What is separation anxiety in dogs?

By Dr. Kathryn Sarpong, DVM

Some dogs with too much unused energy and a highly developed bond to their families can develop destructive tendencies or excessive barking when left alone.  This can include destroying items in the house, scratching at doors or windows, destroying blinds, barking continuously, or having accidents in the house.   Certain breeds and personalities are more prone to this problem.  The negative behavior can lead to the dog being punished when the owner returns, and the punishment can lead to a worsening of the anxiety.   This separation anxiety may become severe enough to need changes in the day to day interaction with the family, training interventions, or even medication.

The key to treating the unwanted behavior is to lessen the sharp distinctions between when the family member is present and when the dog is left alone.  This means to not greet the dog immediately and enthusiastically when returning from an absence.  Wait at least 10 minutes after you walk in the door before petting the dog or making eye contact.  Do not punish the dog for any destructive behaviors done in your absence.  Punishment increases the anxiety and is not effective.  Ideally the dog should be trained to like a crate or other “safe” place where it is confined when alone — the dog can feel more secure in this den like environment.   A dog should also be de-sensitized to departure cues.  Keys and bags should be gathered, the alarm set, and then NOT followed by leaving.  The owner should ignore the dog for the last 20-30 minutes prior to leaving the house, and a treat placed in the dog’s safe place for enjoyment while the owner is gone.  These guidelines need to be followed daily to help a dog be released from separation anxiety.

Consult your veterinarian for more information.   When training is not enough, some supplements, scent hormones, or medications may be prescribed to help your dog have a happy home life.