Your Separation Anxiety Action Plan

Canine separation anxiety can be a challenging behaviour issue to modify. In fact, it can be so difficult for dog owners that I authored an entire book on the subject. Successful rehabilitation requires a solid foundation of understanding and a comprehensive plan. Here’s what to do if your dog has separation anxiety.

Is separation anxiety genetic? Can breed play a role?

Dogs are typically bred for positive traits such as sociability and friendliness. But, as Dr. James Serpell, professor of Animal Ethics and Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests, selective breeding may also “concomitantly select for excessive attachment to owners and intolerance to being alone.” Still, even if a dog is genetically predisposed to feeling anxious when isolated, confidence and coping skills can be instilled, and behaviour modification implemented so your dog becomes better able to deal with situations including being alone.

Although there is no specific breed that can definitively be said to be prone to separation anxiety, consider the roles of various breeds. A livestock guardian such as the Anatolian Shepherd has a job to do, and it does not include cuddling on the couch. A toy dog bred for companionship is more likely to crave the company of people and to dislike being alone. Of course, in any breed there is a range of individual temperaments.

What are some other possible causes of separation anxiety?

When a dog is constantly surrounded by people and then suddenly finds himself alone, it can cause anxiety. The pandemic springs to mind. Although it was a tough time for humans, dogs most likely thought all that enforced togetherness was wonderful! But when owners eventually returned to work, dogs were again left by themselves. This abrupt change to alone-time can (and did) trigger separation issues in many dogs. The same thing can happen when a dog is adopted during a vacation, when an owner is home for an extended time with an illness or injury, or in any circumstance where the dog is not given the opportunity to become gradually accustomed to isolation.

Separation anxiety can also sometimes occur in dogs who have been rehomed or abandoned. Some dogs may experience heightened anxiety or a feeling of vulnerability, fearing that their circumstances may change again. Of course, this is far from being the case with all dogs, and should never dissuade anyone from adopting from a rescue or shelter.

How can separation issues be prevented?

Preventing a separation issue is much easier than solving one. If you have a puppy or recently adopted adult dog, teach him to feel calm and secure when left alone. Set the scene for success by designating an area where they will be left, and teach them to feel comfortable there. Whether you use a crate, gated area, or other space, introduce it in short increments and create a positive association by offering stuffed Kongs or chew toys while you’re still at home. You could also feed meals in the space and give calm attention there. Then, with your dog in their designated alone zone, leave the house multiple times a day for very brief periods, even if it’s just to stand outside checking phone messages. This will teach your dog that your comings and goings are nothing to be concerned about, and that when you leave, you always return.


“It’s important to keep a seemingly casual attitude about separations, even if you feel stressed.”

dachshund dog on couch surrounded by mess, dog destroying blankets


I’m not really sure if my dog has separation anxiety. How can I tell?

If your dog has potty accidents, causes destruction, or barks while you’re away, it is possible that they have a separation issue, although it should not be assumed. The best way to discover what your dog is doing when you are away is to monitor them remotely. Download an app designed for this purpose to your laptop or tablet as well as to your phone so you can observe your dog’s behaviour in real time. Two apps that have received positive reviews are Dog Monitor and Barkio. Alternatively, if you have a baby monitor, set it up and review the footage when you return.

Could I be causing my dog’s separation anxiety or making it worse?

Assuming you haven’t suddenly changed your schedule, chances are you are not the cause of the issue. Giving lots of attention or even having your dog sleep in your bed won’t cause the problem, either. What can happen sometimes when a dog already has a separation issue, though, is that the owner’s emotions will affect the dog. There is a difference between tossing a casual, “See you later” over your shoulder as you leave, and holding your dog’s face in your hands while lamenting, “It’s okay, don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.” It’s important to keep a seemingly casual attitude about separations, even if you feel stressed.

chihuahua dog sleeping in sunshine by the window



“Preventing a separation issue is much easier than solving one. If you have a puppy or recently adopted adult dog, teach him to feel calm and secure when left alone.”


An old myth suggests that ignoring your dog will help to solve separation anxiety, since the time you’re at home and the time you’re away will seem more alike. But think about it: if a loved one suddenly started to ignore you, would you feel more secure, or would you feel more nervous, wondering what you’d done to cause it? Same with your dog.

Lastly, separation anxiety can worsen if the owner returns home to find urine, defecation, or destruction and punishes the dog. Punishing a dog for something they did due to being stressed is illogical, cruel, and would only add to their anxiety. The poor dog was already anxious about being alone, and now has the additional apprehension over what will happen when their owner comes home!

What if my dog already has separation anxiety?

