Separation Anxiety: How to Get Your Pup Ready for More Alone Time

What is Separation Anxiety?

Technically, separation anxiety is a medical term that can only be diagnosed by your veterinarian. However, separation anxiety has become a blanket term for dogs that struggle when left alone which is evidenced by observable behavior before, during, and after absences.

What Causes Alone Time Struggles?

Main causes of alone time struggles include boredom, frustration, fear or general anxiety, phobias (like noise phobias), and health issues such as underlying pain or illness in older dogs.

Things that do NOT Cause Separation Anxiety

Cute pug dog sleep on pillow in bed and wrap with blanket feel happy in relax time

One of the biggest myths about alone time issues is that spoiling is a cause of alone time struggles. Spoiling your dog or giving too much attention do not cause separation anxiety. Being an only dog or allowing your dog to sleep on the bed doesn’t cause issues with alone time, either.

Optimizing Your Dog for Alone Time

There are ways to minimize the risk of boredom, frustration, fear, and anxiety. It is important to use enrichment to enhance your dog’s life while also using effective management when your dog has a fear of being left alone. Taking training at your dog’s own pace and maintaining regular vet visits will also minimize alone time fears.

What do Alone Time Struggles Look Like?

Escape related behaviors and destructiveness are obvious indications of alone time struggles, while inhibition is not so noticeable. Alone time struggles look like stress in your dog. Subtle signs include freezing, hiding, and refusing to eat treats when left alone. More obvious stress manifestations include shaking, restlessness, pawing at exits, and pacing.

Most common behaviors include destructiveness or vocalizations. These may start small and then escalate over time. It’s important to give just as much importance to the less obvious signs of stress signals as you would to the more obvious signs.

Excessive greetings on return can also be an indication of struggles with alone time.

Recognize Stress in your Dog

Learning to recognize stress indicators makes it easier to prevent alone time struggles. You need to be able to leave your dog alone for a certain amount of time, so it’s important to make your dog comfortable and content with being alone.

Create a Safe Space

black and brown dog sitting happily in crate at home

Every dog needs a safe space they can retreat to that is unique to your dog. It must be a place where your dog can go and be free of hands or attention. Supplies like a crate, blanket, music, and dim lighting will help create a calm environment for your dog. Some small dogs even enjoy having a small bed placed under a chair for extra security. Calming pheromones can also be helpful for stress relief for your dog.

Note that an open-door crate is not the same as a closed-door crate. Dens don’t have doors. A closed-door crate is not automatically a safe space. You will need to acclimate your dog to a crate and get your dog comfortable to the crate before confining.

Enrich Your Dog’s Life

All dogs need to have their daily energy drained through play, exercise, and mental enrichment. Your dog’s needs are unique and can even change over their lifetime.

Examples of great enrichment items include Whimzees, a Benebone Bully Stick Holder, a Kong Wobbler, and the Messy Mutts Slow Feeder Bowl. These items provide your dog with mental stimulation which enhances your dog’s quality of life.

Enrichment activities can also encourage independence in your dog. Start by setting your dog up on its safe space and move within five feet of your dog. Next time sit within eyesight of your dog. From there, move out of eyesight. This will create positive reinforcement with alone time and enrichment activities.

Make a Plan that Includes Your Dog

a woman returns home from the shops and chats on her phone as she enters the hallway . her dog runs to welcome her .

Are your dog’s needs being met? It’s crucial to examine how your dog’s schedule includes the best quality of life. Using age-appropriate enrichment activities throughout the day will make sure your dog gets just what she needs each day. Also, make sure you acclimate your dog to their confinement space ahead of time.

Absences longer than six hours should be divided into shorter ones. Any schedule changes, such as moving, should be made gradually to prevent stress. To keep your dog’s time alone staggered or broken up, reach out to neighbors, friends, or pet sitters to break up the longer absences.

