I know the feeling.
Your dog has her head down, her puppy eyes are on full display, and she silently watches you walk out the door, making you feel guilty for having a job.
We go through this emotional turmoil every morning, but some dogs will express that emotional distress by howling, chewing, or trying to escape.
I personally struggled with 2 dogs that had extreme separation anxiety. It was nerve wracking to leave each day not knowing if my home would be destroyed, or if my neighbors would complain about the noise.
Dogs are very social animals that rely on interaction, and being left alone goes against their very nature, so it’s no wonder why separation anxiety and boredom is such a big issue with many dog owners.
This was my daily struggle until I found a few tricks that made all the difference.
The Difference between Boredom and Separation Anxiety
Dogs can experience boredom from just a general lack of daily stimulation. Walking the same path every day, little or no play time, and no socialization can all lead to a mundane life.
Dogs will soon look for their own entertainment which leads to chewing, barking, and other destructive means to pass the time. Many owners will mistake this misbehavior as separation anxiety, believing that this is an act of revenge for leaving them behind.
However, a simple case of boredom is easily addressed by just taking your dog to explore new places, socializing, training, or introducing new stimulating toys.
Separation anxiety exhibits much more extreme responses, and your dog will suffer from a real sense of stress while left alone.
Think of it from your dog’s perspective, from the time they are born were always in the company of dogs and other people. Every cry for attention receives an immediate response from their pack or their owner. The shock and emotional distress of being away from their “pack” is difficult to overcome, and one that many, many owners face.
Different breeds can show different levels of anxiety: Huskies, Hounds, and Labradors for example, can show very extreme cases of separation anxiety. While Terriers tend to bark and dig and show destructive behavior. Just know that there are exceptions to every breed.
Learned Separation Anxiety
Some dogs may exhibit signs of separation anxiety or boredom, but it may just be a learned response.
One example is overly excitedly greeting your dog when you get home, your dog will learn to jump and bark every time you return. Your dog has indirectly been trained bad behaviors when you walk through the door, but may or may not have true separation anxiety. By watching the signs you can determine if they are truly bored or stressed from being alone.
Signs of Boredom or Misbehavior
Signs of Separation Anxiety
- Extreme destruction of property
- They attempt to escape your home while you’re away
- Having daily “accidents” even though they’re potty trained
- Barking and howling as soon as your leave
- Neighbors complaining of noise everyday
- Hurting themselves trying to escape
- Pacing your home and appears nervous
- Being very clingy
- Barking, jumping, and screaming when you come home
Dealing with Separation Anxiety
1. Start When They’re Young
Separation anxiety may be prevented while they’re still a learning young puppy. If you’ve just adopted a puppy then you can encourage them to explore and entertain themselves with toys and treats for short periods of time.
Try leaving the room for short intervals (1 or 2 minutes) leading to slightly longer intervals. Leave small treats to reinforce that your absence creates positive emotions. Eventually, the shock of being left alone as they age won’t be as emotional.
2. Run Before You Leave For Work
If you’re not a morning person I can hear you moaning already, believe me I’m not a morning person either. But after my dog ripped down every curtain and drape in my home and chewed up each corner of my kitchen table, I knew I had to do everything I could to calm him before I left.
Dogs build up nervous energy that needs an outlet, if they don’t find one they result to destructive behavior.
Wake up 30 minutes before you leave for work, put your shoes on and run (not walk) your dog. If you’re not into morning jogs then teach your dog to play fetch and let them sprint back and forth for 20 minutes, getting all that pent up energy out. By the time you leave for work your dog will be ready to go back to sleep.
After doing this for a few months you’ll actually begin to love your new morning routine, I promise. The morning fresh air is better than coffee.
For extreme cases you may have to do this every time you leave (not just for work), but your dog will become accustomed to the routine of playing, and then napping when you leave.
3. Have a Consistent Routine
Dogs with a routine behave better. They have an amazing sense of time, and once they settle into a routine of play and exercise, they generally just nap during the rest of the day.
