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Dogs in Distress! Help your dog overcome Separation Anxiety

Updated on February 13, 2015

D.I.D.- Dogs in Distress!

Caring for your dog's physical needs are important. Caring for a dog's emotional needs are equally as important. Today's topic is separation anxiety. This is something that can be seen not only in humans, but in our furry friends as well.

First of all, what is separation anxiety? Separation anxiety is when anxiety is provoked in a dog due to the threat of separation from its mother. In this case, the mother is the primary caregiver for the animal or whoever the animal has developed a close relationship to.

Remember "Bea"? When I first adopted Bea she had horrible separation anxiety. She would claw and chew at the doors causing a great deal of damage to herself and to the house while unattended. She would also bark and wail for someone to come be with her. I also noticed she had nightmares. Who knows what horrors she experienced before I adopted her? She is a much different dog today.

So how do we train a dog with separation anxiety? How do we make them feel more comfortable at home?

Separation anxiety can harm your dog and your home

When I first adopted Bea she exhibited many signs of separation anxiety, including destruction of door frames and howling.
When I first adopted Bea she exhibited many signs of separation anxiety, including destruction of door frames and howling.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Before you begin working with a dog with separation anxiety, be sure that it really is separation anxiety and not simply boredom or puppy behavior.

These are just a few symptoms of separation anxiety:

1. Fearfulness or clinginess

2. Excessive and prolonged barking and howling

3. Pacing

4. Chewing and destruction of door and window frames, flooring, etc.

5. Hyperactivity, excessive panting

If your dog truly has separation anxiety, it is important to seek out your veterinarian who may prescribe medication to help with anxiety. Medication is not a permanent solution and is meant to be used long enough for the dog to calm down enough to learn new behaviors.

The following video is an example of a dog who truly has separation anxiety. He is not simply bored and has a room to himself. The destruction of the window blinds, and excessive whining over a 2-hour long period is a classic example of how this dog has not learned to cope with his owner's departure.

Example of Separation Anxiety

Causes of Separation Anxiety

Reinforcing Negative Behaviors

There are many things that can cause separation anxiety. Sometimes it can start in the puppy years. Just like a child, puppies will cry when they are alone or in their crate, and the owner may feel the need to reassure them. This is the first big mistake. By coddling the puppy you are reinforcing that reaction. Now he will cry and cry even into his adult years and it will no longer be cute.

Many owners aren't aware of how they reinforce negative behaviors. Another example of reinforcing separation anxiety is paying attention to the dog when you come home and leave the house, making a big fuss. This will teach the dog that his overly-anxious behavior in response to your presence is okay.

Praising an unwanted behavior will only reinforce it. It may seem like all wags and smiles for now, but when your dog starts chewing and scratching at your doors, howling and bothering your neighbors, and potentially hurting himself in the process, it won't be such a good thing.

Lack of Training and Self-Control

Teaching your dog self-control and asserting your position as pack leader is a necessary part of moving forward with training. When a dog learns how to inhibit his compulsions they will realize that there is no reason to be stressed. Teach your dog to have alone time. If your dog is always by your side, in your lap, or even in the same room, teach your dog that it's okay to go to his or her own space away from you. Eventually you can start increasing the time that you are away from the dog. A crate is a great tool to have. It provides your dog with his own personal space and teaches them they do not have to be in control of everything that happens around them.

I like to place a sheet over my dog's crate on three sides so it feels safer for her. It is also a place for me to send her when she is underfoot. When I send her to her crate she learns to lay down and stay there. She learns that it is okay to watch, relax, and accept her surroundings.

Other Causes of Separation Anxiety

Other causes of separation anxiety can including premature weaning as a puppy, rejection by the dog's mother (dame) as a puppy, dogs who are insecure from being bounced around between shelters and owners, dogs who are older and developing sensory deprivation issues such as blindness or deafness (making them feel even more reliant on their caregiver), and genetic high-risk factors. Many of these you may not be able to prevent especially if you have adopted a dog with a traumatic past, like in Bea's situation.