Where to start will depend on the intensity of your dog’s issue. If they can’t stand to be separated from you even visually, begin by sitting on the other side of a baby gate as your dog enjoys a super yummy chew item. Increase the distance, gradually working up to spending time in other rooms. Once your dog can remain calm so long as you are somewhere in the house, practice very short outings multiple times daily. Leave calming music playing, but play it at other times as well so it doesn’t become associated only with your absences. Use a calming product with dog-appeasing pheromones either in spray form on your dog’s bed or as a diffuser. Give your dog a long-lasting chew five to ten minutes before your departure so they’re well into the doggy bliss zone by the time you leave. Don’t make a fuss when you go or return. If there are “departure cues” that tip your dog off that you’re leaving, desensitize your dog to them. For step-by-step protocols, see my book Don’t Leave Me: Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety. If you would like in-person guidance, enlist the help of a professional behaviour specialist. And if your dog’s issue is severe to the point that medication is warranted, seek out a behaviour specialist who will work hand-in-hand with your veterinarian, or consult a veterinary behaviour specialist directly.

Can separation anxiety really be resolved?

Yes, absolutely, although it will take time and effort. Keeping a behaviour diary will help to track your dog’s progress and will keep you motivated. Rehabilitation can be a slow process for some dogs, but the effort you put in now will ensure that your dog lives a happier, more relaxed life in the long run.


This article originally appeared in the award-winning Modern Dog magazine. Subscribe today!

“I Missed You!”

Those without dogs are often quick to dismiss the canine ability to feel emotion and express love. We dog lovers know otherwise—and now science has proved it. New research from Japan suggests that dogs actually tear up with happiness when reunited with their guardians after a long absence.

The researchers found the link between dog tears, happiness, and oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” Like us, dogs have tear ducts that produce tears to keep their eyes clean, but the link between tears and emotion had not been previously demonstrated.

Takefumi Kikusui, a professor at the Laboratory of Human-Animal Interaction and Reciprocity at Azabu University in Japan, began investigating dog tears after noticing one of his two Standard Poodles got teary as she nursed her puppies.

Through the study, they “found that dogs shed tears associated with positive emotions,” says Kikusui, who co-authored the research published in the journal Current Biology. “We also made the discovery of oxytocin as a possible mechanism underlying it.” It is still not known if dogs tear up in response to negative emotions, as humans do.

With the help of 20 dogs, researchers then compared the amount of tears before and after reunions with their owners, as well as other people the dogs were familiar with. Only the reunion with the owner increased the amount of tears.

The researchers also found that humans were more apt to take care of dogs with a teary-eyed look, hypothesizing that the tears may help cement the bond between human and dog. His team showed 74 people pictures of dogs’ faces with and without artificial tears in them and asked them to rank the animals. People gave more positive responses when they saw dogs with teary eyes.

“Dogs have become a partner of humans,” says Kikusui, “and we can form bonds.”


This article originally appeared in the award-winning Modern Dog magazine. Subscribe today!

My Dog is a Bully

Q: I have three Chihuahuas. They all spend the nights together in their own bedroom (my bathroom) where they have the same beds, pee mats, water bowls, and toys. But lately, the two older dogs have taken to picking on the youngest dog. Mitzy is eight, Mimzy is six, and Merlin is two; they’ve been together their entire lives and I don’t understand why the two older ones bully him now. It’s gotten to the point where I have to take Merlin out of the room because they are making him screech. What’s up with my three stooges?—Fawn Frazer

A: Fawn, I love the alliterative fabulousness of your dogs’ names!

You’ve got two small dogs who, at six and eight, are middle-aged. Then there’s Merlin, who is just coming into adulthood. I can only answer based on what you’re observing, but what you’re seeing might not be the whole story. It’s possible that Merlin is behaving differently than he was as a puppy, thereby triggering the incidents. Young pups naturally defer to adults. In adolescence, puppies gain confidence and push boundaries. A somewhat insecure or fearful puppy might well submit to an adult who is laying down the law, but an adolescent might not go along so easily, forcing the adult, used to being the law of the land, to make her point in a stronger way.

Place a camcorder in the bathroom to film the interaction. (Or set up a webcam and monitor from another room.) Pay careful attention to the dogs’ body language. While you might see Mitzy or Mimzy lunge or air snap at Merlin, you could also find that he actually did something to incite the behaviour. It might be as subtle as a brief, hard stare, a curled lip, or encroaching on their space. You’ll also discover whether Merlin’s screeching is the result of actual contact or is his response to a threat display. I can’t say for sure that the dynamic I’ve described is what’s happening, but monitoring/filming is a good place to start and will offer more information for a trainer, should you need to employ one.

Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA, is a canine behavior specialist and the author of 10 books, including her latest, Hit by a Flying Wolf: True Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation and Real Life with Dogs and Wolves. You can find Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog at, as well as find her on Facebook (@NicoleWilde,Author) and Twitter (@Nicole Wilde).

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