Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety Fact Sheet

Separation Anxiety

Dogs are very social animals. Puppies are very attached to their mother and littermates and when they leave home they become very attached to their owner. An attachment means a trusting bond is formed. We all want our dogs to feel they can trust us and feel safe around us. This is perfectly normal but some dogs take this attachment too far and become so attached to their owners that if they are separated from them even for a few minutes they become extremely distressed and act out.

I’m sure it’s going to become more of an issue after the Covid lock down when owners return back to their jobs. Sometimes separation anxiety can be confused with a dog just being bored when left alone.

If you have a video camera it’s often a good idea to set it up when you leave the house and to record your dog’s behaviour. You can then see if it’s separation anxiety that your dog is suffering from or just boredom. If your dog has separation anxiety you may notice the following signs below when you go out and when you return home.


  • Constant barking, howling or whimpering when you are not there. Ask your neighbour if your dog barks or cries the whole time you are away.
  • Trembling or pacing up and down. Unable to relax.
  • Panting (heavy breathing) and excessive salivation.
  • Anxiously following the person everywhere and whining or getting anxious when person is about to leave. Dogs learn to recognise the signs when owners are about to leave the house. For instance when we put on shoes, a jacket, pick up car keys and pick up our wallet or handbag. The dog will also sometimes become aggressive towards the owner when they are about to leave. The dog may nip the owner to try and prevent them from leaving.
  • Being followed everywhere and dog getting upset if they cannot get to you. Dogs that are prone to separation anxiety as I mentioned in my introduction cannot stand to not be near you. If you go to the toilet they need to be there. If you go outside to pick up the post they need to be there. They have to be able to see you 24 hours a day. A dog that is over attached to you will also try and get your attention all the time by pawing you, leaning against you, sitting on you and always wanting to be held if they are a small dog.
  • Destructive chewing and digging – Some dogs chew and dig when they are bored which is why filming your dog’s behaviour when you are away can be helpful. Look at the kinds of destruction taking place. If your dog is not getting adequate exercise or play and are alone in a boring environment all day while you are at work they might rip things up, chew household items and furniture and so on. With separation anxiety destructive behaviour is done to try and escape the house or garden to get to the person so you will see doorways, windows, floors near doors and gates chewed or scratched. See pictures below for separation anxiety destructive behaviour. Dogs that have separation anxiety do this destructive behaviour out of sheer panic.

Separation AnxietySeparation Anxiety

  • Urinating or defecating in the house when you are not there. Don’t confuse this with a dog that is just not house trained. If your dog is housetrained but makes a mess in the house whenever you go out this is often a sign of separation anxiety. If you leave a dog locked inside though with no access to the outside for more than 7 hours though then they are likely to make a mess unless they have a very strong bladder J. Where anxiety is mild the dog will choose a place to urinate or pooh normally close to the entrance area of the house (the front or back door). In cases where the anxiety is intense the dog may wee and pooh all around the house as they pace up and down. There may be drool mixed in with the mess as the dog may be drooling from stress as they poop and wee.
  • Self-Mutilation: In some severe cases of separation anxiety dogs may chew or lick themselves causing injury or they may end up injuring themselves by scratching and chewing things such as wood, metal etc. They may be so involved with escaping the property to get to you that they don’t realise they are hurting themselves.
  • Aggression shown towards owners when they are leaving. Some dogs show aggression such as nipping owners when they are getting ready to leave the home. The dog will try and find ways of preventing the owner from leaving the home.


  • Dogs from rescue centres are often more susceptible to separation anxiety. Some rescues dogs have been abandoned by previous owners which causes they to fear abandonment and form strong attachments to people. We also had a dog at TEARS animal shelter that was brought back to the shelter three times and he became a very clingy overly attached dog because of this.
  • Dogs that have no obedience training nor daily planned interactions with the owner are much more likely to have separation anxiety.
  • Change in owners schedule such as a full time job : A dog can develop separation anxiety if an owner goes from being at home most of the day to getting a full time job and being out all day. I am sure this will be an issue with regards to the Covid lock down when people go back to their full time jobs. If the owner goes away for the first time the dog may also experience separation anxiety.
  • Traumatic experience when left alone: If your dog is from a shelter they may have experienced something traumatic when they were left alone such as a fire in the house, abuse from another person in the home or someone breaking into the house and harming the dog. I worked with a dog where this happened. The dog became fearful being left alone in the house after a break in had occurred.
  • Puppy removed from mother too young: A dog is removed from his mother or littermates at too young of an age and is emotionally under-developed.
  • Owner unintentionally causing the issue: Some people are constantly at home with their dogs. If they go out it may for an hour but otherwise they are there. Or if they go out they take their dog with them. Although this is great for the dog it does mean the dog is not being taught to be left alone. If the owner suddenly gets a full time job or goes on holiday the dog will really suffer. Some owners also don’t allow their dog to meet other dogs or people. Think of a person that has no friends or family and their only companion is their dog. This dog becomes completely dependent on that one person. I helped a man like this with his dog. His dog was totally dependent on the man and was terrified of other people and dogs.
  • Older dogs: Older dogs tend to become more neurotic about being left alone. They naturally become more attached to their owner as their eyesight and hearing fails.