Finding balance between you and your dog
Finding balance between you and your dog

Overcoming Separation Anxiety

Basic training using positive reinforcement is a good place to start. When I first adopted Bea, she was still building a bond with me. It was obvious she hadn't had any training. Although she prefers to be more of a couch potato, that is no excuse to not train a dog. Once I started giving her basic training such as sit, stay, come, back, lay down, and to leave a room, she started to respect me as her pack leader which instilled confidence in her. If she followed me into the bedroom or into the kitchen, I taught her to leave when I said so. Rottweilers can be very stubborn, even those as sweet as my Bea.

Teach him boundaries and limits. Respecting you and his boundaries is one of the most important things a dog can learn. If your dog barks excessively when he cannot have your way you can teach the dog a "quiet" command by interrupting the bark and rewarding when there is a few seconds of silence. Gradually you can build this from a few seconds to several minutes. This can be accompanied by a bark command. Teach your dog when it's okay to let it all out and then to control himself when it is time to be quiet again.

Teaching boundaries can be done through training your dog not to door dash, jump up on people, respect the "back up" command, and "leave it" command.

By ignoring the dog when you come into the house and by not making it a big deal when you leave, the dog will be confident and trust in the fact that you will come home. The best time to say hello to your dog is after they have settled down. Until then, ignore them. It may seem harsh at first, but your dog will be a lot happier and healthier for it in the end. It could be as little as 5 minutes, or as much as 30 minutes before your dog's anxiety starts to lessen. When I come home I wait about 10 - 15 minutes before I interact with Bea at all. Although her separation anxiety is now gone, I continue practicing this so that her anxiety will not return.

Less is more. It may be that the attention you give your dog on a regular basis may still be too stimulating. Try using less eye contact with your dog, playing less, and praising less. I found that teaching Bea to stay out of the bedroom helped a lot. She knew I was still in the house and slowly learned that it was okay not to be by my side 24/7.

Allow the dog to play with toys and entertain himself.

Exposure to lots of different dog-friendly places could also help boost your dog's confidence. Places could include pet-friendly stores, dog parks, beaches, or even taking a stroll in a different part of the neighborhood.

Another great way to build a healthy relationship between you and your dog is through more advanced training in the world of sports. Agility is just one example, in which the dog learns to follow and respect the handler's cues in order to correctly complete a course of obstacles. There are many teamwork-based activities and sports you and your dog may enjoy!

Dogs are very sensitive to cues. Your dog may think that the jangle of your keys, or when you get up out of your seat, it means you are leaving. Certain cues can trigger the anxious response. Changing up your routine or practicing these cues without pairing them with your motion to leave can help teach a dog that these cues are meaningless and therefore reduce his anxiety.

Desensitization training may also be the way to go. However, I find this didn't work very well with Bea. Desensitization involves leaving the dog alone for a short period of time, returning and then rewarding the dog. With high-anxiety dogs I do not find this effective, at least not as a beginning step. I tried this with Bea but it was not effective until I had taken advantage of the methods previously mentioned.

Many high-anxiety dogs will not have a moment where they settle down and can then be rewarded. I actually sat and timed Bea barking and whining for over 2 consecutive hours.

If you reward when they still exhibit signs of anxiety, you may just inadvertently reinforce the anxious behavior even more. If this is the method you choose to start out with, I would advise speaking to a trainer to help you work out the timing with your individual dog for this method. Combining basic training alongside desensitization may prove to be extremely effective.

A lot of these preventative steps will ensure that your dog will develop into a confident, happy adult.

To sum it up...

1. Not all dogs who have anxiety are rescue dogs. It can be developed in puppy hood, and worsen over time.

2. Some causes of this anxiety are unknown, but treating it has the same basic principles. If your dog has a unique case or if you are unsure how to proceed in rehabilitating a dog with separation anxiety, consult your trainer.

3. Steps to changing your dog's behavior includes first consulting your veterinarian to see if medication is required to help the training process.

4. Assert your role as pack leader and teach your dog to be confident in your absence.

5. Give your dog a safe, personal space, and teach them to occupy themselves in a positive way, such as playing by themselves.

6. Never reward unwanted behaviors and be aware of your own routine and actions.

Thank you for reading and check back for more articles about canine companions!

Your Personal Experience

Do you know a dog who has had separation anxiety?

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    • Valene profile image


      15 months ago from Missouri

      This is very helpful. I don't have dogs, but I dogsit for some people in the area and sometimes the dogs act strange because they miss their owners.

