Preventing Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Dog looking out window - Separation anxiety in dogsThis article on separation anxiety in dogs was written by expert dog trainer, Michele Meyer. The article was written at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic however, separation anxiety in dogs is not new so this information will still be relevant long after the pandemic has passed.

Are you or someone in your home working from home or been laid off of work? If so, your dog could be at risk of developing separation anxiety, a very stressful and often times dangerous behavior. We see this often with dogs after someone in the home has been on a long medical leave from work, such as maternity leave, and also after summer break for kids and school teachers. This is because our dogs get used to someone always being home with them and so it can be very stressful for them when people go back to work and they are left at home alone.

Separation anxiety in dogs can result in dogs hurting themselves and even strangling themselves trying to break out of their crates or confined spaces. They can cause mass destruction to your home with destructive chewing and toileting inside because of the stress they are feeling. There are even cases of dogs busting through windows and chewing themselves bloody because of this anxiety. The ongoing high levels of stress from separation anxiety in dogs can also cause other medical problems with them too.

Dog on chewed up chair - Separation anxiety in dogsSeparation anxiety is horrible and painful for dogs and their humans so it’s very important to take proactive steps to prevent this behavior from developing. However, we have to stay home right now to fight this pandemic and I’m certainly not suggesting you leave your dog at home when you go for a walk because our dogs need physical exercise and fresh air too. So what can you do?

First, try to take steps to keep your dog’s routine similar to what it will be when you go back to working outside of the home. For example, if your dog is crated or gated to a specific room when home alone, then continue to do this when you run those essential errands like the grocery store. Also do the same while you work from home or for at least a good part of that time so it is not as drastic of a change when you are leaving your dog home alone again. Keeping a structured routine is a key part of preventing separation anxiety in dogs.

Please note that dogs should not be crated for longer than 3-4 hours at a time before being let out to toilet and get some exercise and water.

Just because your dog is used to being crated when you are gone does not mean it will automatically go well when you are home. If your dog is not used to being crated or gated when you are home then you should do so gradually. How you start this will likely determine how well this will go for both you and your dog so let’s set up for success…

First, give your dog some good exercise before crating or gating like taking a walk together, playing a game of fetch, or other dog appropriate games. Then try to wait at least 20-30 minutes before crating and ignore your dog during this time so that he can calm down from the excitement of playing or walking with you.

Consider giving your dog a food stuffed Kong toy that is appropriate in size and durability for your dog to occupy him when confined. Please read our Kong safety and stuffing tips.

Do not get emotional or excited when putting your dog in the crate or letting him out. Behavior such as this can cause separation anxiety in dogs. Your dog needs to know that the crate is no big deal and it is a regular part of each day’s routine.

Now, start by crating for short periods of time at first unless your dog is already used to being crated while you are home. You might need to start with just a few minutes, multiple times a day and build from there. The goal is to let your dog out of the crate before he gets upset so that he only has pleasant and calm experiences in the crate.

If your dog is already acclimated to the crate and he starts whining, barking, etc. to get your attention…ignore this by not looking at him or talking to him until you have at least 10 seconds of silence and if you were out of sight, then do not enter your dog’s sight until he is calm for at least 10 seconds. Also, do not let him out of the crate until he is calm. You don’t want your dog to learn that vocalizing gets him out of the crate. However, if your dog is panicked with fear or anxiety about the confinement, then ignoring does not help and can make the behavior worse. Please let us know if you need help acclimating your dog to the crate.

When leaving the house without your dog:

It’s important to let your dog know that everyone coming and going is no big deal. We can send the opposite message if we give our dogs too much attention before we leave and as soon as we get home. It’s like telling them “we may never see you again” and “thank goodness I made it back to you…I wasn’t sure I would.” This can cause separation anxiety in dogs.

That may sound extreme but our dogs are pack animals by nature which means they would typically eat, sleep, hunt, and play in a pack of dogs. Of course, as domesticated pets our dogs need to learn how to be okay when left alone. However, this can be difficult for some dogs especially when there is an abrupt change in routine like back to school time.

Therefore, to prevent separation anxiety in dogs it is best to always keep arrivals and departures calm. Ignore your dog for at least 10 minutes before your departure and try not to say anything when you leave….but if you must say something, then just a few calm words like “I’ll be home soon.”

You should do the same when you return home…just a few calm words to say hello and then ignore your pup for 10 minutes while you put your things away, change your clothes, etc. If you need to let your dog outside immediately when you return home, then just do so calmly and try not to give your dog much attention for those first 10 minutes.

The morning can be a hectic time for many families but it’s important to give your dog sufficient exercise before leaving in the morning, especially young energetic dogs. They have so much energy after sleeping all night long and need to release some of it before being cooped up in the house alone for many hours.

Be sure to give your dog some more exercise and mental stimulation when you return home to help reduce his stress levels. Check out these fun ways to exercise your dog.

Consider stuffing and freezing a Kong toy the night before so you can give it to your dog when you leave. Please read our Kong safety and stuffing tips.

Some natural calming aids might help your dog with feeling relaxed when you are gone such as a D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) diffuser.  Always check with your dog’s veterinarian before administering any calming aids even if they are “natural”.  Natural does not always mean safe.

Prior to returning to work outside of the home:  I know these are uncertain times so we don’t know exactly how things will be returning to normal or a new normal. If you have enough notice prior to returning to work outside of the home, then at that point start to make gradual changes in your dog’s routine to prepare him for what the new routine will be. This can go a long way in preventing separation anxiety in dogs.

Do you know what your dog does when home alone?  You might be surprised!!!   When people discover their dog has separation anxiety, it is often suspected that they had it for a while but there was no evidence of it until the behavior worsened.  There’s the saying ignorance is bliss…but our lack of awareness does not equal bliss for our dogs and not really for us either because separation anxiety in dogs will usually get worse left untreated.  So I always encourage my clients to get video footage of their dogs when home alone.   This will show if your dog is calm and settled or showing signs of nervousness such as excessive panting, barking, whining, howling, pacing or restlessness.  These signs would not be evident to you when you return home so video footage is the only way to completely rule out separation anxiety in dogs. 

If you need a recording device, there are inexpensive baby cams or dog cams available for around $30 in which you can download an app to your phone and then either record and/or watch your dog live with the app.  Whatever device that you use, it’s best to position it where your dog cannot access it so that your dog does not knock it over or chew it, etc.    

If your dog already has separation anxiety…then this is the perfect time to implement a behavior modification program, especially if someone is always home with your dog right now. For dogs that already have separation anxiety, we are able to modify the behavior the fastest when you don’t have to leave them alone and we can therefore build gradually. One of the biggest struggles with treating separation anxiety is the setbacks that can happen when dogs have to be left home alone before they are mentally ready. Whether your dog is home alone right now or not…separation anxiety gets worse left untreated so please let us know as soon as possible if you need help with this behavior.


We hope you are making it through these difficult times okay and we are still here for you during the pandemic. Whether it’s for separation anxiety in dogs or any other behavior… our expert dog trainer, Michele Meyer, can assist you with live video sessions and phone consultations…and we will be taking careful safety precautions for in-person sessions once the COVID-19 shelter in place is lifted. Just get in touch today and tell us about your dog.