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How to Help Your Dog Deal With Separation Anxiety

Leah Ingram

Now that the kids have gone back to school, you may have noticed some changes in the behavior of your other children—your fur babies. "Pet owners may be surprised to learn that their children may not be the only ones to experience back-to-school blues," explains Sharon Campbell, DVM, a veterinarian specializing in sedation and anesthesia with Zoetis, a global animal health company. "Our furry companions can sometimes struggle when it comes to changes in routine, especially if those changes mean suddenly spending a lot more time at home alone."

Unless you have a camera set up to record your pets' whereabouts during the day, there are signs you can look for to signal if your pet is struggling with separation anxiety. According to Campbell these signs include:

  • window shades askew
  • pillows tossed off furniture
  • home furnishings chewed
  • toys shredded or destroyed
  • accidents in the house
  • pet not eating food in your absence
  • excessive barking

Separation anxiety is especially acute in newly adopted pets. I learned this the hard way with my dog Oscar, whom we rescued in 2015. A few weeks after bringing him home, I had to attend a conference out of town. My husband was at work all day, and my daughters were at school.

Even though he had my other dog Sadie as company and a dog walker was coming in every four hours, he still destroyed the furniture in the guest bedroom where we kept our dogs when we left the house. That's a picture of him, below, with the dresser he turned over, chewed on and then pulled all of the clothes out of.

oscar anxiety

While this pet-shaming picture the dog walker sent to me is adorable, it's a sign that Oscar could have seriously hurt himself.

"A dog could get hung up in the blinds and try to jump through the window," Campbell explains.

We knew that Oscar could not be crated; his foster parent had told us how he'd freak out and chew through the crate tray if put in a crate. However, we never expected that a closed door of a guest bedroom would upset him so much.

How long to leave a dog alone

In addition, we tried not to leave the dogs alone for more than six hours at a time. According to Campbell, this timeframe max is a good rule of thumb.

"Puppies can't be left for very long without going out because their bladders are small and they need to eliminate more often," she says. So for a puppy, leave them alone for no longer than four hours. With adult dogs, she adds, "I would leave them for six to seven hours but no longer than that."

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In addition to age, consider the activity level of your dog. If your dog is exercised frequently, you may want to hire a dog walker to come in more often than every six to seven hours. My own dogs are normally walked every four or so hours—good for them and good for me in that it gets me out of my office multiple times a day. Knowing that, we always arrange to have a dog walker come every four hours or so if we're going to be away all day.

With an elderly dog, Campbell says, you may want to think more along the lines of a puppy timeframe. "Geriatric dogs have to eliminate more frequently," she says, "and as a geriatric dog, you want to get them up and moving."

More than just separation anxiety

Even so, it's important to remember that just being left alone isn't all that upsets some pets. "While your pet is home alone, they may also become frightened by unexpected noises, such as a newly started construction project that may trigger more stress and anxiety than usual," she says. "In fact, it is not uncommon for dogs with separation anxiety to also suffer from noise anxiety, also known as noise aversion. Separation anxiety is a serious condition, so it’s best to consult a veterinarian to help ease your pet’s anxiety."

You'll know if your dog has noise aversion or anxiety if they freak out during thunderstorms or fireworks on the 4th of July. If you know noises bother your dog, you can try leaving on a bathroom fan or the exhaust fan on your microwave to drown out any noises. You can also try a white noise machine. If all else fails, you can talk to your doctor about medical interventions.

Campbell says there is a host of medicines that fall into the anti-anxiety category for dogs—some of them are even used as anti-depressants in humans. However, never self-medicate your dog. Discuss your options with your veterinarian and see if those medications are right for your dogs. Some of the medication names your vet might share:

  • Clomicalm or Clomipramine
  • Reconcile or Fluoxetine
  • Sileo
  • Alprazolam

Tips for leaving the house

One of the best ways to help your dog deal with being left alone is trying behavior modification—yours and the dog's. For starters, don't make a big deal about leaving, with lots of kissy noises and prolonged good-byes. If you've ever had to take your young child to day care or leave them the first day at preschool, you know there can be crying. But staying and trying to comfort them is the worst thing to do. You should be very matter-of-fact about leaving.

Be the same way with your dogs. Campbell says you might even consider ignoring the dog for the 30 or so minutes before you leave.

Then, a few minutes before you leave, she adds, "Give them a Kong with peanut butter or a food puzzle—something to occupy the dog."

This is the strategy we use with Oscar and Sadie. They only get peanut butter-filled Kongs when we are leaving, so this is a big treat for them. I don't acknowledge them as I'm filling the Kongs in the kitchen, and they gladly follow me into the room where we lock them in when we leave. I put the Kongs on the floor, and quietly leave.

You need to be the cool cucumber when you come home, too. "Don't make a big deal about coming home," says Campbell. "You ignore the dog and once the dog goes off on their own, you can go and greet them very calmly."

If you've never left your dog alone and you fear that doing so will leave them anxious, here is what Campbell suggests:

Start by giving them a Kong, walking out of the house, maybe walking to the end of the driveway and then coming back. Gradually work up to leaving them alone for 30 minutes. Get to a point with all your different modifications so your dogs aren't showing separation anxiety. It likely won't happen quickly, so take it one step at a time. You can't rush the process.

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