Treating your dog's separation anxiety

10 September 2021

Veterinary surgeon Dr Scott Miller, BVSc MRCVS, looks at how to help your dog's separation anxiety post-lockdown.



With the continuing rise of the pandemic puppy, the UK has welcomed an extra 3.2million dogs over the last 12 months. With many full-time workers welcoming the pooch of their dreams into their homes and hearts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the return to ‘normal’ is exposing a generation of anxious young canines who have only known a world where their owners are nearly always at home.

Separation anxiety, where dogs become stressed when their owners are not nearby, is a very common problem new owners of pandemic puppies are now reporting, with a massive rise in anxious canines being referred to specialist animal behaviourists to help.

Why do dogs get separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a very common issue in dogs. Dogs are pack animals hence incredibly social creatures by nature, and very few actively enjoy being left on their own. This type of anxiety is often triggered by loneliness, boredom, a lack of training or habituation (becoming non-reactive to a certain situation or environment) to being left by the owner or if they have had a negative experience when left alone in the past.

Signs of separation anxiety

Dogs with separation anxiety often become destructive, toilet indoors or howl/bark when their owner leaves the house and have been known to cause themselves severe injury.

Certain breeds which are reactive, highly strung or nervous can be predisposed to becoming anxious when being left alone, and it is imperative that new dog owners train their new canine companions to endure time alone to avoid severe anxiety when they are left.

When separation anxiety can happen

Puppyhood

Separation anxiety must be addressed very early in life to ensure that a puppy can be left alone without becoming severely stressed. The use of a training crate is a great way to establish boundaries and to ensure your puppy cannot always have access to you, enjoying a safe and secure den for those moments when you can’t be with them.

Adolescent dogs

A baby gate is a great help when trying to keep some personal space between you and your dog shadow. Baby gates can keep your dog in a certain area of the house, providing a comfy bed, toys, water and treats of course. This enforces some separation while you are in the house as your pooch will not be able to follow you everywhere, with some owners admitting to allowing their dog to follow them around the house at all times, including bathroom breaks. With this level of constant contact, it is not a surprise that a dog will get stressed when not able to gain access to you, so this sense of feeling comfortable in their own skin must be trained into them during their development into adulthood…you will need to be able to leave the house alone some time.

Older dogs

As our pets age, they can also show signs of mental, sensory and physical deterioration which can result in a more anxious dog. It is always worth speaking to your vet regarding your maturing canine companion as there are medical conditions that may be causing extra stress and anxiety, and medications that can help.

How you can help help

To try to reduce stress associated with leaving the house, I recommend the following tips:

  • Routinely exercise the dog before leaving the house, ensuring that any nervous energy has been expended with positive play or a stimulating walk.
  • Give the dog a treat toy or chew to keep them occupied when you leave.
  • Be careful to avoid cues that can encourage a dog to begin to become anxious, such as putting a coat on or the jangling of keys in front of them, considering more obscure places to keep these things to not set off your pooch’s anxiety.
  • Leave for very short periods initially, increasing the time spent away over time as your dog becomes less anxious, eventually appreciating that their beloved owners will inevitably return home. Consider using puppy cams and other smart gadgets to keep an eye on your dog and help guide you as to how your training regime is going and when to time returning to your dog’s side.
  • Don’t make a fuss about leaving the house… if you make a big deal about leaving the dog will think it is a big deal! Also avoid excessive praise when returning home, only giving your excitable dog attention when they are calm and relaxed.
  • Consider the use of pheromone diffusers to help promote a calm indoor environment, alternatively natural supplements containing L-Theanine and Ashwagandha can really help. Proven to promote an alert state of relaxation and to alleviate stress, these natural ingredients will help to calm the nerves of dogs made anxious by the high stress world they find themselves in.

For more severe anxiety cases, the use of tri-cyclic anti-depressants and other prescription medications alongside the recommendation of concurrent behavioural training and support with local specialists, can help both canine patients and their owners understand and overcome this debilitating condition.

If you are unsure whether your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, I recommend dogtastic.co – a new app that offers unlimited and affordable digital vetcare at the touch of a button. Dogtastic has a 4 pillar pro-active approach that doesn’t just cover physical health queries, but also behavioural, nutritional and mental health issues for just £24 for the first year to support you and your dog when you need it.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.