  • Start off alone training your dog when they are a puppy: Ideally you should start teaching your dog to left alone when he/ she is a puppy. This is how you would do alone training with your puppy. You can apply this to an adult dog as well but maybe put them in a room with a baby gate instead of the pen. There are five phases to alone training and it does take some time to achieve.

Phase 1 training Teach dog go to mat or settle- This teaches your dog to go to his bed or settle on a mat. It teaches your dog not to be sitting right on top of you but be in their bed while you are doing other things around the house. Dog should first be able to lie down and stay in bed or on mat for 20 seconds and then make this longer and longer. Give your dog tasty treats. To do settle on mat put your dogs bed or a mat on the floor and every time your dog touches the mat or bed with their paws treat them. You can lure them to the bed with a treat but ideally you want the dog to go the mat on their own. Next ask your dog to sit or lie down in the bed /on the mat. Treat them when they do this. Repeat this a few times. Lastly you add the verbal cue which is, “Go to bed” or “Settle”.

Find it game: This is something your dog can do when you are out. Start this by holding dog and hiding a treat and then letting dog go and find it. Next you can start hiding multiple treats around house.

Phase 2 training Barrier training: With your dog being behind the baby gate or in pen practice walking away from pen/ baby gate and getting some water or checking mails or reading in the same room with dog. This way you are not away from the dog but dog cannot get to you. Don’t interact with dog during this time. So no eye contact and ignore crying. Watch your dog’s body language behind the barrier.  Do they start showing signs of stress straight away? Signs of stress include panting, yawning, licking lips, whining and pacing. Next give your dog a tasty treat to chew while you leave them in pen and go away but still be in dog’s view. Does the dog stop eating the treat as soon as you move away? You should stay in the same room during this training phase but do your own thing and don’t pay attention to dog. This phase is teaching your dog that they cannot always be glued to you when you are around. They need to entertain themselves. You can leave dog in their pen or behind gate for an hour or two while you practice this exercise. If you are doing house training with your puppy you can use your house training schedule to practice alone training too.

Phase 3 training Out of view absences exercises: when your dog is used to being left in the confinement area for a few minutes or even up to 30 mins without your attention start this next phase. With this phase you will start to leave the room where your dog is being confined but still be in the house. You will also start to leave the house for a few minutes. You must make sure you set up a web cam or lap top filming the confinement area when you are not around so you can see how your dog is reacting. Start front door exercises as most dogs start to get super anxious when we start walking toward the front door. Start by walking halfway to the front door and returning to your dog. This can all be done with your dog with you or you can put your dog behind a baby gate that has a view of the front door. Repeat this until the dog is not interested in what you are doing. The next steps can be you walking to the door and back and then walking to the door and touching the door handle and then opening the door etc. Your dog needs to show calm behaviour while you do this. If you can get your dog to sit and stay while you do this it’s also helpful. Eventually you should be able to walk out the front door and then back in again. Takes pauses and breaks between each step so walk  halfway to the door wait a few seconds and then walk back etc .,If you rush the steps too quickly the dog will just think you look odd walking back and forth and they won’t really understand what you are trying to teach them. When you come back to the dog ignore any excited behaviour such as jumping, whining etc. The dog should be calm in their confinement area or by the door before you react. For this phase owners should be able to leave house or room for 30 minutes. Above exercise can be applied to your dog while they are in their confinement area too. So try this with dog in confinement area and you leaving room and then with dog by front door with you and you walking out front door. If you leave house through back door or garage apply this exercise to that door. Make sure you film dog while they are alone and watch out for stress signals. Give your dog something to chew and keep them busy while you leave the room. Vary the time from 5, 10, 15 minutes etc as dog shows calm behaviour. Get the time up to 30 mins. If dog shows any stress go back a step to 15 mins and not 20 mins for example.

