Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs — and How to Help Them Cope

Your dog’s favorite place to be is at your side. But if your pup’s neediness gets out of hand, there are things you can do to help them stay calm.

By Leslie Nemo
Jun 25, 2020 2:47 PM
Sad Dog Looking Out Window - Shutterstock
(Credit: Vatcharakris/Shutterstock)


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If the jingle of dog tags and patter of four paws follows you everywhere you go these days, your pup is probably loving all the extra time you’re spending at home. But these habits won’t last forever — eventually, you and your household will spend more time away, and you could start to see signs that your dog is feeling some separation anxiety. 

Maybe you’ve clicked on this article because you already know your pup needs help coping with your absences. That’s a great first step, says Niwako Ogata, a veterinarian researching pet mental health at Purdue University. Even 10 years ago, surveys assessing pet anxiety found that owners would see the symptoms in their dogs but rarely look to help them, an attitude that has drastically changed. “People are paying attention to other species’ pain or suffering,” Ogata says. “I have hope that people are getting better, slowly.”

Maybe They Just Miss You

Dog anxiety and fear is really common — a recent survey looking at over 13,000 pups found that over 70 percent showed anxiety issues. If you’re looking to get a dog and want to anticipate the likelihood of separation anxiety, good luck. Researchers have been trying to tease apart the root causes of these attachment issues for years. So far, there’s no clear breed that is more inclined to have these issues, and it’s likely that genetics, as well as early life events, shape a dog’s need for attention. 

Additionally, anxiety might not appear the way you think it would. Some dogs bark, pace, pant heavily, go to the bathroom in the house or destroy furniture. These can all happen while you’re in the house, which confuses owners, Ogata says. You might not think you’re “away” when you’re in the bathroom, for example. But to some dogs, you are absent whether you’re mowing the lawn or in another country — and even brief separation can be enough to kick off their stress response. Owners often interpret carpet wetting or chewed-up shoes as a dog competing for attention or retaliating for insufficient cuddles. In reality, they’re just expressing anxiety over missing you, Ogata says. 

Read more: What Is Your Dog Thinking?

Symptoms can be even less subtle than a ruined chair cushion. Monique Udell, an animal cognition researcher at Oregon State University, says dogs love our socks and shoes because they carry a lot of our odors. “If you see your shoes out in the living room, that might indicate your dog is searching for you and using your scent that way.” 

We All Like a Routine

If it seems like your dog is having a hard time, practice routines. Just like humans, dogs love predictability. Regular parts of their lives — especially core elements like meals, walks and playtime — will help your pup handle other schedule changes or time alone. Keep the same breakfast time they had before you started working from home, for example, says Udell. This rule applies to what kind of behaviors you encourage, too. Allowing your pup on the couch one day but not the next, or offering table scraps some evenings but not others, can really confuse a dog, particularly if they tend to be more anxious, Ogata says. 

It’s also worth leaving for short periods of time. Going for a drive or a walk can give everyone some practice at being apart, Udell says. The earlier you start these habits, the better. After all, we all know it will be hard to adjust overnight from work-from-home routines to traditional commutes. “We need to remember that the same thing is going to be true for our animals, but they don’t know why and don’t know it’s coming,” Udell says.

These habit changes might be enough to keep your dog calm and collected when you’re gone. Some degree of attachment is healthy, Udell points out — your dog’s thrilled tail-wagging when you come home is pretty normal, for example. If these interventions don’t work and your dog’s separation anxiety is causing serious problems for you and your pet, it’s time to see a vet or specialist, Ogata says. Odds are you wouldn’t try and cure any pet physical illness at home, so why not consider seeking professional help for their mental health, too? Ogata often sees owners that feel a lot of personal guilt for their dog’s anxiety, though that perspective often misses factors that are out of their control, she says. “Try and see the big picture and don’t take it too personally.”

And though your dogs might be the ones begging for belly rubs the most, don’t forget about cats, Udell says. Our feline friends may be more distant sometimes, but they’re also sensitive to your absence. “Helping them with love and attention at this time is equally important.”

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