Separation Anxiety in Dogs

How to tell separation anxiety from boredom and other problems, and what to do about it.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
7-minute read
Episode #53

A dog’s history is revealing, too. When I meet a young, active dog who’s taken up creative redecorating, I always ask about exercise and opportunities to chew. That young, energetic dog had better be getting a solid hour of aerobic exercise first thing in the morning, plus meals given as training rewards and in food-dispensing chewable toys. Otherwise, kiss your sofa and shoes goodbye.

Get Expert Help to Diagnose Separation Anxiety

I made my examples pretty unmistakable--unlike real life. Most of the behaviors associated with separation anxiety can also arise for other reasons, including medical reasons. A dog may bite at doors and windows as part of a frustrated territorial display toward dogs or people passing by. Or she may defecate in your absence because some sound she hears every day at 10:15 scares the living daylights out of her. Or she may suffer not only from separation anxiety but also from allergies that make her bite at her itchy paws. And anxious dogs are still individuals--two dogs with separation anxiety may show their distress in very different ways. So talk to your vet and a skilled behavior consultant. (If you work with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, these may be the same person.)

What Is the Treatment for Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

If your dog has separation anxiety, keep greetings and departures low-key.

Treatment for separation anxiety usually combines meds with behavior modification. What to prescribe is up to your vet.(1) Many clients are uncomfortable with psychoactive medication, but bear in mind that if your dog has separation anxiety, he or she is suffering. And the longer any behavior problem continues, the more entrenched it becomes. Anxiety-related disorders, in particular, just trash a dog’s quality of life. I strongly believe we should throw everything we’ve got at them.

The gold standard in behavior modification involves changing a dog’s associations with your departure activities and gradually accustoming her to longer and longer absences.(2)  We usually advise clients to keep greetings and departures low-key--when your dog acts woebegone or excited, it’s best to keep your demeanor matter-of-fact. Dogs read our emotions closely, so it helps to send the message that comings and goings are no big deal.

Separation anxiety is associated with “velcro dogs,” the ones who follow you from room to room and always want to be resting at your feet or pressing their heads against your leg. So some behavior specialists also suggest independence training in various forms--for instance, practicing stays at a distance.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).