How to manage separation anxiety in dogs

Double-edged sword: The strong bonds we have with our pets can result in your dog feeling anxious when left alone, or when you're not there.
Double-edged sword: The strong bonds we have with our pets can result in your dog feeling anxious when left alone, or when you're not there.

Dogs are highly social animals, and they can form strong bonds to their humans. While this is one of the key reasons why we love dogs, those strong bonds can result in your dog feeling anxious when left alone, or when you're not there.

Separation anxiety in dogs is characterised by your dog showing signs of distress when you're not with them. Some of these signs could include your dog barking or whining when you leave, destructive behaviour such as chewing through items, toileting in the house, pacing, or trying to escape.

We love our dogs, and we don't want them to be stressed. That's why it's important to manage separation anxiety swiftly and effectively. Here are some different methods you can use to manage separation anxiety - remember, it's always a good idea to speak to your vet in the first instance. They will know your dog and be able to give you tailored advice.

Habituation - how to reduce the escalation of anxiety

Dogs are clever, and they quickly learn to associate certain cues with your departure. For example, if you always put your jacket on, grab your bag and pick up your car keys before you leave, your dog will begin feeling anxious at the first sign of you moving towards your jacket. This can mean that their anxiety escalates.

One way to address this is to gradually habituate your dog to those cues, and reduce their significance in his eyes. Try putting your jacket on, and then sitting on the couch, or staying in the house. Pick up your keys and put them down somewhere else. Over time, your dog will see that the cues he associates with you leaving often don't mean anything at all, and this can help reduce his anxiety.

Counter-conditioning - teach your dog that when you leave, good things happen

One way to retrain your dog's negative association with you leaving is to give them something positive to associate with instead. Try giving your dog a special treat that they only receive when you leave. A good idea is to fill a KONG-style toy with nutritious and tasty food (you can even fill it with their usual breakfast or dinner, and perhaps a few special treats as well), and provide it to your dog when you're about to leave. Make sure to take the KONG back when you get home, so your dog knows he only gets the treat when you're not there. He'll soon associate you leaving with a special treat, which can help him feel better about the situation.

It's good to also train your dog to better control their emotional/impulsive responses, so that rather than whining or barking and escalating their stress, they learn to lie down calmly, because they associate calm behaviour with rewards. This method of training begins with teaching your dog to sit for food/treats/walks/playtime and pats, and eventually builds up to having your dog sit or lie down out of your sight for short periods of time. It's recommended that you research these methods further for comprehensive advice on how to begin the process of training your dog.

Appropriate chew toys can also give your dog something to do while you're gone.

Appropriate chew toys can also give your dog something to do while you're gone.

Desensitisation - gradually introduce alone time to your dog

Like all new things, it's important to introduce your dog to being alone at home gradually. The more time they have to get used to it, the better they will learn to cope. Try going out for just a few minutes at a time. When you return, greet your dog calmly. Continue doing this, and gradually increasing the time away. This gives your dog a chance to acclimatise to being alone through a series of less intense experiences.

Exercise and mental stimulation are key

Your dog will be happier and healthier with the right amount of exercise and mental stimulation. Make sure to walk your dog before you go to work, so that they feel relaxed when you're gone. Change up the walk so that it stays interesting to them.

Provide things for your dog to do - this can include food puzzles and KONG-style toys, or hide food around the backyard for them to sniff out and find. Appropriate chew toys can also give your dog something to do while you're gone.

Not all dogs will adjust to spending large amounts of time at home, so it's really important that you understand your dog's needs, and provide them with a routine that best suits them. It might be useful to consider hiring an experienced dog walker to provide an extra walk during the day, see if a friend or family member can check in your dog while you're away, or to research reputable doggy day care providers.

It's important to remember that these tips are mostly effective for dogs with mild anxiety. If your dog is highly anxious, it's very important to talk to your vet about the best way to manage this.