What to do if your dog is anxious when they're left alone

Separation related behaviours (SRBs) are unwanted behaviours when dogs are left alone. Most common are destruction, toileting, barking or howling. There are different reasons for dogs to show these behaviours when left alone, but the most common is where they have never learnt that being alone is a normal and OK part of life. For these dogs, the problem is known as separation anxiety.

For further information, see our train your dog to be calm, relax and settle page.

A dog lying down to to their owners foot

Why do dogs get anxious home alone?

There are a number of reasons why dogs may develop separation anxiety but the most common is that they never learn that it OK to be on their own. That may sound strange, but dogs are a naturally social species, and it is ‘normal’ for them to retain contact with their social group. They need to specifically learn that being alone is an OK part of their daily routine.

When a puppy is first separated from its mother and litter mates, his or her normal response will be to whine, whimper or bark to try and make contact again. They may also scrabble about and try to physically get back to its family. Unless the puppy specifically learns to be calm when alone, these responses can be retained right into adulthood.

Taking a “puppies’ point of view” of being left alone for the first time is perhaps the best way to consider this.


A dogs point of view

Scenario 1

Let’s use the example of ‘Frodo’ a Jack Russell terrier: imagine him arriving for the first time in his new home at 10 weeks of age. He has just been picked up from the breeder’s house and brought home to his new family. He has settled in pretty well considering the complete change in his world, and has started to learn about his new social group – the members of the Mitchell family. He has been with the family all afternoon and enjoyed all the attention, but now it is bedtime, and Frodo is settled into an indoor kennel in the kitchen and left alone. This is the first time he has ever been all alone, having always been with littermates or mum before. He is worried, and reacts by scrabbling about at the door of his kennel and crying loudly. Mr Mitchell hears his cries and comes back to settle him down again. Frodo settles down when he has company, but when Mr Mitchell heads off to bed again, he starts to cry straight away, bringing his owner back to the kitchen.

In this first scenario, Frodo finds being alone new and scary, but also learns that crying works really well to get contact again. He has not learnt to be OK on his own, but has learnt a way of reacting that works for him. As time moves on in this example, Mr Mitchell may get fed up of coming down and reassuring his new puppy, and stay in bed with ear plugs in. Because crying has always worked before, Frodo may carry on crying for a long time, and maybe also start howling. He will become more and more anxious, waiting for someone to come. Eventually Mrs Mitchell might wake up and come to settle him down. So Frodo learns that even if he has to cry for a long time, it will eventually work – in other words it is worth persisting with crying even if it doesn’t work immediately. Frodo is already well on the way to developing active separation anxiety. He may go through life always being anxious about being left alone, persistently crying and howling in an attempt to resolve his distress – because he has learnt that, at least sometimes, this will work to get back with his social group.

Scenario 2

Imagine now, in a parallel universe (scenario 2), that Frodo managed to get the door of his indoor kennel to ping open by scrabbling at it on that first occasion he was left alone, enabling him to run into another room to find his human family. Because scrabbling worked to resolve his situation, he would be more likely to scrabble at the door the next time he was put in the kennel – and if the door fixing was still dodgy, he might get out again. In this scenario, Frodo might develop an active destructive response to being left alone which persists throughout life.

Because the behaviours shown by Frodo in these first two examples (howling and destruction) – are a nuisance for owners, advice in the past was often to focus on not ‘giving in’ to crying or scrabbling, but leaving the puppy alone to make sure that these responses were not rewarded by owner return. This approach meant that these behaviours would not become ‘successful’ and less likely to become an active separation anxiety. That is true, but there is a serious problem with this approach. The behavioural signs may not be so obvious, but nothing has been done to stop the puppy being anxious about being left alone.

