What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

separation anxiety, small dogs

Separation anxiety is one of the most common problems that dogs develop and it is very very common in small/toy breeds. It’s an anxiety disorder, and is defined as a state of intense panic brought on by the dog’s isolation/separation from her owners. In other words: when you leave for work in the morning, your dog is thrown into a state of nervous anxiety.  

This anxiety increases very quickly. Why does this happen?  Well, for one thing, dogs are social animals, just as humans and they need lots of company and social interaction to keep them happy and content. No dog likes to be left alone for long periods of time, but some dogs do a lot worse than others: these are the ones most prone to separation anxiety.

Causes of Separation Anxiety

Dogs at Risk for Separation Anxiety

  • Small Dogs Bred to be companions often suffer from Separation Anxiety
  • Shelter Dogs who have suffered multiple traumas
  • Puppies who were separated too early from their mother
  • Dogs left alone for long periods of time
  • Dogs that experienced something traumatic while home alone such as a severe thunderstorm, hail storm or other severe weather event.
  • Sudden change in routine such as a stay at home owner taking on a job away from the home

There are a number of causes of separation anxiety disorder and they fall into the areas of genetics and early socialization.  

Some breeds are genetically predisposed towards anxiety and insecurity, which is something you should consider when deciding which breed you’re going to go for (particularly if you’re going to be absent for long stretches of time).  Many small dogs suffer from separation anxiety.  

A significant proportion of dogs from shelters develop separation anxiety. Most of these ‘shelter dogs’ have undergone substantial trauma in their lives. They were abandoned by their previous owners, and thus they have little trust that their new owner, namely you are not going to abandon them as well.

Dogs that were separated from their mothers and siblings too early have been identified as being especially prone to separation anxiety also. Puppies from pet-stores are a perfect example of this: they are usually taken from their mothers well before the earliest possible age, which is 8 weeks, and confined to a small glass box or a cage in the pet store for anywhere between a few weeks to a few months. This early weaning, together with the lack of exercise and human affection while in the pet store, is mentally distressing for the dog.

Puppy separation anxiety can be very stressful to you and your dog.

Neglect is the number-one cause of separation anxiety in dogs. If you must be absent more than you are present in your dog’s life, separation anxiety is pretty much inevitable. Your dog needs your company, affection, and attention in order to be happy and content.

The symptoms seen in dogs with separation anxiety are pretty unique.

First, your dog usually learns to tell when you’re about to leave because they are very good at picking up the cues you give off such as keys jingling and will see you putting on your coat.   

They begin to feel anxious. They may follow you from room to room, whining, trembling, and crying. Some dogs even become aggressive, in an attempt to stop their owners from leaving.

When you have left, the anxious behavior will rapidly get worse and usually peaks within half an hour.

They may bark nonstop, scratch and dig at windows and doors in their mistaken belief that they can get out and be with you.  

They might also chew inappropriate items, and even urinate and defecate inside the house. In extreme cases, she might harm themselves by licking or chewing their skin until it is raw or pulling out their fur.  

Some dogs will also engage in obsessive-compulsive behaviors, like spinning and tail-chasing.  Before you can determine that your dog has separation anxiety, you should rule out the possibility of a medical problem. 

Signs Your Dog Might Be Anxious

  • Your dog follows you from room to room when they know its time for you to leave
  • Your dog is excessively excited to see you when you return( he acts likes he hasn't seen you in years)
  • Your dog engages in destructive behaviors when you are gone. (Chewing, Urinating, Tearing up fabrics, Digging, Trying to Escape)
  • Your dog howls, cries, whines or barks while you are gone
  • Your dog paces, or runs in circles
  • Your dog engages in self destructive behaviors--(chewing at paw)

Upon your return, she’ll be excessively excited, and will leap around you in a state of delight for a long period of time, much more than the usual 30 seconds to one minute that is common in happy, well-adjusted dogs.

Some owners misunderstand this extended greeting. These owners do not understand that such a greeting actually signifies the presence of a psychological disorder (i.e.  separation anxiety disorder).  Instead, these pet owners actually encourage their dog to get more and more worked up upon their return by fueling the dog’s excitement, encouraging her to leap around.  

If you’re behaving in this way with your dog, please stop. I know it’s tempting and very easy to do, and it seems harmless, after all, she’s so happy to see you, what harm can it do to return her attention and affection in equal measure?

What is actually happening is that you are endorsing her belief that your return is the high point of the day. So she is happy when you return but, when it’s time for you to leave again, gets even unhappier when you walk out that door.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your anxious dog.  Here’s a short list of do’s and don’ts:

Ease the Anxiety of Mildly Affected Dogs

  • Leave chew toys, a couple of hard treats and a Kong Toy stuffed with something irresistible to your dog.
  • Take your dog on a brisk walk before you leave.
  • Turn on music--soft classical music calms some dogs.
  • Some dogs do better in a room with a view (a window).
  • Leave a piece of your clothing that he can cuddle.
  • Don't make departures or arrivals a big deal.
  • Wait a few minutes after arriving before you greet the dog.
  • Some over-the-counter calming agents may help.
  • Use a word that tells the dog you'll be back and say it the last thing before you leave.
  • Ask your veterinarian about drug therapy.
  • Consider doggie daycare.