Practice Short Absences

If your dog hasn’t been left alone or left alone long, your best bet is to start with short absences. You’ll want to record your dog and watch your dog’s behavior when you leave. You’ll want to make a promise to your dog to go at their pace or push or punish them by going to fast. You’ll want to practice at least once per day after you design your first training plan. It’s also important to take days off from training so your dog doesn’t get overloaded. Always remember to consistently come back before your dog panics when you are training so that you aren’t pushing your dog to panic.

Keep Your Arrivals and Departures Low-Key

Keeping your arrivals and departures calm will also help calm your dog. Prepare the night before to keep your departure uneventful. You can even give your dog something fun to do before you leave. Avoid making a big production of leaving or coming home. When you come home, make sure you remain calm and take a deep breath before entering. It’s important to say hi to your dog, but if your dog is really excited, it’s good to wait until they calm dog first.

Q and A in word bubbles

Dana Rebaza’s Responses to Unanswered Questions from Class

We have three dogs and one of them suffers from anxiety. Do you have any suggestions for training all three at the same time?

Yes! Totally! With regard to alone time training, you have to work at the struggling dog’s pace – this will be the dog that’s having the most difficult time. Monitor when & why they start to panic, and work to stay under that panic point. In multi-dog households, make sure the dogs get along in your training setup.

My dog has a serious case of FOMO. He plays with our other dog all day, but when I come home from work he won’t let our other dog come say hi to me (he will bite his legs, push him down, etc). How do you recommend how to help contain this bad case of FOMO?

Try to do some work to get your FOMO (or jealous) dog comfortable with the other dogs interacting with you. Set up your jealous dog with somebody else in the room, while you are also across from them in the same room. Bring your other dogs in slowly, and when the other dog approaches you, have the other person provide your jealous dog with tasty treats so that they start to associate positivity with the other dogs approaching you.

We’ve often heard to leave clothing or fabric that has our scent nearby to sooth the dog.  Does this work?

I love this question! I used to advise this myself. But keep in mind, dogs have an incredible sense of smell – everything in your house smells like you. If your dog struggles being left alone – this won’t make much of a difference for them. For some young dogs, they may do okay with the last item you were wearing, but it’s not necessarily going to make them feel better or help with the issue long-term.

My 5 month old American Staffordshire Boxer loses her mind when left in the kennel at home to the point that she might hurt herself. Since then we’ve decided to leave her out of the kennel alone. Was that the right thing to do?

The answer is yes & no! Yes, because if your dog struggles with confinement, putting them in the crate may lead to them injuring themselves. But, if your dog is being pushed to the point of panic – you will likely come home to a different display of panic now that they are not confined.

What are your thoughts on the video devices that distribute treats you can speak to your pet?

This is a great option to watch and interact with your pet!

What are some enrichment toy suggestions for when leaving a smart 6mo puppy alone?

Enrichment should always be supervised. Try something that encourages them to paw at the object, or involves them having to chew such as the Whimzees we spoke about. The goal is to not offer the same type of activity, and find something they love.

My dog is crate trained and loves it. She sometimes just goes in there to relax while I am home doing my usual routines.  Since COVID with me home so much more, she has occasionally been unhappy to be crated when I have to leave.  This is not an anxiety type behavior (which she has with things like storms) but it is different, as she seems more irritated at me for leaving.  She does it even if she has been fed, just pottied, etc.  Is this separation anxiety that I am not recognizing?  She does not do it every time I leave (she is usually ok with me leaving).

Anxious behaviors come in a variety of behaviors, so depending on what it is, pawing, vocalizing, anything that seems uncomfortable, you might try to go back to the basics on crate training.

What do you think about CBD oil?

Anything that your dog ingests or consumes – be sure to speak with your vet first to make sure this is a good option for them. Check out the webinar “Your Dog’s Friend” on this topic. CBD oil can differ, so you need to be sure you’re aware how much your dog is getting every time they consume it.