Simply by walking, feeding, playing, and sleeping at generally the same time each day, your dog will get into a rhythm and feel more relaxed.
4. Find a Dog Walker or Sitter
An afternoon visit may be just the thing your dog needs, and another part of their daily routine they can look forward to. Again, dogs love routine, so having a dog walker arrive roughly around the same time can keep them at ease. Alternatively you can leave your dog with a trusted sitter.
When looking for a dog walking service do a little research, and make sure they are well trained for the job and insured.
5. Take Your Dog to Daycare
Some dogs take well to daycare, others not so much. You’ll have to analyze your dog’s behavior in populated environments and dog parks. Then you will need to research the best day care in your area. Also, stay in contact with your daycare to get updates on how well your dog is responding.
Daycares can be great for your dog’s social development, not to mention a great way for them to run and play.
I understand that Daycare every day of the week may be out of your price range (I know it was for me), however some day cares will give you deals for booking an entire month in advance, or reduced day-rates. But if that’s not an option try just picking at least one day a week and see if there’s any improvement.
6. Use Puzzles and Interactive Toys to Keep Them Busy
One of my favorite methods (and one way to feel a little less guilty when leaving for work) is to fill up a toy with your dog’s favorite treats. My personal favorite is securely pushing in Lamb lung (from our local pet store) into a Kong.
There are several other “puzzle” toys available to keep your dog occupied.
You can also create a scavenger hunt around your home, hiding treats for them to discover.
Or you can simply leave a bone, raw hide, or other chewable treat.
For obvious reasons, don’t use treats that can stain furniture or leave a mess. I once discovered my bed had been covered in peanut butter and then promptly licked up, leaving my sheets damp and smelly.
A Word of Warning…
Some toys and chews present a choking hazard, and bones can damage teeth. Don’t leave your dog alone with these items until you’ve monitored their chewing behavior. You won’t be home in case of emergencies, so be aware of any possible dangers.
7. Mental Stimulation is Just as Important as Physical
Walking your dog every day is great, but it may become mundane. Dog’s love routine, but they crave new challenges, new experiences, and to visit new places. If your dog is suddenly acting out, and walks just aren’t doing it anymore, maybe it’s because you’ve walked the same path for several weeks and haven't challenged them to something new.
- Switch it up and explore new places.
- Training is a great way to stimulate that brain, and you may find your dog is exhausted just from learning new tricks.
- Puzzles and toys are another way to challenge your dogs mind, or simply hiding treats to create a scavenger hunt around your home.
8. Don't Make a Big Deal of Leaving and Coming Home
You know the routine, you walk through the front door after a hard day of work and are greeted with excitement and kisses. Who doesn’t love that? Unfortunately, you may be feeding into their sense of anxiety.
Show them that leaving and coming home isn’t a big deal and doesn’t need to be celebrated. From now on when you get home completely ignore them until they’re totally calm. Over time they’ll understand that they'll get rewarded with attention for being calm, and ignored while overly excited.
The same goes for leaving your home - ignore your dog 30 minutes prior to departing.
Make a rule with everyone in the house that there's no touching or eye contact before leaving or coming home.
What about guests who don’t know those rules? Put a sign on your front door that reads something like this:
GUESTS: We have dogs in training, and have a NO TOUCH rule. Please, do not pet dogs until they’re calm.
9. Reward Them for Being Calm, Ignore Them When Overly Excited.
As a follow up to the previous rule, you can apply this technique through the day as well. This is a simple training technique, but one that requires discipline from the owner more than the dog.
Simply put, if your dog is bouncing off the walls, ignore them. When they’re calm and acting in a way you prefer, then reward them with gentle pets, treats, and attention. If they suddenly begin to get too excited from your attention then go back to ignoring them.
Even negative attention is still attention, so when your dog is overly excited and misbehaving - yelling and getting frustrated is still giving them what they want. This is where your patience will truly be tested but overtime you will be rewarded with a calm dog.
