How to help a dog with separation anxiety

Separation anxiety causes so much stress and upset, and yet despite the inconvenience and expense, most of the owners coming to me for help have one major question:

“How can I help my dog overcome their separation anxiety?”

I find it so heart-warming that despite all the difficulties the owner is facing – their number one priority is the welfare of their beloved pet.

There is no quick cure for separation anxiety in dogs, and I feel very strongly about being honest about this from the start. If you do see a trainer advertising a quick fix, please be aware that they will be using methods which punish your dog – using fear, intimidation or even pain to try and suppress separation behaviours (such as barking, chewing, house soiling) – but this will not treat the root of the issue.

Treating separation anxiety properly isn’t about finding that one single fix, it is all about the little things you do to help your dog feel more happy, safe, relaxed and ultimately, for them to stop worrying about being left. No one can do all of it straight away, so my best advice is do what you can, and be kind to yourself and your dog!

Here are my top 5 tips for accelerating your separation anxiety training:

My top 5 tips to help a dog with separation anxiety

1. Be understanding: your dog is in crisis and needs your support. As a person who gets easily stressed, I sympathise with the whole range of emotions you may feel as a result of your dog’s separation-related behaviours.

Anger at destroyed furniture or treasured possessions, extreme stress over big bills for day care or vet care, the guilt of knowing your dog is unhappy when you’re gone, and the total overwhelm of trying to find a solution and feeling like you’re failing all take their toll and that is completely natural.

The thing is you have lots of options, but your dog does not. They are not choosing to do these things – they are DRIVEN to do these things by a brain that is set to panic mode when you go. Understanding that your dog is doing their best, just like you can help you start to see that you really are in this together, and will need to work together to overcome the problem.

2. Suspend absences: the physiology of stress and panic play a huge role in your dog’s behavioural development. In an ideal world, once you recognise your dog has separation anxiety, you will never again leave them for longer than they can cope. If you are thinking “impossible!”, I get it and I am with you. But please keep reading!

Why is it important not to leave your separation anxiety dog alone? Well, first of all, if you don’t leave them, they won’t panic and so the problem behaviours you have been seeing won’t happen. This sorts out the short-term problems of destruction, howling, toileting etc.

Most importantly though, the part of the brain that is keeping tabs on “scary” scenarios such as being left, will get some time off and as we were all told again and again at school – “if you don’t use that bit of your brain it will stop working”. Well, this is one situation where that is exactly what we want!

If you can’t stop leaving your dog completely, that is okay. Rather than going “cold turkey”, try to leave them less each week. Enlist the help of family, friends and neighbours if you can, as many dogs will be okay to go out on a walk or hang out with someone else – especially if that person has tasty treats!

3. Talk to your veterinarian: sooner rather than later. There is a huge range of expertise amongst vets, so try to ensure you have a vet on your side who will listen, and who understands what separation anxiety is and more importantly what medications are available to support your separation anxiety training. 

I don’t know any owners who say they wished they’d waited longer to get pharmaceutical help with their dog’s separation anxiety training. Many, however, say they wished they’d tried anti-anxiety meds sooner. A good vet will understand that meds and behaviour training go hand in hand when treating separation-related behaviours, and will help you make the right choices to support your dog.

4. Spread the love & promote happiness

Spending quality time with your dog and engaging their brain and body with fun activities, games and stimulating toys promotes the production of “happy hormones”, enhancing your dog’s wellbeing and helping them feel safe, secure and relaxed. This won’t “cure” their separation anxiety, but it will give you a much better starting point for separation anxiety training. I see many clients who have been on exactly the right track with their training and it hasn’t worked – because their dog needed to unwind and feel safe and happy FIRST!

As nice as it is to be the centre of somebody’s universe, I think we can all agree obsession isn’t healthy! Spreading the love and good times across more than one person will ensure your pup doesn’t see you as the only source of awesome! If you have more than one human at home, try to spread meals, treats, playtime and walks evenly between caregivers. If your pup is hyper-attached to one person, try shifting the balance so that the majority of good things come from another person instead.

If you’re a one-human household, try to get friends and family involved in walks, treats and other things your dog enjoys, or find a caring dog walker or home day care who can get on board with your separation anxiety training and give your dog some special treats and walks that they wouldn’t get with you!

5. Get some expert advice and support

One of the things I hear again and again from my clients is that they find it incredibly confusing trying to pick their way through all of the conflicting advice. It comes from neighbours, friends, family and of course the huge volumes of information we can access online.

There’s good information out there, but also lots of incorrect, outdated and just plain bad advice. What works for one dog may not be appropriate for another dog, or may even make them worse. It is essential that you understand WHY some things will work for you and others won’t so that you can make the choices that will advance your training.

The thing to remember is that good training has good science behind it. If trying to understand the science makes your head sore, or you simply don’t have time, then find a qualified behaviourist to help you. Not only will this person take the hard work out of putting together a training plan, but they will also provide much-needed emotional support and help you realise that you are not alone, that you didn’t cause this problem and you can fix it!