My Ally Sue Blossom is 4 years old now.  She always jumps or pounces on anyone entering the door, even if she knows them. She does not stop jumping for probably 2-3 minutes.  I have to pull her off, and she’ll get away from me and go back to them and do it again.  It takes FOREVER to calm her down.  She doesn’t do it to me now, but to everyone else.  My granddaughter has a room at my home and stays with me one or more days a week.  Every time she enters the front door, we go through the jumping and pouncing.  She is Lab/Rottweiler/Husky/Weimeraner/Great Dane so she is very tall and a lot bigger than most people visiting and knocks them over or hurts them.  H-E-L-P

With any behaviors we’re trying to change, it requires management and change. Right now, we need to prevent the rehearsal of the unwanted behavior. Try putting your dog away when people enter, and wait until your dog is settled before letting them out. Try mat training to get them to settle on their mat. Then when they get good at that – teach them if they hear a knock on the door, doorbell, etc that they need to go to their mat. Once you’ve done that, you can reintroduce them to people when they come over.

I have a 9 month old goldendoodle who does well in his crate but last week destroyed his bed about an hour before he normally is let out in the morning. He did not bark or indicate that he wanted to be let out, just woke up and destroyed the bed. I’m now worried to leave a bed in his crate . Any recommendations on what I should put in his crate to make him comfortable?  Thank you!

There are different reasons he might be doing this. He likely just woke up with a lot of energy and thought it might be fun! Take a look at your day to day to see if there are any gaps in your dog’s day where you can make improvements or changes to their schedule. Puppies do provide a risk of chewing and destruction, so you might consider more enrichment and see if you notice decreased destruction over time.

I have had my foster for 3 months, and she does not exhibit any signs of separation anxiety. Sometimes she is left alone for 8-9 hours. Am I causing other behavioral issues by leaving her alone more than 6 hours at a time?

Good question! As far as the length of time that your dog is left alone – it’s nice for your dog to have regular potty breaks. This doesn’t mean you’re causing any additional issues, but consider adding more interaction in their day.

Any “safe” treats or chews you suggest? Are there any useful interactive toys or puzzle toys that you like to leave dogs with?

What I like to leave with the dog depends on the dog. Every dog is different. A food motivated dog might do well with a treat puzzle, but a noisy dog might do better with a snuffle mat. I encourage dogs to have things to move around to keep to them interested and engaged.

What can we do to help with destructive behavior when 10 month old German Shepherd is left alone? He has adequate amounts of rewarding and hard toys but still chooses to go for household items that are not meant for him.

A young dog, we’ve got to puppy proof! It might be time to go back to basics and only give them access to things that are fair game. Blocking off their access to certain areas to encourage legal chewing, and provide more access to things and places within the home over time.

My dog does alright at home alone, but recently she’s started crying when in her crate at night. I wonder it could be from sleeping outside of her crate some nights and sleeping in her crate other nights. Any tips for keeping her calm and reassuring her at night?

Your guess is likely spot on. It can be a little confusing to sometimes sleep inside the crate and then outside of the crate. If you don’t need to confine your dog while you’re sleeping and they are reliable, give them the option to sleep with or within their crate. This can be beneficial to your dog!

What is your best advice for kennel training for a new puppy?

Get the crate set up and make sure your dog explores it on their own, make it a place they want to investigate by leaving treats inside. Toss treats inside to allow them the freedom of movement of going inside and walking out. Over time, get them used to sending them in the crate and build from there by leaving the door open, then move on to shutting and locking the door.

Are dogs ever too old train or change old behaviors? I have an 8 yr old hyper yorkie who doesn’t calm down with visitors and is almost uncontrollable. Any suggestions?

Old dogs can learn new tricks!! Keep in mind, habits can sometimes be harder to break – so for an older dog you can do the work and see a positive outcome. Teach your dog what to do instead, reference the answer above about trying to train them on their mat.

My dog does fine when I leave him in his crate at home. But when we travel somewhere and he is in a new environment, he barks as soon as I leave him in his crate.

