Separation anxiety is a common stressor for dogs, affecting approximately 14% of pets. Dogs are pack animals by nature, so it’s in their DNA to want to be with their family at all times. Unfortunately, this just isn’t realistic for most households, so our pets need to learn how to be secure and relaxed when left on their own.
Leaving your dog alone isn’t the only reason for separation anxiety though. Separation anxiety is often the result of a previous experience and is more likely to affect dogs who:
- Haven’t spent much time alone. We are seeing a lot of this now that people are returning to work and school outside of the home.
- Were abandoned at key points in their psychological development.
- Weren’t properly integrated into their first home. (Maybe their owners left them confined to a small space without enough social interaction.)
- Were removed from mother and littermates too early (prior to 8 weeks of age) or too late (after 14 weeks).
- Have experienced a traumatic event, such as a frightening experience at a shelter or kennel. A significant change in their household or routine can also cause trauma. This could be a new person joining the family, a move to another house, or a change in the owner’s work schedule.
- Tend to become extremely attached to their person, and then feel insecure when that person leaves. This might be a result of losing a home or person he was previously attached to.
Does my dog have separation anxiety, or is it something else?
If the only trouble your dog gets into while you’re out is chewing a shoe or pulling a few pieces of paper from the trash, they’re probably just bored or doing what dogs naturally do: exploring the world with their noses and mouths.
It’s easy to distinguish a case of separation anxiety from boredom. The behaviours that result from separation anxiety happen only when you’re not around and every time you’re not around. It’s also likely your dog has learned your routine when you’re preparing to leave the house and might begin to show signs of anxiety before you go.
Episodes of separation anxiety in dogs are essentially panic attacks, similar to the kind humans have. Common behaviors include:
- A need to be in the same room as you, within a few feet of you
- A noticeable change in mood when they sense you’re getting ready to leave the house
- Doing things while you’re away that they don’t do while in your presence
- Frenzied greetings, whether you’ve been out for 5 minutes or 5 hours
When left at home alone, a dog with separation anxiety will usually engage in at least one, and often several of the following behaviors:
- Drooling: Excessive salivation is considered by experts to be a red flag for separation anxiety when the excess drool only occurs when a dog is alone or believes they are alone.
- Vocalizing: This is typically barking, whining, or howling that starts before you leave or soon after, and continues for most of the time you’re away.
- Accidents in the house: Your dog has accidents in random locations around your house rather than in one consistent spot, and this only happens when they are alone or believe they’re alone.
- Destruction: Dogs with separation anxiety typically cause damage to doors or windows (exit points), or personal items such as clothing, pillows, or the TV remote control. Confining these dogs to a kennel or carrier often causes an escalation of the behavior and can result in self-injury.
How to help your dog’s separation anxiety?
The goal is to reduce your dog’s dependence on you so that they can feel safe and content when you’re away from home. Helping them feel more self-sufficient and confident can be accomplished with a variety of behavior modification techniques and other strategies.
It’s important never to yell at your dog or use physical punishment if you arrive home to destruction or a mess on the floor. Remember, these aren’t signs of misbehavior but clinical anxiety, and your dog isn’t in control when they are doing them. Punishment, especially after the fact, will only exacerbate the problem.
When you’re at home and going about your day or evening, train your dog to assume a calm, relaxed demeanor during “separations” when you’re in one room and they are in another. First, move a short distance away (while you’re in the same room) and then return and reward him with a treat.
Repeat this step at the same distance until you’re sure they are calm and relaxed, and then gradually increase the distance until you’re almost out of the room, making sure to give praise and treats when relaxed and in place.
Once you’ve increased the distance until you’re out of your dog’s sight, you can begin to gradually increase the time they’re in one room and you’re in another. If the minute you’re out of sight your dog comes running, then you need to go back a couple of steps and work up to that level of separation.
This can be a weeks or even months long process, but it’s often very effective. If you don’t feel your dog is making good progress or you need more guidance and support, we recommend consulting a fear-free dog trainer, or a specialist in canine behavior.
You might consider getting a pet camera or other way to monitor your pet’s behaviour while you’re out so you can gauge if your training efforts are making progress, and see how long your pet is comfortable being left alone for before they begin to become anxious.
Will CBD help my dog’s separation anxiety?
CBD oil helps the body create serotonin, which is a natural mood stabilizer. In fact, this is the mechanism that many depression and anxiety medications use to improve mental health. This helps calm and soothe your dog’s anxiety so that they can feel more relaxed while you’re away.
When using a CBD oil to treat anxiety, you want a product that’s organic and full or broad spectrum. This is because full-spectrum CBD contains all the plant compounds, compared to a CBD isolate. These other compounds allows the CBD to have a stronger and longer lasting effect with more benefits to be seen, often called the “entourage effect”.
To give your dog CBD oil for separation anxiety follow the instructions on the product package. As a general rule, your dog should need 0.05 to 0.25 mg per pound of body weight. We recommend that you start low and only increase the dose if it doesn’t have the desired effect. After using CBD for an extended period of time, your dog might develop a bit of a resistance to CBD and require a stronger dose for the same effect.
How can you manage your dog’s separation anxiety?
Have some ambient noise: Choose classical or easy listening music, since the idea is to help calm your dog. News radio can also work. You can also record normal household sounds and play the recording for comfort. Occasionally play the tape when you’re home so your dog doesn’t only associate the recording with your departure.
Use a familiar smell: Try leaving a worn item of clothing or a used towel for your dog when you leave. Like the sound of your voice, your smell can also bring comfort to your dog.
Keep them well exercised: Simply put, a tired dog is a happy dog. If a dog has pent-up energy, they are more likely to experience anxiety and unstable moods, and they may become destructive in an effort to rid themselves of the excess energy. Before you leave your dog alone, take them for a walk or play a game with them.
Exercise their mind as well: Offer them mental stimulation or distractions, such as an interactive feeder or puzzle toy
Don’t make it a big deal: Don’t make a big show of leaving or coming home to your dog. While leaving, if you’d like to say goodbye, give your dog a pet or a goodbye BEFORE you do anything to prep for leaving, and when you do go, simply leave the house. When you come home, relax, set down your items and then greet your dog when calm. If you don’t make a big deal out of the event of leaving and coming home, your dog is less likely to make a big deal of it as well.
Create a safe space: Dogs are denning animals and when properly crate-trained, many dogs find comfort and safety in their crate or designated space. If your dog isn’t already crate-trained, this can be a good place to start when working through separation anxiety.
While working through your dog’s anxiety, see what you can do to reduce their time alone. Maybe you can bring them to work sometimes, or have a friend or neighbour stop in during the day to take them outside or sit with them for awhile. If your dog is social and not stressed in new environments, maybe a couple trips to dog daycare is a good option for them.