Phase four of training- Don’t allow dog to follow you and increase time dog is left alone. Continue to practice go to mat exercise and don’t allow your dog to follow you everywhere although at this stage they should be fine being left to chew a Kong while you are busy doing other things in home. Try and continue to leave room for 30 mins or house for 30 mins. If their dog shows anxiety maybe take a step back and only leave dog for 20 mins. Continue practicing leaving the house and coming back inside. Go to door open and close front door and return repeat 7 times. Walk to front door open door step out and come back in repeat until dog is calm. Walk out front door stay outside for 2 seconds come back in repeat. Start slowly building up duration that you are away so 4, 5, 10 seconds etc. Use a video camera to record dog’s reaction. Slowly build up to ten minutes etc. Don’t jump too much and say leave the dog for an hour yet. This training is a slow process. You can also start practicing departure cues such as picking up car keys and your jacket and handbag and then sitting down on couch instead of leaving. You can also get a dog walker or day trainer to come and sit with your dog at this stage and get them to train the dog or walk the dog in your absence.

Phase five: Repeat leaving house but use the find it game and treats when you leave the house so dog has something to do. You can now start building up the time to an hour or more that you are away for. If the dog shows any signs of stress as you increase the time you are out for then just go back a step. Unfortunately dogs with separation anxiety may never be able to be left for longer than four or five hours. You would need to get a friend or dog sitter to come and stay with the dog if you are going to be out longer than four or five hours. If your dog is happy being with your domestic worker then this is also fine.

  • Teaching your dog not to follow you everywhere: Another way of teaching alone training to your overly attached dog is to get your dog to lie on their dog bed next to you. You can be sitting on your couch. Give your dog a treat if they remain on their bed and don’t try and jump on the couch to sit on your lap. Once your dog can do this give your dog a treat and then stand up and sit down. Do this a few times. The aim here is that your dog focuses only on the treat you have given them and not on you. They should not leave their treat and come up to you. Once your dog has achieved this step you can start standing up and taking one or two steps away from your dog and then come back and sit down. Again your dog should continue eating the treat and not follow you. If your dog is leaving his/ her treat and following you each time take a step back and try the previous step again. In subsequent steps you can take more steps away from your dog and then sit down. Then you can leave the actual room for five seconds and return. Then put the time up to ten seconds, 20 seconds and so on. In all cases it is very important that your reappear in the room before your dog starts looking for your or showing any signs of distress that is why you need to do this process very slowly and not rush it. If you try and rush alone training it won’t work. Eventually you should be able to leave your dog on their own chewing a chew toy for half an hour then an hour and longer.
  • Practice leaving the house a few times a day. Pick up your keys, put on your shoes, put your jacket on and do anything else you would normally do when you are about to leave the house then instead of leaving the house sit down on the couch and read or pick up keys and put them down and sit down or walk around the house . Ignore your dog while you do this. Do this a few times a day. Your dog is going to get very confused but you are showing your dog that he/ she does not need to get upset every time you leave the house. Treat your dog for calm behaviour while you do this. You can also try and eliminate cues that you are leaving the house or mix them up. So if for instance a morning shower indicates to your dog that you are getting ready to go out have an evening shower.
  • Give your dog things to play with and chew when you go out and when you are at home. Give your dog certain high value toys only when you go out. Give your dog a hoof, large ostrich bone or stuffed Kong to chew five minutes before you leave so they have time to get engrossed in the toy. They will then be so distracted by the toy they won’t notice you leaving. You can ask your vet or pet shop which bones are safe for your dog to chew. I find ostrich bones quite safe for big dogs. Pork joints or bones are fine for little dogs. Hooves are ok but can cause some dogs to have an upset tummy or splinter and cause issues. Just depends on the breed of dog. Giving your dog something to chew when you are at home can also distract your dog so you can go about your normal everyday activities without having your dog following you everywhere. You can also give your dog their meal before you go out such as their breakfast. A full tummy can make your dog sleepy.
  • Take dog to doggy day care – Some people also take their dogs to doggy day cares but these can be pricey. Doggy day care is a good way of getting your dog to be socialised to other dogs and people.
  • Leave a radio on or a piece of your clothing: Leaving the radio on lets your dog hear voices while you are away and this calms some dogs down. Leaving an item of your clothing or item with your scent on it in your dog’s bed also can relax them. Leaving lights on when you are going out at night makes the dog think someone is there.
  • Don’t make a huge fuss of your dog when you leave and when you return home.

