Separation Anxiety

(See also Barking, Destructiveness and Toilet Training)

Dogs vary in terms of how happy they are to be away from their owners. Some may be perfectly content, so long as they aren't left for too long, while others show distress, often called 'separation anxiety'. Separation anxiety is more common among dogs in kennels, ex-shelter dogs, and in certain breeds, especially those designed to work closely with their owners, such as border collies and German shepherds. The dog howls or panics at being away from a particular human or humans, and can even jump out of high windows when they see the owner leave, fearing abandonment. Sometimes dogs try to dig their way out of the house, to be reunited with their owners. This is different from trashing the house out of boredom.

Many dogs aren't so much 'one person dogs', as 'picky', in other words, they have a very restricted group of humans with whom they feel comfortable. Widening a picky dog's social circle by walking with different people can help to build resilience. The more people the dog can trust, the less the dependency on one particular human. 'Picky' dogs tend to take their own time in accepting new humans, preferring those who don't rush them, and who just ignore them at first. Many dogs will ignore anyone except for their owner if the owner is present, but will accept being walked and cared for by a trusted replacement if the owner has to go away.


Dogs may also howl if they aren't used to being left alone. It's not that they miss any special person or other dog, but just find solitude difficult to cope with. This can happen with adopted adult greyhounds and other dogs which have always had companions, and then find themselves suddenly alone. It's relatively easy to teach youngsters to cope with being alone, gradually building up the time they're left without company. It's more difficult to do this with an adult dog that has never been alone. If all a dog wants is company, rather than to be with a particular individual, finding a compatible canine companion can solve the problem.

Newly adopted adult dogs are likely to feel anxiety simply because they're in a new territory with new smells, routines and rules. This can intensify anxiety about being away from familar companions. When dogs move to a new place, it's a good idea to retain something that smells familiar, such as a dog blanket, rather than having everything smell alien. Dogs also like to know what's happening, what to expect, so having clear routines, doing activities like feeding and walking in the same order, with a timetable, helps to relax them. Training games with built-in rewards, can help dogs learn new rules, and feel generally more relaxed about life, and more in control.

Teaching dogs to be alone

Many people have pups in the bedroom at night, so they have company, and their separation from their mother and littermates is easier. Pups do need company, but they also need to be able to cope with being alone. A good time to settle them on their own is after an active session when they'd normally fall asleep. Playpens with toys are also useful for leaving pups alone in a safe place while you're doing something else around the house. 

Dogs can more easily cope with owners being outside the house if they can relax about being in a different room when owners are in the house. You can try doing something in a different room from the dog, with a babygate or other barrier in place, so the dog can see you but can't be by your side. Gradually increase the amount of time that your dog spends alone, and get him used to being where he can't see you. In acute cases involving adult dogs, you may have to start with very short periods like two minutes, at first standing the other side of the door, gradually building it up until you can sit in a nearby room, and the dog is relaxed. Then try going outside and just walking round the block, coming back after five minutes, again, building up the time you're out.

When a dog is learning to be alone, and starts to bark or howl, it can help to go in and 'settle' him, checking his water, giving him a little massage, then going out again. Some people teach a 'settle' command to their dogs, like 'go sleep'.

Dogs have internal clocks, and soon get used to how you structure your day. It can help to have someone trustworthy check on the dog and keep the routine going, if you have to be out for longer than usual. If you take on a new pup or dog and work full-time, you may need a helper to see you through the transition period. Obviously, there are limits to how long dogs should be left alone, especially youngsters, so if your work and commuting time adds up, it's worth arranging a regular lunchtime walker.

It makes sense to have a routine that includes a walk before leaving a dog alone for longer periods. Exercise helps dogs cope with stress, and dogs will tend to sleep for quite a while when left alone if they've had a good run beforehand. Dogs also like to sniff new smells in the neighbourhood, and tend to be calmer once they've 'read the local news'. When you have to go out, you can leave the dog with chews and other toys in a room where he can't see you getting ready to go. A special treat at this time can make the experience pleasant, a hollow rubber toy smeared with cheese, for example. It may also help to leave him something that smells of you - sleep in an old T-shirt, for instance, then leave it with the dog as a 'comfort blanket'. A radio tuned to a station with classical music can also help. No-one has yet produced 'Mozart for Dogs', but classical music is more calming than many types of music, and a radio helps to tune out noises from outside, so helps calm the dog. Make preparations to leave in a discrete way, varying your routine, so the dog doesn't pick up on cues and start to protest about your departure. Make goodbyes low-key, with perhaps a 'be good dog', rather than an effusive 'poor little thing I have to leave you'! It's also worth trying low-key hellos when you get back, to show  it's no big deal if you go away for a while, waiting until the dog is calm before giving him a cuddle.