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Separation anxiety in dogs is a behavioral problem that trainers have been treating for quite some time, but we’ve seen a large spike in cases of separation anxiety over the last couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With many new dog owners returning to work and normal life, they’re beginning to see what appear to be the symptoms of separation anxiety in their dogs and are looking for solutions from trainers like Koru K9.

If you think your dog may be experiencing separation anxiety, we’ve compiled answers to the most important questions you likely have right now to help identify what steps you should take next.

What is separation anxiety in dogs?

Separation anxiety is when a dog experiences distress, ranging from mild to extreme, while being visibly or physically away from their owner.

The symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs may include distress as the owner prepares to leave, howling or excessive barking, whining or crying, panting or salivating, pacing, destruction of the home or crate, inappropriate urination or defecation in the house even though they’re potty trained, or, in extreme cases, breaking free through barriers, doors or windows.

What causes separation anxiety in dogs?

In most of the cases we see, separation anxiety in dogs is a learned behavior. That means owners inadvertently reinforce improper behavior or states of mind, like jumping up when someone comes home, in dogs who may already be genetically predisposed to anxiety or fear. The ranges of genetic anxiety in dogs vary and the reinforcement of the unwanted behaviors or states of mind can compound the problem and eventually lead to separation anxiety.

Additionally, there are breeds of working dogs, such as herding breeds, that can develop separation anxiety if they’re not provided with the necessary outlets to expend their energy. If a dog is high-drive or high-energy and requires a great deal of mental or physical stimulation and those needs aren’t met, that dog can have the propensity to anxiety.

How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?

If you think your dog may be exhibiting the signs or symptoms of separation anxiety, ask yourself the following three questions, listed in the order the described symptoms typically appear:

  1. Do I hear my dog scratching, whining, howling or crying when I leave, or are preparing to leave, the home?
  2. Is my dog inappropriately urinating or defecating in the home even though they’re potty trained?
  3. Does my dog reach an elevated state of mind – becoming overly excited and unable to calm down for an extended period – when myself and others return to the home?

If you answer “yes” to one or more of the questions above, there’s a possibility your dog is dealing with some level of separation anxiety – the more questions to which you’ve answered “yes,” the more severe level of anxiety your dog may be dealing with.

How can I help my dog deal with separation anxiety?

To properly identify, understand and fix your dog’s separation anxiety, we recommend balanced training programs like the ones offered from Koru K9. Reinforced behaviors common with separation anxiety in dogs take time to undo – changing your dog’s behavior requires your long-term patience and commitment, and you play as important a role in your dog’s improvement as your dog does.

In addition to proper balanced training, there are several ways owners of dogs who have separation anxiety can help their pet work to improve symptoms, state of mind and overall behavior.

Taking a holistic, multi-layered approach to your dog’s separation anxiety will help ensure the improper behavior does not trickle into other areas of their lives. Together with training, the steps outlined below can help to undo the behavior that’s a part of separation anxiety in dogs.

1) Understand the difference between anxiety and excitement

One of the most important things that dog owners must be able to identify is the difference between anxiety and excitement. When dogs act inappropriately in a high-stress situation like a stranger at the door or being around other dogs at the park, owners will often chalk the behavior up to excitement about the situation. However, while this behavior may seem like excitement to us, it’s often anxiety manifesting. Understanding the difference is key to alleviating your dog’s separation anxiety symptoms.

2) Reinforce behaviors and states of mind you want from your dog

It’s vital to reinforce good behavior while making sure you don’t support the behaviors you don’t want your dog to repeat.

For example, if your dog is jumping up at the door when you get home and then you reinforce that behavior, your dog will think, “This is how I should be. This is how my owners want me to act.” Along the same lines, if you make a big deal of leaving the house and your dog alone, they’ll become frightened and start to wonder what’s going on, which can contribute to anxiety and bad behavior.

Instead, if you reinforce that getting amped up when you come home or people are at the door is not acceptable and you don’t overreact with your dog when you leave, they’ll better understand the behaviors and states of mind that are expected of them when you’re home and when you’re not.

3) Proper crate training

Crate training, when done correctly, can go a long way in helping alleviate separation anxiety. We often see owners hesitant to teach their dogs how to use a crate because many people equate it to jail, but it will be the opposite if implemented the right way. When you introduce a crate and train your dog how to use it properly, it’s a safe space – more like a bedroom than a jail cell. So rather than leaving your dog in a large, open space when you’re not home, they’re in a cozy bedroom – a safe place they want to be.

4) Provide outlets to avoid boredom

Boredom can play a big role in separation anxiety. For example, if your dog isn’t provided with the proper outlets for its energy – like walks or exercise – and they’re left at home with room to roam, that pent-up energy can lead to inappropriate behavior when you’re not around. Another effective tool for dealing with boredom are toys, like frozen kongs or bully sticks. We recommend you always take steps to ensure you’re giving your dog toys or treats that are safe. Test out any toy, treat or food item while the dog is supervised before leaving them unattended with it.

If your dog is occupied with a toy, it keeps their brain engaged and focused on the toy instead of thinking about where you are. Together, toys and proper stimulation, both mental and physical, can be valuable in getting the unwanted behavior that’s linked with separation anxiety to subside.

5) Teach your dog to be calm in all aspects of life

Everything in a dog’s life adds up. In a lot of the cases that we deal with, there’s a disconnect with owners because they don’t fully understand that a dog’s behavior inside can bleed into what’s outside. For example, we teach dogs to be calm outside of their crate and then put them into their crate, where they’ll remain calm because it’s already their state of mind.

6) Establish boundaries in the home

This is one of the most important parts of effective training, as well as fixing the improper behavior that comes with separation anxiety. Establishing boundaries in the home means not giving your dog free access to everything as it’s often too much for them to handle. That’s why Koru K9 implements what we call a “no free lunch policy” during training: if owners give their dogs free food or affection all the time, even when they’re behaving badly, it means there’s a lack of boundaries, structure and rules that clearly define how the dog can function in a human world.

Is there medication for separation anxiety in dogs?

Anxiety medication for dogs is often overprescribed rather than the proper steps taken for introducing balanced training or behavior modification. There are, however, some dogs who will benefit from medication to help treat their separation anxiety but it’s important to take the right steps to know if that’s what’s for your dog.

When exploring whether to seek medication for your dog’s separation anxiety, we recommend getting the advice of both a trainer and a veterinarian as both can offer expertise on the matter but in different areas. Balanced training programs like those offered by Koru K9 take time – months, not weeks – to establish the right course of action, but this tandem approach will give you a comprehensive understanding of your dog’s needs and help you make the best decision. Prescribing medication is a serious step and should be treated as such.