When you come home ignore your dog until they are calm and then give them attention. Some people may find this a mean thing to do but you are teaching your dog that when you leave home and return it’s not a big issue and there is no need for them to go crazy.

  • Don’t smother your dog with attention. If you are constantly smothering your dog with attention when you are at home you are going to make your dog become overly attached to you and miss you when you are not at home. Your puppy learns to be super confident when you are at home as they have your undivided attention but when you are missing the dog falls apart as there is no one there to give him / her attention and reassure them. It’s ok to ignore your dog when you are busy with other things your dog won’t fall apart. Your dog may paw you and try and get your attention but be strong and ignore your dog.
  • Try and not let dog sleep on your bed: Most people I know love their dog sleeping on the bed but this can encourage an overly attached dog to be close to you and of course can mean you won’t get a good night’s sleep. Put a dog bed next to your bed instead or let your dog sleep in another area in the house. Your dog won’t fall apart if he/she does not sleep on your bed.
  • Don’t punish the dog: It’s easy for us to want to punish our dog when we come home after a long day of work or just being out and find our house has been destroyed or find pooh and urine all over the place. It’s very frustrating and also upsetting if your expensive items have been destroyed. If you have an anxious dog and you punish them you will not only make them anxious when you are away but also anxious when you return because they know they will be punished. You are also punishing a dog for something they may of done hours ago so they won’t connect the punishment with what they have done.
  • Make sure house is properly secure when you leave: Some dogs have been known to get through gates or jump fences to get to their owner.
  • Redistribute care giving of the dog: Ask other family members in the household or friends to care for the dog so it’s not just one person caring for the dog. This will teach
  • Medication: Medication can help your dog with anxiety but make sure you speak to your vet about this and always use medication in conjunction with a behaviour plan. Medication helps with the symptoms of anxiety but it won’t help with the cause of anxiety this is what you go to a therapist for or in a dog’s case an animal behaviourist. Clomicalm or Clomipramine is one of the common anti- anxiety medications given to help them with anxiety. It’s other nickname is doggy Prozac. It is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Another drug that is quite new to the market is Reconcile (not sure if it is sold in South Africa). It is tablet approved specifically to treat separation anxiety. The active ingredient is fluoxetine hydrochloride which is found in Prozac.  If you would like to try a natural remedy you can try melatonin to calm your dog’s anxiety. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in the brain of mammals. It regulates the natural rhythms of sleep and wakefulness. It can be bought in pill form. Some pet shops sell melatonin for dogs. Some holistic vets recommend using a valerian formula for dogs. Valerian is a herb used for treating anxiety. You can also purchase calming collars.
  • Provide plenty of exercise and mental stimulation: Even though boredom and separation anxiety are two very different issues a dog that is not properly exercised is much more likely to act upon feelings of fear or anxiety while the owner is away. A happy and tired dog is more likely to sleep when the owner is away. Try and give your dog a walk before you go out. Make sure you give your dog a decent walk so they are tired when they return. You can also play with your dog and give him/ her mental stimulation by giving them puzzle toys, doing agility training or doing foraging games. I can give you notes on these three things if you need them.

Videos to watch on separation anxiety

I love watching Victoria Stillwell on You Tube. She is a fantastic UK Dog behaviourist and trainer. See some of her videos below on separation anxiety.


  • After you Get your First Dog- Dr Ian Dunbar
  • A Good Dog is a Trained Dog- Jan Meyer
  • Behaviour Advice for Small Animals Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team- John Bowden and Sarah Heath
  • Canine Behaviour – Bonnie V.G Beaver
  • How to Reduce, Treat and Cure Separation Anxiety (online booklet) –
  • Think Dog – John Fisher

Source: Wags and Purrs


Disclaimer: The information produced by Infurmation is provided for general and educational purposes only and does not constitute any legal, medical or other professional advice on any subject matter. These statements are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Always seek the advice of your vet or other qualified health care provider prior to starting any new diet or treatment and with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you suspect that your pet has a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.