Confinement may be making the new space more difficult, in this situation. My guess is that when I see this happening, your dog might not be as acclimated to the crate as you think – so go back to the basics on your crate training.

My dog was abused in the past. He’s on medication, but he gets set off when loud noises are made. How do I help him?

Sound phobias or sensitivities can be tough for dogs! This can be a lifelong thing that you want to be aware of. There are a lot of ways to help with this – Your Dog’s Friend and Vet Girl have a lot of sound phobia trainings that may benefit you.

How do I stop my dog from barking at every small noise outside both when I am gone and at home?

Good question! A lot of dogs that struggle with being left alone also struggle with sound sensitivity. There are training techniques that you can use to show that scary sounds may not be so stressful. There are webinars that you can attend such as Your Dog’s Friend and Vet Girl that focus on sound sensitivities.

My rescue hates being alone ever. We use doggie day care. I believe he is a little anxious but enjoys playing. When he is left in the kitchen when we are home he lies by the doggie gate rather than dog bed so does not totally settle although he is quiet. We use behavior toys, lots of exercise. Will use these training plans that you shared. Thank you for these ideas!

I would really focus on your pre-departure cues, because it’s likely that your dog is having a hard time when you get your keys, jacket, purse, etc. So make sure they are comfortable with those activities, too.

Our 7 month Basenji puppy has increased his time outside (he uses his doggy door multiple times a day).  My husband and I work from home and have noticed our puppy seems to be more comfortable playing alone outside or on his safe bed inside (provided we are home).  However, the minute we leave the house he is NOT happy and begins to whine continuously (we have a camera and see that he goes in and out the doggy door and whines).  If our neighbors are outside he will make every attempt to escape.  Do you have any tips for this behavior?

So those are real extreme examples of being over the threshold and showing panic signs. We need to change the way he views the absences and then find out where the point of panic is for him as well as breaking down your pre-departure cues.

Bubs is 2.  He was “okay” with some poor behaviors at day care.  Since COVID and away from others, he screams at every dog.

Dogs social skills change over their lifetime, so this isn’t uncommon to see. Most dogs are selective or tolerant, so they can be choosy of their friends. Daycares are great, but busy! So it might be more difficult for your dog to positively interact with dogs at daycare. You might try to do smaller groups to see if that helps him.

What if your dog does not do well with any of the training?

Generally, that means we’re going too far too fast and we haven’t broken it down enoguh. I would work to get a Certified Separation Anxiety trainer on board for additioanl help.

The marking question earlier, I did watch the dog on video. How do you tell the difference between marking and separation anxiety for a 7 year old dog? We have a cat.  We are 4th owners.

As far as the differences between separation anxiety versus housetraining, you’ll generally see signs of stress or they are not settling – if accidents coincide, that’s likely separation anxiety. If the dog is calm at your absence & has accidents, that’s a house training issue.

I have a brilliant 8yr old toy poodle who is very anxious. When I take her for a drive (and she loves going) in the car she whimpers and shakes for 15-30 minutes before she finally calms down. What can I do to relieve the stress before getting in the car? BTW she is anxious with me but rarely with my wife alone but is when it is the two of us together

Getting your dog comfortable with being in the car means we need to manage car rides into smaller steps. The goal isn’t to get your dog in the car and drive away in the 1st step. Start slow with the keys, the car, then work up to turning the car on and leaving.

Do you feel separation anxiety is inherited from the dog’s parent or grand parent?

Since we see it across breeds, ages, lifestyles, etc, we know that there are likely a lot of factors. There might be genetic factors, but we don’t know. Regardless, we will still train the same way.

My 7 yo dog usually squeals when we put him in his crate. He is quiet when we return. What does this opposite behavior mean?

I would still go back to the basics of crate training with him – he might be struggling with confinment issues. He might do better if he’s not crated, but monitor them to see if this is an option.

If you are out of the house and watching your dog on camera and seeing them getting ready to pee in the house, can you speak to them to stop them? Is it a good idea to try to speak to the dog from remote?