DO’s for Helping Your Anxious Dog
Deal with her Separation Anxiety
Disorder

Exercise

Give her plenty of opportunities for exercise. This is really important for larger dogs, but small dogs benefit from a short brisk walk too.   Remember, if you’re leaving for work in the morning, she will probably be by herself for at least four hours at the least.  

If you have a dog-walker to take her out mid-day instead of coming back yourself, she won’t see you, the most important person in her life, for at least nine hours! So she needs a good, vigorous walk (fifteen to twenty minutes is the absolute minimum here!) before you walk out that door. More is even better.  Exercise is essential for dogs with separation anxiety.  A tired dog is less likely to engage in anxious behaviors.

Chews, Toys, Kong Type Toys

Distract her from her boredom, loneliness, and anxiety by giving her a substitute for her anxious pacing, and whining. All dogs love to chew – why not play on this predisposition?

Get a couple of bones and give her one about 5 minutes before you leave. It’ll keep her happy and occupied, and will help ease the anxiety she feels when you leave.   A Kong Toy is also a wonderful object to help anxious dogs. 

Stuff the Kong Toy with something your dog loves such as peanut butter, cream cheese, cottage cheese, canned dog food, cheese or whatever your dog loves.  As you are walking out the door, give him the Kong.  Take it away as soon as you return so that he begins to associate your leaving with his getting this special treat.

Quiet Music

When you leave, put the radio on to a soothing station: classical music is ideal, but any station featuring lots of talk shows is also ideal. Keep the volume quite low and barely audible, and it’ll calm her down a bit and give her the feeling that she’s got company. Any soothing sounds will help with puppy separation anxiety.  Have you checked out our article on using Music to Calm Your Anxious Dog?

A Room with a View

If at all possible, supply her with a view: if she can see the world going by, that’s the next best thing to being out and about in it.  Dogs with Separation anxiety should not have the run of the house, but she should not be confined to a crate either. 

A good compromise is a small room or a section of a room partitioned off by an exercise pen.  If a window is available, the dog will not feel quite so isolated.

Your Personal Departure Routine

Acclimatize her to your leaving through a conditioning process.  Pretend to get ready to leave, jingle your keys and put on your coat, and open the door.  Then, turn around and sit back down.   

Do this until she’s not reacting any more. When there’s no reaction, give her a treat and lavish praise for being so brave. Next, practice actually walking out the door, and returning immediately, again doing this until there’s no reaction.

Gradually work up until you’re able to leave the house with no signs of stress from her.  Determine what you will say as you walk out the door and remember to say the same thing exactly the same way each time you leave.  "I'll be back!"

Leave Something of Yourself

Leave a piece of your un-laundered clothing for your dog.  Most dogs will drag it into his bed or cuddle up with it on the floor.  Change it out each day.  If you are worried about your dog chewing, choose an old T-Shirt that is bound for trash.  Your dog will love you for it.

Calming Products

Some dogs react to calming scents.  Lavandor is one scent that can be sprayed on her bed or in the air.  I don't recommend leaving a house with a lit candle, but any type of diffuser with a calming scent might help. 

There are over the counter calming agents such as Comfort Zone with D.A.P. and Sentry Stop That which produces pheromones that calms dogs.  Some dogs respond to these scents.

Some people find that Thundershirts work well with separation anxiety as well as thunderstorms.

Sometimes collars with pheromones work with some dogs.  Ask your vet for recommendations.

Medications

In more severe cases, your veterinarian my be able to prescribe an anti-depressant or an anti-anxiety mediation for your dog. 


DON’Ts for Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Are you guilty of any of these very human reactions to your dog's separation anxiety?  If so, you're not alone, but they don't work.

Forget the Sympathy

Our first reaction is to become very sympathetic to her whines and cries, but this type of reaction is likely to backfire. Although it sounds very cold-hearted, trying to soothe and comfort your dog by patting her and cooing over her is actually one of the worst things you can do. What this does is validate her feelings.

Forget the Punishments

Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite, and harsh scoldings will make things worse.   If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could get worse.

Be patient, and work with your pet even if it means taking baby steps until he feels comfortable and enjoys spending time away from you.


For severe cases, there are methods to desensitize dogs and counter-conditioning protocols that normally require the help of a professional.  If you feel your dog might be in this category, it would be best to consult a Board Certified Veterinary-Behavioralist or a Certified Applied Animal Behavioralist (CAAB or ACAAB)

Return from Separation Anxiety To Behavioral Problems


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