps you can take to try to get your pup more comfortable with being left alone.
Establish a routine
Dogs are big fans of routines. They help them understand what you expect of them and what they can expect from their day. But chances are, routines have been a little loose during the pandemic. It’s time to run a tighter ship. Set a morning schedule for activities such as feeding, potty breaks, and playtime or walks. This allows your dog to predict when they’ll receive your attention and when they’re on their own. They still might not want you to leave the house, but at least they won’t be blindsided when they see you reach for the car keys.
Make sure your dog has a safe and comfortable space
Everyone loves a cozy nap spot, and dogs are no exception. Create a comfortable, safe place where your dog can chill. Maybe it’s a crate. Maybe it’s a back room of the house. Or — let’s be honest — it might be smack dab in the middle of your bed.
Start training your dog to go to this happy place whenever it’s time to settle down. You can even turn on some music or leave a piece of clothing with your scent on it to help your dog feel at ease. The goal is for your dog to create a positive association with this spot and get used to being there by themselves, even when you’re in the house. Then when you start to leave, they know they have a place they can go to feel safe and relaxed. One word of caution: some dogs that experience severe separation anxiety can panic and attempt to break free from crates — and hurt themselves in the process. So be sure your dog is comfortable being confined before leaving them alone in a crate.
Make departures as low-key as possible
Try not to draw attention to the fact that you’re getting ready to leave. If you can, have your dog settle in their happy place while you finish getting ready. And avoid dramatic goodbyes (even though you probably need a hug yourself before heading to work). When it’s time to go, give your dog a long-lasting treat (frozen peanut butter-stuffed Kongs work great) that will keep them occupied long after you leave the house.
Ease your dog into the situation
Avoid leaving your pup for long stretches right out the gate. Start by leaving them alone for just a couple of minutes, then slowly (very, very slowly) start to increase the time you’re gone. This gradual transition will help your dog get used to being left alone and learn that, even though you leave, you always come back home to them.
When do I need to bring in the pros?
The sooner, the better. And while it may seem like a trainer is the best person to reach out to first, Dr. Valli recommends starting with a veterinarian. “There are medical causes that can result in signs similar to separation anxiety. A veterinarian will be able to examine your dog and rule out other reasons for your dog’s behavior.” If needed, a behavior-knowledgeable veterinarian will be able to prescribe dog anxiety medication that can calm your pup when home alone. An alternative to medication is CBD oil (in the form of a tincture or treats), which is naturally soothing and stimulates production of the mood enhancer serotonin.
While your veterinarian can treat any underlying medical issues, a certified trainer or behaviorist can help come up with a plan to teach your dog that being alone doesn’t have to be scary. The recommendations will vary depending on your pet, but if you do use a trainer, be sure to do some research upfront. “There’s no licensing or regulatory oversight, so anyone can call themselves a trainer,” cautions Dr. Valli. “It’s important to research the methodology that the trainer will use and their familiarity with addressing separation anxiety.”
Now if only you could manage the separation anxiety you’re sure to experience re-entering society without your dog by your side 24/7. We feel you.
Kate Sheofsky hails from San Francisco, where she developed a love of writing, Giants baseball, and houses she can’t afford. She currently lives in Portland, OR, and works as a freelance writer and content strategist. When not typing away on her laptop, she enjoys tooling around the city with her two rescue pups searching for tasty food and sunny patios.