Separation Anxiety in Dogs (Back-to-School Refresher!)

By Sarah Hinds Friedl on September 19th, 2023

With school starting up again, holiday activities, and fewer daylight hours, fall is a busy time for most families.

Unfortunately, because of the hustle and bustle, this is also a time of year that you might start seeing behavior problems with your dog. All of a sudden, your pooch is spending more time alone at home, and their walkies are cut short because of the dropping temperatures. For a dog prone to separation anxiety, this may lead to more destructive habits, howling and whining, or potty accidents in the house.

A few years ago, we wrote an in-depth blog post on how to help ease your dog’s separation anxiety. In this refresher article, we’ll focus more on how to keep your pup from regressing even if their daily routine changes.

Keep a log
One of the first things we recommend when dealing with separation anxiety is to take notes. This will help you better understand your dog’s condition and what may be helping or worsening their anxiety. It will also come in handy if you decide to work with a professional.

Here are some information points to keep track of:

  • Your family’s daily schedule
  • How long your dog can be left alone before they start showing symptoms of separation anxiety
  • Their anxiety symptoms
  • Daily exercise activities
  • At-home play sessions and training sessions
  • Anything out of the ordinary. Everything from changes in dog food to a new toy to the kids having a playdate should be noted.

As you can see, having a pet cam can be very useful in keeping track of your dog’s anxiety.

Prioritize morning exercise
Daily exercise is a crucial part of your dog’s mental and physical wellbeing. In fact, a PubMed article from 2015 found a correlation between separation anxiety and lower levels of daily exercise. There’s also evidence to show that frequent positive interactions with our dogs, through play and shared exercise, can help to reduce long-term cortisol levels. So, while exercise alone may not eliminate your dog’s separation anxiety, it’s one important tool at your disposal.

Exactly how much exercise your dog needs will depend on their size, age, and endurance. Here are a few ways that you can boost your dog’s exercise in the fall:

  • Walk the kids to school instead of driving
  • Play a round of backyard fetch
  • Clear a space in the garage for an obstacle course or doggy treadmill
  • Play with a flirt pole (a dog-sized cat toy that encourages them to chase and jump)
  • Train your dog to run with you

Are you able to fit in a trip to the dog park or dog-friendly trail before work? Remember to install BreezeGuards on your car windows to keep Fido safely in the backseat even when he’s raring to go!

Introduce more mental stimulation
Mental stimulation is important for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, it gives your dog something to focus on while you’re away. It also helps to channel their nervous energy to more appropriate activities. And finally, engaging in problem-solving tasks releases the feel-good chemical dopamine, making your dog’s time alone enjoyable!

Here are a few ideas for mental stimulation:

  • A variety of chew toys that your dog only has access to when you’re away
  • Treat-filled toys
  • Interactive toys
  • Interactive dog TV (If your dog shows interest in television)

Get back to counterconditioning basics
Counterconditioning is a training method which rewires your dog’s brain to turn negative experiences into neutral or positive ones. When it comes to separation anxiety, this process includes leaving your dog for very small amounts of time, with treats if you wish. Slowly, you can build up their tolerance by leaving them for longer periods.

Make the transition a bit easier
What’s difficult about this time of year for your dog is that they’re experiencing many changes all at once: the family being busier, temperatures changing, fewer daylight hours, etc. So, if possible, make the transition easier by:

  • Coming home on your lunch break
  • Calling in a dog sitter a couple times per week
  • Taking your dog to a doggy daycare a few times per week
  • Take any work-from-home days available to you

As your dog’s tolerance for being alone improves, you can ease up on these solutions. But putting in the extra effort now can really make a difference!

Talk to your vet
Anytime that your dog shows a change in behavior, it’s a good idea to talk to your vet. They can rule out any other possible reasons for the sudden separation anxiety, such as the aging process or an underlying health condition.

A vet will also be able to recommend anxiety-reducing medication while your dog adjusts to the change in routine.

And finally, make sure to ask your vet about seeing a dog behaviorist. They may have someone they can recommend who can use their knowledge of dog psychology to help you put together a treatment plan.

Separation anxiety don’ts
Separation anxiety in dogs can be difficult and frustrating. But, try your best to avoid these common dog owner mistakes:

  • Getting another pet to keep your dog company. This is well-intended but often leads to two pets with separation anxiety.
  • Assuming the behavior will go away on its own. Because separation anxiety can crop up at certain times of year, you may assume that it will go away with time. This is not usually the case. Once your dog has developed a fear or desperation about being alone, it will require dedicated treatment to rewire their brain.
  • Punishing your dog. It’s important to remember that your dog doesn’t destroy things in the house to spite you. Instead, chewing, scratching and howling are outlets for their intense feelings. Punishing them will only increase their negative feelings about being alone.
  • Losing hope. Dealing with separation anxiety takes patience and understanding. So, stick with it! Even if you don’t feel like you’re making much progress, doing something is better than leaving your dog to suffer alone. Your furry friend appreciates your effort!


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