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Treating separation anxiety

Working out why your dog reacts badly to being left alone can be tricky. Especially, as research shows that half of dogs suffering from separation-related behaviour (SRB) won't show any signs when you're with them.

Image of dog with text reading 'I used to chew the sofa when left at home, but now I chew my new special toy'

How to treat or prevent separated-related behavoiur

Taking positive action to prevent or treat separation anxiety can help if:

  • Your dog is showing obvious signs of distress.
  • If you don't know whether there's a problem but want to help your dog to feel better when left alone.
  • You want to identify if behaviour problems are being caused by other factors. For example, whether destructive behaviour is being caused by a lack of mental stimulation. Or, if barking actually caused by a disturbing noise.

Leave a 'special' toy

Always make sure that your dog has exciting things to do when you're not with them. You can give your dog a long-lasting chew such as a stuffed 'kong' toy, a meat-flavoured chew or a treat ball when you plan to go out.

Make sure that they enjoy using it when you're there. If your dog then doesn't use it when you're away, this may be a sign that your dog is worried when you're out.

Top tip: Remember to take any food treats out of your pet's daily food allowance to avoid overfeeding.

Encourage your pet to relax during their alone time

Try to take your dog for a walk before you go out so that they have the opportunity to go to the toilet and exercise. Return half an hour before you plan to leave and make sure they're not hungry. You can feed them a small meal before you leave or leave a food toy - your dog will be much more inclined to relax if they're fed!

Minimise disturbances

Some dogs will bark at the sight or sound of other people or dogs passing by their window or in response to noises outside. You can prevent disturbances and barking by:

  • Closing the curtains to reduce what your dog can see.
  • Leaving them in a quiet room.
  • Leaving the radio on to muffle outside sounds.

Get a dog sitter

We recommend that you don't leave your dog alone for more than four hours; for puppies much less. However, if your dog struggles with being alone they may start feeling anxious within minutes of you leaving, or even before you leave.

Using a dog sitter or dog walking service means that someone can keep your dog company and take them for a walk. This is a good way of easing the stress they may feel when you're not there.

Never punish your dog

If your dog does something undesirable whilst you're out, it's important you don't show any signs of disapproval. Raising your voice or showing your disappointment might scare your dog and make the situation worse.

Your dog will become anxious about what you'll do when you return the next time you go out, making the behaviour (like chewing and barking) worse.

Dogs who've been told off may lower their head, put their ears back and put their tail between their legs. Sadly, owners often think that their dog looks guilty when they do this and so tell them off thinking they know they've done wrong.

However, even if you take your dog to the 'scene of the crime' they won't associate your anger with their earlier behaviour. Your dog will simply become more anxious the next time you go out. If you do come home to a mess, it's essential not to physically punish or shout at your dog.

Top tip: Try to avoid even letting your dog see that you're annoyed - let them outside before cleaning up.

Leaving your dog to 'cry it out'

Some dog training guides may suggest letting a dog 'cry it out'. This technique, whilst practised widely, is neurologically damaging. Here's why:

  • Dogs and puppies left to cry it out will only learn that being alone is terrifying.
  • Every time your dog becomes highly distressed, stress hormones occur in the body which can take days to reduce. This can cause negative, long-term effects on your dog's body and mental state.
  • Some will sadly learn that calling for their owner to come back doesn't work, so they learn to suffer in silence.

For more information, read our learning to be left alone leaflet.  

Seeking the help of a professional

If our advice hasn't eased the separation-related behaviour, talk to a vet who knows you and your dog. They should then refer you to a clinical animal behaviourist. They'll help you identify the underlying cause of the problem and develop a personalised treatment plan.

Find out more