The No. 1 Sign Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety, According to Vets
Just like humans, dogs need an outlet for their anxiety.
The idea of a dog standing by the door to greet their owner has long been a symbol of the bond between human and pet. But this connection took on a new meaning after the pandemic when people began returning to the workplace. Dogs weren't just glad to see their owners at the end of the day, they were relieved. According to a recent study from CBD company Green Element, dog separation anxiety increased over 700 percent between 2020 and 2022.
But how do you know if this is what's got your pup feeling out of sorts? After all, there are many reasons why a dog can feel stressed, and they can't exactly communicate with you. To understand this growing issue better, we consulted veterinarians and animal experts. Read on to learn the top indicator your dog is suffering from separation anxiety and what you can do to help them feel more at ease.
Dogs are born with "pack instincts."
Though the idea of dogs being lonely during the day has come into sharper focus with the end of work-from-home policies for many people, some pets may struggle regardless.
"All dogs are born with an array of survival instincts that can be classified as 'respondent behaviors,' meaning that they are inherent from birth and not a learned behavior," explains Alexandra Bassett, CPDT-KA, lead trainer and behavior specialist at Dog Savvy Los Angeles. One such involuntary response is pack instincts. "Since survival in the wild dictates staying together at all costs, pack instincts compel a dog to keep an eye on you and follow you wherever you go—that's why our dogs follow us from room to room." She notes that this is referred to as the "velcro dog." Of course, when you're not around at all, it can exacerbate this instinct.
They also have biochemical responses.
The term "anxiety" often gets applied loosely, but dogs with separation anxiety are truly struggling as opposed to other pets who may merely prefer you being home. "Much like a human being having a severe panic attack, a dog with separation anxiety has difficulty calming down once the stress response kicks in," says Bassett. "Your dog's inability to cope and self-soothe is, therefore, partly biochemical."
When a dog feels triggered, their limbic system can get activated. This is the "primal" side of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotions. "Once the limbic system is active, mounting levels of frustration can result in elevated levels of cortisol flooding your dog's bloodstream, making it difficult for them to calm down. This, in turn, can trigger the fight or flight response and the release of adrenaline, which further energizes your dog and escalates their distress," explains Basset.
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Here's how to know if your dog is dealing with separation anxiety.
Though separation anxiety can manifest in many ways, the most common indicator that experts point to is destructive behavior. "This could include shredded furniture, broken blinds, chewed-on doors and baseboards, and even ripped-up carpet," says Josh Snead, CEO of Rainwalk Pet Insurance.
But it's important to realize that this behavior isn't being done to punish you. "While people may exercise, chew on their nails or have a drink to relieve tension, dogs tend to chew, lick excessively, pace or house-soil when anxious," explains MSPCA–Angell.
These are some other common signs.
Perhaps the most obvious sign is "excessive barking, whining, or howling when you leave your home," says Melissa M. Brock, a board-certified veterinarian and author at Pango Pets. But if this doesn't subside in a short amount of time, it could be more serious. She adds that dogs may also start "defecating or urinating indoors, even if they're house-trained" and/or "attempting to escape from the house or yard."
Dogs can also sense when you're about to leave.
Animal instincts are no joke, so you may observe your dog's anxious behavior before you've even left the house. Brock notes that they may start acting restless or pacing when they realize you're about to go.
Bassett says to look for body language cues like a furrowed brow, ears pinned back, or a tucked tail. "They may also either keep their eyes glued to you or stick by your heel as you move through your departure routine—like when you put on a pair of shoes, pick up a bag or jacket, or grab a pair of keys, just before walking out an exit door," she adds.
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Here's how to help your dog.
Unless you get a work-from-home job, you'll have to help your pooch manage their separation anxiety. A good first step is to actually see how their stress is manifesting. "If you are unsure how your dog behaves once you are away from home, consider purchasing a security camera, baby monitor, or pet cam to see how they act in your absence," advises Brock.
In this case, Bassett says to watch until 30-45 minutes after you've left. A delayed reaction can occur when a dog isn't sure if you've just left for a quick errand or for a longer stretch.
If you are able to stay home, gradually introduce your dog to being alone. "Practice leaving your dog alone for short periods of time, like going to get the mail or going to the garage. Start by only leaving for a few seconds and gradually increase the amount of time you are gone," recommends Brock. "Dogs do not process time the same way humans do, so a minute away from your dog can feel the same for them as an hour away. This allows you to repetitively desensitize your dog to the process of you leaving." She also suggests going through the same routine as if you were leaving for a full day, such as grabbing your keys and purse.
During such a training exercise, Daniel Caughill, co-founder of The Dog Tale, advises against playing with your dog as soon as you get back. "When you return, you can greet your pet, but try not to get them too excited… doing so can make their anxiety even worse as they anticipate your arrival. After a few moments, tell your pet to sit, and once they obey and calm down, praise them verbally and physically."
Or you can try giving your dog a "high-reward treat" when you return, says Brock. "This could be their favorite chew toy or a puzzle toy stuffed with dog treats or peanut butter. Your dog will slowly start to associate you leaving them alone with a reward."
Courtnye Jackson, a veterinarian and founder of The Pets Digest, also suggests turning the television on before you leave (the human voices may soothe them) or taking them for a walk or play session beforehand (so they're more tired and inclined to sleep).
A crate is another option.
Crate training is another method recommended by almost all of the experts we consulted. There's a common misconception that this is cruel, but "many dogs feel safe and secure inside of crates as it resembles a den-like environment," explains Brock. She says to start with short periods of time in the crate and then lengthen them. "Feed your dog all of its meals inside of the crate, and encourage your dog to sleep inside of its crate at night. Use treats to make the crate a positive experience and environment for your dog."
You can also start with a crate, then move your dog to a designated room without the potential for destruction, and finally, graduate them to being allowed in the whole house.
And the vet is always there.
Of course, always bring your dog to the vet if you feel that their distress is not manageable or if any of their coping behaviors are harming them. "Many times, your regular vet will refer you to a behavioral veterinarian where you can further evaluate the dog's actions," says Jackson. "A last resort for many vets is to place the dog on anti-anxiety medications."