Lifestyle Guides

Separation anxiety: what it is and how to deal with it

The months of remote working and home schooling were tough on families but there’s no doubt that our dogs were the happiest they’ve ever been. But what happens now we're starting to head back to the office?

dog looking out of window waiting for owner

When we were only allowed to leave our homes for exercise, suddenly everyone wanted to walk the dog. As domesticated pack animals, dogs were never meant to be left alone so having constant companionship during this time was a dream come true for them.

As the weeks went by, dogs forgot what life was like pre-covid and those puppies bought during lockdown had never had to endure an owner’s goodbye. According to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, 3.2 million households in the UK have acquired a pet since the beginning of the pandemic – that’s a lot of dogs that have never learned to be alone.

Children have now gone back to school and employers are making plans for staff to return to their desks too, but the nation’s dogs are unprepared and not all of them will cope.

What is separation anxiety?

Dogs, by their very nature, are sociable and are not designed to live alone. In their role as pets, their families have become their packs and many dogs can show signs of anxiety when separated from them. These signs range from mild to severe and you may not even realise your pet suffers if you cannot observe him when you’re not at home.

RSPCA figures from before the pandemic suggested that 85% of dogs struggled to cope when left alone, which is an estimated seven million dogs in the UK. 

collie dog with chewed cushion

How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?

A severe case of separation anxiety is easier to detect in a dog and signs to look out for include: 

  • Excessive barking
  • Howling
  • Chewing or destruction in the home
  • Toileting indoors
  • Uneaten food 
  • Excessive drooling 

Milder cases may not be as easy to identify as owners won’t always be able to see subtle signs of stress such as pacing, panting or having a tense posture. If you’re concerned, try setting up a camera to observe your dog’s actions while you’re not home.

It could be that a noisy or destructive dog is just bored when left. If you ensure your dog has been exercised before you leave home and has something to occupy him when you’re not there – such as a food-dispensing toy or puzzle – you can rule out boredom. A dog that’s happy to eat when home alone is not likely to be unduly stressed.

Why do some dogs suffer more from separation anxiety?

Dogs need to be taught how to be happy on their own as it’s not in their nature. This is best done from a young age and canine behaviourists recommend that you gradually build up the amount of time a dog is left alone and that separation is associated with something good.

For puppies who have never been taught that it’s OK to be on their own, or for adult dogs who have got used to a new routine of their owners always being at home, it can be very difficult to cope when suddenly faced with their own company.

dog chewing orange ball

How to tackle separation anxiety

Overcoming separation anxiety takes time and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Prevention is definitely better than cure, which is why it’s very important to gradually build up alone time in a new pup or rescue dog right from the beginning. 

Pet behaviour expert Leon Towers has suggested the following to help keep a dog happy when they need to be left alone:

  • Don’t let your puppy follow you around everywhere in the home as this could potentially create a dog who is unable to cope when they can’t see you
  • Try crate training a dog as this provides a safe space for a dog where they feel most secure when left alone
  • Practise leaving the house without your dog and don’t make a fuss when you leave the house as this can feed a dog’s anxiety
  • When you leave your dog alone, leave them with a suitable chew toy to keep them occupied

Essentially, what you want to do is change a dog’s perspective of being alone – associating it with something fun instead of something scary. Here are some things to try:

  • If you have a very clingy dog, you can get him used to time away from you by introducing a stairgate as a barrier in your home. Put it in a doorway separating you from your dog so that he can still see you but cannot get to you. Initially, just use it for a very short time while your dog is doing something fun – like chewing – and gradually build up the time you’re apart with you sometimes going out of sight for a little while.
  • Studies have shown that when a dog is licking, it increases the release of endorphins in the brain, which calms them. Toys – like Kongs stuffed with food or lick mats covered with spreadable cheese – are a great way of keeping dogs busy and calm, distracting them when you’re not available.
  • Background noise can be useful for some dogs that get anxious in the home on their own. You could try leaving a radio or television on for them or a playlist of relaxing music. A study by Colorado State College of Veterinary Medicine in 2012 showed that classical music had a significant calming effect on shelter dogs.
  • Don’t assume that getting another dog for company will help. Your pet could have developed a particularly strong attachment to you so simply expanding the pack won’t make up for your absence.

Consider doggy day care or a dog walker

person taking airedale terrier for a walk

If you’re concerned about leaving your dog alone, you could enlist the services of a dog walker or dog sitter to provide them with some company in your absence. Perhaps you have a friend or neighbour who’d be happy to keep them company during the day if they’re very unhappy being left home alone?

Leon Towers advises planning any doggy day care in advance. "Visit your chosen doggy day care provider before booking and ensure it's insured and that the staff are all trained in dog behaviour and first aid.

"A good day care facility should have access to a large, open space indoors or outdoors (or both) for a dog to run around, have fresh water available and resting facility with clean beds and bedding."

Leon adds: "If a dog is staying at home alone for more than five hours a day, then it should be taken for a one hour dog walk by a dog walker to split the day. When leaving your dog alone, ensure that they have enough fresh drinking water, comfortable bedding and a calm smaller room to make them feel as safe as possible. The more space that a dog has to pace, the more stressful the area will become."

Dealing with severe separation anxiety

If you suspect your dog is suffering from severe separation anxiety, it’s important you seek professional help from your vet or a good canine behaviourist. Remember, when dealing with anxiety-based issues, patience is paramount so you don’t cause your pet any additional stress. 

Never punish your dog for anything he does while stressed – for example toileting in the house or scratching at doors. You’ll only make things worse and you could damage the bond between you.

With guidance from a professional behaviourist – along with time, patience and love – you’ll see a wagging tail when you leave home, not just when you return.

I’ve spent 20 years writing about pets and exploring the wonderful relationships they have with their owners. I started as a staff writer on Dogs Today magazine, working my way up to become deputy editor in 2008. In 2010, I left the office to pursue a freelance career, relocated to north Norfolk and started a family. 

Over the years I’ve contributed thoughtful human-interest features, celebrity interviews and investigative news stories to publications including The Sunday Times, Dogs Today, Dogs Monthly and Your Cat. I’ve also ghost-written veterinary books and press releases for the pet industry.

When I’m not writing, I enjoy long walks in the Norfolk countryside with my rescue lurcher Popsie. These are always followed by tea and cake.

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