5 Tips for Preventing Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety

5 Tips for Preventing Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety

*The exercises below are for dogs that do not yet show symptoms of separation anxiety. If your dog has separation anxiety, please talk with your veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, certified dog trainer or behavior consultant about starting treatment.

1. Socialization and Proactive Exposure Training

A dog who has been positively exposed to different experiences at a young age is less likely to suffer from separation anxiety. One study found that a lack of socialization before a dog turned 10-months old was a common factor in whether they later suffered from separation anxiety. Proactive exposure training helps build a dog’s confidence and teaches them appropriate coping skills.

Proactive exposure training is giving your dog a chance to learn how to live and thrive in a totally different species’ world. We expect a lot from our dogs, and sometimes we forget that they aren’t human — it’s our job to show them the ropes. Try using this handy checklist to keep track of your dog’s progress: 100 things in 100 days.

The best time to socialize your dog is when they are between the ages of 7 to 16 weeks, during what’s called an imprint period. Their brains are like sponges during this time, and their experiences will shape their future behavior. Make sure to create as many positive associations for them during this time, especially the experience of being alone (as detailed in Tip 3 below). If you didn’t have your dog throughout their imprint period, you can still work on their socialization and help them navigate the human world, it just might take them a bit longer to adjust to new things.

A certified dog trainer or behavior consultant can work with you to create an appropriate socialization program that matches you and your dog’s needs.

2. Crate Train or Set Up a Safe Confinement Zone for Your Dog

Whether or not you plan on crating your dog long term, crate training can be incredibly useful in a variety of situations. It helps prevent house soiling accidents and other unwanted behaviors when you aren’t home or when you can’t fully supervise your dog. Travelling with your dog is easier and safer when they enjoy their crate. Crate training also helps dogs relax if introduced in a positive way, as they see it as their safe space. Read more about how to teach your dog to love their crate.

If your dog already has a negative association with being crated, you can set up a long-term confinement area for them instead. Having a safe place to hang out and relax in while you’re gone goes a long way in preventing separation anxiety. Some dog owners will use a crate (keeping the door open) in conjunction with a larger area that’s gated off from the rest of the home. This gives their dog the option of curling up in the den-like space of a crate or playing with their toys in the larger space. A long-term confinement area is especially useful for puppies (and senior dogs) that aren’t quite housetrained and need to be confined for longer than they can physically hold it.

Use exercise pens or gates to block off an area of your home where your dog can hang out for longer periods of time. This won’t be only for when you’re gone — you don’t want your dog to learn that any time they’re in their special space it means you’re leaving. You can use this space as somewhere your dog eats their meal while you and your family eat in another room, where they hang out while you have company over, as well as where they stay when you leave to run some errands.

Make sure your dog has a comfortable sleeping spot, access to plenty of water, safe dog toys, and, if they’re a young puppy or super senior, a designated potty area with pee pads. Consider having a crate cover for the crate if your dog likes the privacy (some do, some don’t) – but only if they won’t chew it up. You can enhance your dog’s area with calming dog pheromone spray on their bedding or plugging in a pheromone diffuser nearby. Feed your dog their regular meals in this area to build a positive association with being confined.

3. Teach Your Dog How to Be Alone

It’s hard to blame a dog that gets anxious and stressed when they’re alone, especially if they’ve never been left alone before. This often happens when someone works from home and then begins working outside of the home, or if a puppy was brought home at the beginning of summer and then the children go back to school in the fall.

Dogs love companionship, and there’s nothing like having a dog stick by your side throughout the day. However, life happens. At some point your dog will need to be left alone, even if it’s just while you run to the grocery store. You want to start getting your dog used to being alone so that when this happens, they don’t become anxious or panicked. 

Does Pavlov ring a bell? Use Classical Conditioning to Create Positive Associations with Being Alone

  • Prepare a yummy and long-lasting food puzzle or work-to-eat toy (like a stuffed KongÆ). This should be something they don’t get very often — something super valuable in your dog’s opinion.
  • Right before you walk out the door, give this special treat to your dog in their crate or long-term confinement area.
  • Keep your absences very short when you begin classically conditioning your dog to being alone. Try to return before they finish their food puzzle the first few times you do this — you don’t have to completely leave the house at first, just be out of sight. Taking the trash out or walking to the mailbox are great opportunities to practice this exercise.
  • When you return home, immediately remove their yummy puzzle or work-to-eat toy and put it away.
  • Gradually increase the length of time you’re absent.
  • Your dog is learning that your leaving predicts something delicious appearing and they get to enjoy something positive while alone. They’re also learning that that yummy thing disappears when you come back.

Desensitization

You can combine the above classical conditioning exercise with desensitization. With desensitization, you are exposing your dog to certain aspects of being left alone in small and tolerable increments. This builds up their tolerance and teaches them that certain actions don’t mean you’re always leaving. 

Pre-Departure Desensitization:

  • Think about the small actions that make up your entire pre-departure routine. For example: brushing your teeth, grabbing your coat from the closet, putting on your shoes, finding your keys in your bag, touching the door handle, turning the door handle, walking out the door.
  • Start doing each of these things at random times throughout the day, not pairing them with the actual act of leaving. Ignore your dog while you do this. Put your tennis shoes on, but then immediately take them off and go back to what you were doing. Or grab your bag and keys and then put them away again. Touch the door handle, then go back to cooking dinner. Walk out the door and immediately come back in.
  • This pre-departure desensitization exercise is breaking the association your dog might make between those particular actions and the event of your leaving.

Absence Desensitization:

  • Expose your dog to very small increments of being alone. Start with simply walking out the door and immediately returning. Act normal — don’t give your dog any extra attention or act like this is a big deal.
  • Slowly increase the length of time your dog is alone, by as little as just a few more seconds each time when you first start doing absence desensitization.
  • As your dog becomes habituated to being alone, you can start to vary the length of time they are alone.

4. Keep Your Arrivals and Departures Low-Key

Your dog takes emotional cues from you (and vice versa) — it’s part of that special human-animal bond. If you’re anxious about leaving them alone, they’ll notice and start to become anxious as well. 

  • Avoid fawning over your dog before you leave. This does NOT mean you can’t say goodbye. Just do so in a calm manner that indicates to your dog that your leaving is nothing to worry about. Some dog owners like telling their dogs the same thing every time they leave, such as “I’ll be back” or “Be good, see you later!”
  • Stay calm when you arrive back home. Of course your dog will be happy to see you, and it’s heartwarming to have a pup with a wagging tail greet you when you get home. But if you’re wanting to prevent separation anxiety, you don’t want your dog to become overexcited about your return.
  • Teach your dog a polite ‘welcome home’ routine. Not only does this keep greetings calm, it also helps with behaviors such as jumping on people and door dashing. Have your dog sit and stay for any attention, train them to go to bed, or have them perform a few tricks.

4. Provide Physical Exercise and Mental Enrichment

Keeping your dog exercised, both mentally and physically, will make them less likely to develop anxiety and prevent boredom (which is often the cause of destructive chewing). The amount of physical exercise depends on your dog’s breed, age, size, and health. Speak with your veterinarian about how much exercise your dog needs and what types of physical activities are best for their age.

Mental enrichment can range from using interactive puzzle toys to eat their kibble to taking “sniffing” walks (where your dog can take their time checking out all the different smells and the path is determined by where they want to sniff next). Doing short 5-minute training sessions throughout the day is another great way to exercise your dog’s brain. Read more about different interactive toys and brain games for your dog here.