If you are watching your dog & they are about to have an accident – they likely have been panicking prior to that point. If it was a fluke, you can certainly try to talk to them. But normally, when we interrupt an accident, we are then immediately urging them to go outside – but being remote you don’t have that option. I would likely take the loss and clean up the accident when you get home with no punishment.

You mentioned finding a trainer who specializes experienced in separation anxiety. How do we know?

Search for Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers (CSAT) and you can likely find one in your area!

Our 18 week old male Bichon loves to “eat” the area rugs in our home.  Other than removing all rugs, is there another solution to remedy this? We redirect with toys but he goes back always to various rugs. Thank you.

It sounds like this isn’t specific to being left alone – but as far as this being a general issue, I would bring up all the rugs at first so they learn what’s fair game. Then slowly reintroduce the rugs to the floor while also teaching a leave it command. When they go for the rug, introduce something fun for them to do, as well.

Is it better to leave the TV when I’m gone at night?

Generally, it depends on your dog and what tv channel you choose. Make sure it’s a calming station. I would recommend calming music. Keep in mind, if your dog doesn’t like being left alone – the TV may become another predictor of the scary thing – your absence.

I have a 1 year old pit rescue that will pee out side but will not poop outside. I take her out frequently to relieve herself but she will only urinate come back inside and poop.

That’s a struggle! With housetraining, I do like to go back to the basics. Get them on a schedule and provide enough breaks for them. If your dog hasn’t pottied when they normally would, supervise them when they are inside – then maybe let them back outside more frequently. Also monitor how they react when they are pottying – they may feel like they are going to get in trouble and are trying to hide the accident from you, which is why they aren’t doing it outside. Keep it lowkey and non-stressful while you’re working through this.

My 8 yr old rescue has some but not total hearing loss.  What suggestions do you have to keep her attention for training?

There is a great website for deaf dogs that provides amazing tips! You can still use word-based training with a deaf dog, or marker training using a flash of light with treats, etc. Always keep safety in mind – deaf dogs should always be leashed in case they wander.

Can you provide examples of high value foods? My teacup Yorkie is 13 and is virtually toothless.

There are lots of different options for your Yorkie. High quality canned food, such as Weruva or Fromm, or dehydrated food like The Honest Kitchen are ones that Hollywood Feed recommends. These would be easy for your Yorkie to eat and highly digestible. You may have to try a couple before settling on the ones that work best, but you can always bring back anything your pet doesn’t like to your local Hollywood Feed.

About the Expert

Dana Rebaza (formerly VanSickle) has spent nearly 20 years working with a variety of domestic and exotic animals at some of the nation’s leading animal organizations. They are experienced evaluating and rehabilitating dogs of varying breeds, sizes, and dispositions, and are committed to bringing you evidence-based behavior solutions that fit your lifestyle and goals.

Dana is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, one of roughly a hundred worldwide. This specialized certification requires intensive study of the treatment of separation anxiety, as well as demonstration of extensive training and counseling experience. They are a Certified Shelter Dog Behavior Consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. This high-level certification requires a rigorous application process that is assessed by a panel of experts in dog training and behavior, requiring the knowledge and ability to handle complex behavior cases in order to be certified. Dana is also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, a certification that requires hundreds of logged training hours and passing a comprehensive exam.

Dana graduated with distinction from both the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior, and the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior. They also completed Michael Shikashio’s Aggression in Dogs Master Course. Dana graduated from Regent University with a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership & Management.

In addition to their work doing online dog training for Peach on a Leash, Dana mentors students for the Victoria Stilwell Dog Training Academy. They previously worked and volunteered for The Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team, helping rehabilitate animals rescued from abuse and neglect. They have also pioneered lifesaving programs at various shelters and rescues. Dana previously managed regional training programs in Charlotte and Santa Fe.

Dana is a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200) and enjoys hiking with their rescue dog, Hope Rising. Dana is fluent in Spanish and currently resides in Santa Fe, NM.

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