Supporting your dog with separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is a serious issue for many dogs and their owners. At best, it can cause your pet to cause a fuss whenever you leave the house or are out of their sight and at worst, it can cause your dog extreme stress and worry. It can cause disruptive and destructive behaviour that isn’t good for you, your pet or your home.

In order to help our four legged friend with their separation anxiety – particularly as many of us go back to work and return to a more normal life after a long spell at home during the coronavirus lockdown in the UK – we have to understand what it is, the causes and how we can support our dog if they experience it. While they might not fully  eliminate separation anxiety, the good news is that we can do lots to manage these feelings and make life easier and more comfortable for them.

A dog’s life in lockdown

The UK went into complete lockdown earlier in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving us to spend more time at home and walk the dog. This meant that our four legged friends spent a lot more time with us than they might normally do, and puppies that went to their new homes before lockdown got to enjoy almost constant attention for those important first few months. 

Some of us are fortunate enough to remain at home as we shift away from the office working five days a week, and that means that our dogs will continue to get used to having someone around most of the time. Dogs are very sociable so this is beneficial to those that have cut down on time out of the home, but for many households, lockdown easing means spending more time out of the house and away from a pet that has had almost constant companionship for a few months.

So now, it’s more important than ever to better understand how our dog’s can be impacted by spending time away from their families and how to support them through this time.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is just one problem within a larger group of behavioural issues related to a dog being separated from their pack, family or social group. While it’s linked to leaving a dog home alone, it can also occur when the dog is alone in a situation or location, or separated from one specific member of the family. Unfortunately, it can get worse as a dog ages.

It’s important to help puppies form secure attachments with us so that they know that we’ll always return to them every time we leave the house. It also helps to teach them that fun activities don’t just involve us, that being home alone is time for them to catch up on sleep, and that we’re not always there to give them attention. This will help prevent your dog from struggling with separation anxiety, but if your pet is a rescue or you were unable to teach them these lessons when you first brought them home, you can still help.

What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?

There are a number of things to look out for, and often the signs are apparent and can vary in seriousness. These include:

  • Initial signs are usually seen when a dog notices their owner is getting ready to leave home. Perhaps they’ve recognised that putting on shoes or a jacket is a sign that you’ll soon be going out. This is when restlessness begins. Just as a dog might display excitement when their lead makes an appearance, the same association comes into play when they see or hear activities they associate with leaving. 
  • Within 30 minutes of being left alone, the dog shows behaviours related to fear, such as circling or paces, increased breathing, salivation and attempts at escape such as scratching at doors or windows. They may even make a mess in the house.
  • Howling or barking because of anxiety is a dog’s way of trying to communicate with their pack and so they will become more vocal if they’re left alone.
  • Chewing objects to pieces and laying among them is common among dogs with separation anxiety. It’s likely that they choose an item with their owner’s scent on it so they can sit within a barrier of scent.
  • Causing harm to themselves or considerable damage to their home or environment.
  • Excessive excitement when their owner returns and wants to be close to them.

What causes separation anxiety?

The biggest and most obvious cause of separation anxiety is simply that a dog is away from key members of their family, or a specific person in their household. This might be when you’re out at work, leaving your dog with another family member while you go on a trip or even if you step out of the house for a moment and your dog can’t see you!

Dogs are very social creatures and over the centuries, have been bred to be loyal, interactive and dependent on their humans – this is what made them great companions as working dogs, and these traits still live on in our domesticated canine friends. A dog might be particularly attached to one person, and so they will struggle if they’re not with that person. Research conducted by Flannigan and Dodman has shown that a dog living with a single adult is 2.5 times more likely to suffer from separation anxiety. 

Separation anxiety can also be triggered by external stimuli while a dog is home alone, such as thunder or fireworks. Dogs can be frightened by these sounds and this tends to increase with age. 

How can I support my dog?

The best way to care for a dog that suffers from separation anxiety is to be gentle and kind. Never punish a dog that is displaying signs of separation anxiety as they won’t understand why they are being told off or what they have done. One simple solution is using a calming product for time of high anxiety, such as travel or around Halloween and bonfire night. Zylkene Capsules are an effective stress management solution for dogs, and can be a useful way to support your dog while you assess a more long term solution.

The first step is talking to your vet. They can help you understand the causes that are impacting your dog, and check to see if it’s a sign of an underlying medical condition. The sooner you do this, the better as symptoms can increase with age and it may become more difficult to manage.

Helping your dog stay calm and comforted is key to supporting them with separation anxiety, and there are some exercises that you can carry out to ease their negative feelings.

Get your dog used to being alone for short periods of time. This should be in a place where your dog feels comfortable and they associate positively, not a new place with strangers. If this is a separate area of your home, don’t close the door on your dog – put up a gate so they can see, hear and smell you and the rest of the home. 

You can create a comfortable space that keeps them calm and occupied by including the following items:

  • Fresh water and food
  • A comfortable bed or blanket
  • An item of your clothing that has your scent on it – preferably something older that you won’t mind being chewed
  • A chew toy, as chewing is known to be a calming activity
  • A toy that contains food
  • Leaving a radio or other source of background noise on 

Once you’ve prepared this area, you should put your dog in there from time to time at different times to avoid predictability. You should plan to be in the house, but not so far away that your dog can’t hear you. Go back and open the gate after a few minutes. Ideally, your dog won’t notice and will be busy with their chew toy or treat. The time that you leave between putting your dog in this area and opening the gate should increase over time, before eventually you progress to leaving the house. Again, do this for a short period of time and increase it gradually. 

Another tactic is being mindful of the triggers that cause your dog to become anxious. You can do this by performing the actions, maybe this is picking up keys or putting on your shoes when you’re remaining in the house to break the association with leaving the house. There may be quite a few triggers so doing this gradually and over time will be best. Try to only use a few triggers at a time and not too frequently to avoid causing excess anxiety in your dog. 

Encourage your dog to sleep in a comfortable bed next to you to promote sleep as a good way for them to spend time. If you’re working from home, this is a great way to help your pet adjust to you not being around all the time. 

Managing behaviour with training is the best – and should always be the first – way to help deal with separation anxiety. This may take some time, but it’ll be worth it. If your vet recommends it, medication might also be a useful way to help your dog, but often this will be suggested in conjunction with training.

The earlier separation anxiety is managed, the better it will be for you and your dog. With a little perseverance, your dog will become much calmer and you’ll be able to go out without worrying about your four legged friend! Life can be difficult for our pets, so doing everything you can to keep them relaxed and comfortable will be hugely beneficial.

Neil’s top tips:

  • Medication might seem like the easiest option, but medication alone won’t have a long term effect on your dog’s behaviour. So always use it at the recommendation of your vet and alongside training.
  • Follow up with your vet regularly as you make progress with your dog to ensure triggers and cues can be monitored and tracked.
  • Some triggers might be difficult to conceal or replicate, such as the sound of an unlocking door. Try masking the sound with a washing machine or similar.