    • amanda5577 profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Michigan

      Hello Sheila! Thank you for your inquiry. "Clingy" behavior is definitely an indicator of separation anxiety. There are several things you can work on with your dog to help him overcome this anxiety.

      There may be triggers that cause your dog to start his anxious behavior, such as picking up your keys, or putting on your shoes before leaving the house. Expose your dog to these triggers by doing whatever routine that causes your dog to be anxious. Then, put everything away like nothing happened and do not leave the house. Eventually, your dog will learn that these routines do not necessarily mean that you are leaving.

      To help with clingy behavior inside the home, the best thing you can do for your dog is to IGNORE him when he is acting clingy. This means that you will need to make yourself "boring" and "non-stimulating". If your dog seeks attention, turn your back. If he jumps up on you, instead of petting him, walk away from him. Avoid looking at your dog during these training periods, because even eye contact is considered to be attention. It may seem harsh at first, but in order to reduce his anxiety and anxious behavior, he will need to learn that he will only get attention on your terms, not his. If you do not already have a crate in this house for him to use as his personal space, consider setting up a crate with a blanket or bed and a few toys and treats. This will reward the dog when he voluntarily separates himself from you. A crate will also give him a sense of security, a "safe spot". You can also praise your dog verbally when he goes inside his crate on his own. Leave the crate door open so he can come and go as he pleases. He will learn to love his special space. This is a great article that will further explain desensitization using crate training:

      Some other tips include not sleeping with your dog. Once he has gotten used to his crate, he should be kept locked in his great during the night. He will likely whimper at first, but it is important to ignore him and leave him in the crate for the entire night. It may take a couple of weeks until he has completely accepted this new routine. It is extremely important that you remain CONSISTENT with the training, no matter how difficult it will seem at first. This is the only way you will see progress and it is the only way your dog will learn to feel secure enough with himself and accept that he does not have to be by your side or receive attention 24/7.

      When transporting your dog, putting him in a crate in the vehicle is the safest for you and your dog. It will keep him safely confined during the drive and he will learn that his anxious behavior will not reward him any attention. It is also the safest way to transport in case you are ever in an accident. Think of it as a car seat for an infant, except for a dog.

      In conclusion, you can help your dog overcome his separation anxiety by asserting yourself as pack leader by only giving your dog attention on your terms when he is not seeking it. By ignoring your dog, he will learn to self-regulate, have more confidence in himself, and will therefore be happier and feel secure. Finally, structure and routine and very powerful. Consistency is key! Remember that helping a dog overcome anxiety can be a lengthy process. Success will take time and determination, but it will be worth the effort! Every dog is different and can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

      Below are a few more resources you may find helpful. Professional dog trainers are also a great resource. Many dog trainers offer home visit consultations and will help tailor training to you and your dog's individual needs. Good Luck!

    • profile image

      Sheila Ryan 

      2 years ago

      I have a jack russell and he's become clingy to me, whenever I get ready to go somewhere he thinks he can go to and I don't take him with me in the van without someone else to hold him in the van. How can I break him from being to clingy to me when they are others in the house? Thank you for your time on this? Help me please. Sheila Ryan

    • amanda5577 profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for commenting! Yes, it can be very difficult to ignore a dog who just craves your attention, but following through and being consistent is important. If you wait to praise until your dog has settled down, he will be a lot happier for it in the end. When anxiety is reinforced it only becomes worse over time.

    • MarloByDesign profile image


      3 years ago from United States

      Rated 'Interesting'. I had a dog with separation anxiety (when we left the house) and I would have had a hard time ignoring them when I came home. I feel like I need to give them love and attention. :)

    • amanda5577 profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Michigan

      Thank you for your comment! You are absolutely right. There are many ways to treat anxiety and other behavioral issues, but each animal is an individual and responds to different methods in their own unique ways. Many people consider their animals as part of their family, but it is important to remember to have boundaries which will make them healthier, happier members of the family.

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 

      3 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      This is great information and we need to realize that animals do not think and react in the same ways as we do as they lack the ability to have creative thought. We erroneously give them human traits then wonder why they do not respond as we expect.

      We keep dogs, cats and horses and each has its own distinct personality. This vary even within species so you need to understand each individual and what makes them tick. It is just as hard as building human relationships.

      Interesting and useful stuff!


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