10. Desensitize Your Dog to Your "Leaving Routine"
Your dog is very receptive to triggers – try this: grab your car keys and put on your shoes. Does your dog immediately jump to attention and begin to monitor your every action
They recognize your routine for leaving, just little sound and movements (like the sound of your keys) can trigger them into a learned response of excitement or anxiety.
Because you go through the exact same routine every morning your dog has picked up on your cue's they know you’re about to leave.
If you desensitize them to those daily triggers it will certainly reduce the separation anxiety felt when you leave.
Grab your keys, put on your shoes, and go through the entire routine you would when you’re leaving the house. Now leave the house, and close the door behind you, and wait 5 seconds. Now go back in. By this point I'm sure you have your dogs full attention.
Take off your shoes, put your keys down, and sit down, all while completely ignoring your dog and showing no emotion. Wait for the dog to completely calm down, and go through the entire process again. And again. And again.
You may have to do this dozens of times, leaving slightly longer each time. But each time you do it you’re causing your dog to relearn their emotional triggers.
Eventually, (and it may take some time), your dog won’t even respond to your leaving. Keep testing how long you can leave before they appear anxious when you return, then dial it back a bit and keep trying to expand on your away time.
This can be a big training commitment, so even using this technique a few times each day for several weeks can help curb this negative behavior. Unlearning a bad habit takes time, I recommend doing this over a weekend or when you have a few days at home.
11. Crate Training and Creating a Comfortable ‘Safe-Space’
Even if you're training an older dog, all dogs in the wild will naturally seek out a small and dark shelter, so crate training can create a very comfortable and safe environment for them. But it must be introduced the proper way or it will cause even more distress - we want a safe-space, not a prison.
Crate training is not something you can implement over-night. It will take weeks of training before you can comfortably leave your dog alone in a crate without causing anxiety.
Crate size is very important, it should have enough space for your dog to comfortably turn around, stand up, and lie down in any position.
Start by keeping the crate in the room you spend the most time, leaving the door open. Use comfortable bedding or blankets, and always present treats, toys, and food in the crate. The idea is to get them to go in by themselves and enjoy their time there.
Never force your dog into the crate, you must introduce it as a comfortable place, and continue to do so. Forcing them in will cause even more anxiety and distrust. That means when you leave for work you can't just shove them in.
After your dog has begin to spend their own time in the crate, have them spend short periods of time in it with the door closed, while slowly increasing your time away.
Don't always leave the house while they're in their crate, or they'll automatically associate the crate with you leaving. If your dog can comfortably spend 30 minutes in the crate with the door closed, you can now experiment by leaving the house for short periods of time.
Again, do not make a big deal of leaving or coming home, just go through the routine without showing emotion.
You may need to follow Rule #10 to desensitize them to your "leaving routine", or they'll become anxious every time it comes time to enter their crate.
Keep in mind some dogs respond very well to crates, and some (typically free-roaming large breeds) do not respond well at all.
Through personal experience I've found Huskies, Malamutes, and some Shepherds have free roaming instincts that do not respond well to kennels and can lead to more problems. In this case it may be more ideal to use a spare bedroom or section of your home to create a safe space.
12. Contact your Vet for Stress Relieving Medications
I put this last because it’s the last resort, but if your dog is showing extreme cases of anxiety and causing self-harm then this certainly is an option. Keep in mind that medicating your dog may address the symptoms of anxiety, but it’s important to keep actively training your dog to address the actual problem.
Other things to try
Give your dog a bedroom.
This worked amazingly well for my dog. Instead of giving my dog free reign of my entire home, or reducing his space to a kennel, I just used a spare bedroom that had nothing but his bed and his favorite toys. I introduced it as a safe space, left items of old clothing that smelled like me, and my dog would often sleep in there during the day even when I was home. If you have the space available this may work for you.
What Worked For You?
What have you done to curb separation anxiety? What hasn't worked? Leave a comment down below.