Scenario 3

To understand this, now imagine Frodo in his kennel in yet another parallel universe (scenario 3). This time his owners have heard that they should completely ignore Frodo whatever he does. The family go off and leave Frodo in his kennel, they all put in earplugs and go off to sleep. He is terrified, trapped in his kennel. He cries and cries, and scrabbles and scrabbles, but nobody comes. He tries again, crying and scrabbling. He gets so anxious that he toilets in his bed. He gets exhausted after a time, and gives up trying to get out or to get attention – finding that whatever he does there is no way of controlling his situation or resolving the cause of his anxiety. He goes quiet, terrified and shivering in his wet bed and waits…and waits…

In this scenario, no actual ‘problem’ behaviours are reinforced, but Frodo is still very anxious about being left – possibly more so as he has nothing he can ‘do’ to try and deal with the situation. Although Frodo may not have an obvious ‘behaviour problem’ as he grows up, he is very likely to still be anxious when left alone – and may remain so for life. He is may be anxious about being left every day of his life, but it is never noticed.

Scenario 4

Perhaps we should finish by leaving poor Frodo in a more positive universe. This time (scenario 4), his owners went to Dogs Trust Dog School with Frodo, and have trained him slowly to be comfortable in his indoor kennel from the time that he first arrived. They made sure they were at home for the first couple of weeks after Frodo arrived, and used this time to teach him very gradually to tolerate being on his own in the indoor kennel, before they went back to work. On the first night they put the kennel close to them in their bedroom, and over the following days they gradually moved the kennel slightly further away, in small increments, as long as Frodo remained settled. By the fifth night he was calmly sleeping in the hallway. Things are heading in the right direction for a separation anxiety free future!


Make sure you don’t tell your dog off

Because most dogs show separation problems because they are worried, it is counter-productive to tell off or be angry with your dog when you get home. Dogs which scratch holes in the skirting board when their owners are out do not know that these behaviours are ‘wrong’. Dogs do not associate being told off when you come back through the door with going to the toilet several hours earlier. Instead, they will usually become worried about your unexpected anger on coming home, as well as being anxious about being left.

Close up of a dog looking up  Will my dog need medication if anxious when left alone?

In most cases of separation anxiety, behaviour modification programmes alone are sufficient to resolve the problem. However in some cases drug therapy can be useful in addition to behaviour therapy. The decision whether to include drug therapy in a treatment programme will be made by your vet, often in discussion with a behaviourist or veterinary specialist. The aim of drug therapy is to help an owner achieve the programme of behaviour therapy. The factors involved in this decision might include the severity of the behaviour, other things in the environment which impact on the dog, aspects of the situation which might make following behaviour modification programmes challenging, and considerations about the welfare of the dog. Medications used are prescription only, and therefore only available from your vet. If a drug is recommended for a particular case, your vet will explain how to give them, what to look out for, and how long medications have to take effect. If your dog is prescribed medication it is important that it is not stopped suddenly without checking with your vet first.

There is no scientific evidence that any over-the-counter or non-prescription products are valuable in the treatment of SRB in dogs.

What to do

The first thing to do is to find out for sure what your dog does when left alone. You can do this by setting up a video camera pointing towards where you think the dog is likely to spend time while you are out. For example if you normally come home and your dog is in his bed, then try setting up the camera pointing at the dog bed. Some dogs with SRB spend a lot of time at or near the door that you leave through, so you could also try setting up a camera pointing towards the door. Set the camera to record before you start preparing to go out, so this doesn’t influence your normal leaving routine. You may need to try and few times before you find the best place to record what your dog gets up to.

Check your video for signs of anxiety. These may be obvious behaviours, such as barking, howling, or running from room to room, but are often also much more subtle, such as sighing, whining, trembling or drooling.

A dog lying down near their owner  

If you identify signs that your dog may be worried, talk to your vet about referral to a behaviourist. It is important to contact your vet first so that he or she can check that there are no medical problems, and help you find a qualified behaviourist. Because separation problems can develop for different reasons, treatment programmes need to be tailored to individual dogs. Programmes usually include a number of different elements, which might include the following aspects:

  1. Encouraging your dog to not be too reliant on your attention when you are at home, so that he or she can cope better when you are not there
  2. Gradually teaching your dog that it is actually OK to be alone in the house through a process called ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’.
  3. Changing any associations the dog may have made about the events leading up to their owner leaving the house.
  4.  In some cases, making sure that the dog has sufficient exercise and mental stimulation when owners are in will help it to settle down when left.

Once a dog has an established SRB, it is unlikely to improve through minor changes such as leaving on the radio or TV. Leaving treats or puzzle feeders are also unlikely to be successful in established cases: often these will be left by the dog until their owner returns.

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