Is your dog scared and unhappy when you leave it?

17. October, 2023

Sometimes, you have to leave your dog and let it be alone. Maybe you have to go to work. Maybe you need to exercise. Maybe you have to visit family, friends, or acquaintances where the dog can’t come along. That’s just a part of ordinary human life. Unfortunately, it’s also a part of a dog’s life to react inappropriately when you leave. In fact, separation-related issues are among the most common behavioral challenges that dog owners face.

Separation anxiety affects all kinds of dogs regardless of gender, breed, or age. To find out exactly how your dog’s separation anxiety manifests, it might be a good idea to record a video of it when it’s home alone. Additionally, you can take notes to get a clear picture of what actually happens and when.

Here’s how you can tell if your dog has separation anxiety:

  • Your dog barks, howls, or whines when you leave – and might continue for a shorter or longer period after you’re gone.
  • Your dog damages doors and windows by scratching them or trying to dig underneath.
  • Your dog destroys things (shoes, pillows, toys, etc.) by gnawing and chewing on them.
  • Your dog drools excessively, vomits, hyperventilates (breathes very quickly and shallowly), or its heart beats very fast.
  • Your dog defecates or urinates around the house when it’s alone. It might do it in random places in the house.
  • Your dog paces around the house – it might almost circle like a lion in a cage.


In short, it’s really unfortunate for your dog if it suffers from separation anxiety. It’s also distressing for you because it’s probably heartbreaking to leave a dog that isn’t doing well. If it becomes really severe, you might see no other option than to part with your dog. Studies show that at least 40 percent of dogs surrendered to English animal shelters were given up due to behavioral problems. Since separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioral problems, it’s reasonable to assume that a significant portion of dogs’ inappropriate behavior simply results from separation anxiety. For some dog owners, it gets so bad that they choose to have their dog euthanized. 7.1% of the dogs euthanized in England in 2016 were euthanized due to behavioral problems. Among shelter dogs, behavioral problems were the cause of 50-70% of euthanizations.


This is why your dog becomes anxious and upset when you leave:

Why do some dogs get anxious when their owner leaves them? Today, we know quite a bit about this. It’s also good for you as a dog owner to know, so you can better prevent it.

  • If your dog’s parents had separation anxiety, there’s a greater risk that your dog will too.
  • Your dog has too few early experiences of being alone at home. It should ideally learn this from puppyhood.
  • Situational anxiety means your dog becomes scared, for example, because there’s noise and commotion. It can happen during a storm or when garbage trucks roam the area with noisy vehicles.
  • Changes in your work schedule or daily routine.
  • Moving to a new residence.
  • New owner or family.
  • Age – like dementia, for example.
  • Changes in the family structure, such as the arrival of a baby or the death of a family member.
  • Generalized anxiety.
  • Illness and health problems, such as chronic pain.

Once you recognize the symptoms of your dog’s separation anxiety and perhaps begin to understand the cause, you can do something about it. A good advisor is often your veterinarian, who can guide you on the appropriate treatment for your dog.


How you can help your dog:

However, there are also considerations you can make on your own. Nowadays, for example, “behavior modification” is advocated as a treatment, and we know more about how to help the dog. For instance, it used to be recommended that as a dog owner, you should sneak out without the dog noticing. Today we know it’s better to create predictability so the dog finds comfort in knowing what’s going to happen.

British expert Dr. Sarah Heath developed the CALM program. It consists of four steps that prevent and manage separation anxiety in dogs. Here’s a brief overview of the program:


Step 1: Boost your dog’s self-esteem

Consider your dog’s behavior when it’s not alone – the ability to control its emotions helps it cope with periods of loneliness.

Anxiety is associated with low self-esteem. Work on increasing your dog’s ability to handle new experiences and changes.

You can encourage your dog to play with toys on its own and reward calm and relaxed behavior.

Avoid using a loud or angry voice, and it’s also a bad idea to punish the dog for accidents it made while alone at home.


Step 2: Change the expectation of interaction

You love your dog’s company, and it’s tempting to spend every minute together when you’re home. However, this can give your dog unrealistic expectations, making it reliant on your presence to feel secure.

When puppies are very small, it’s important for them to spend some time alone with appropriate toys so they learn to keep themselves happy and occupied.

When dogs are insecure, they seek comfort and often try to obtain it from people through behaviors like leaning, nipping, pushing, sniffing, and licking. If they become dependent on this form of reassurance, they’re more likely to be anxious when you’re not there.

You shouldn’t reward your dog when it seeks your attention in this way. Instead, you can praise it when it stops licking your hand or when it gets up after rolling on its back. That way, you reward it for becoming more self-assured.


Step 3: Show your dog that you leave – and that you come back

Predictability and control help reduce anxiety, so it’s important to allow your dog to predict that you both leave – and come back.

You should provide a visual cue that you’re not available and remove the cue when you return.

Introduce the cue for the dog slowly and gently. You do this by leaving for short periods and leaving it in a place where you think it feels safe, comfortable, and relaxed. When you come back, remove the cue before petting and talking to your dog.


Step 4: Talk to your veterinarian

Have you tried everything? Talk to your veterinarian. Today, there are solutions such as supplements and medications that can reduce your dog’s separation anxiety.


Pegram, C., Gray, C., Packer, R. M., Richards, Y., Church, D. B., Brodbelt, D. C., & O’Neill, D. G. (2021). Proportion and risk factors for death by euthanasia in dogs in the UK. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 9145.
Salman, M. D., Hutchison, J., Ruch-Gallie, R., Kogan, L., New Jr, J. C., Kass, P. H., & Scarlett, J. M. (2000). Behavioral reasons for relinquishment of dogs and cats to 12 shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3(2), 93-106.