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If you google separation anxiety, you will likely find a list of things a mile long that you should do to prevent separation anxiety. But do they work? Will you prevent your dog from getting separation anxiety if you do these things?

Before answering this question, we need to understand how separation anxiety happens. Two main factors contribute to separation anxiety – genetics and environmental factors. In my video, where I provide some background on The Common Signs of Separation in Dogs, I describe these factors in detail. There is a lot of research being undertaken on canine separation anxiety. A DNA marker has been identified that may indicate if a dog is genetically predisposed to the condition. However, environmental conditions are antidotal as the research has not conclusively proven if there is statistical causation or significance to environmental triggers. An environmental trigger is something that the dog experiences that triggers anxiety. An example is a traumatic event such as flying in a plane at a young age or if left to cry it out if they are anxious. For every dog that suffers from separation anxiety, there is likely another dog who lived through a similar triggering event and is okay with alone time.

How do we prevent something that we don’t fully understand the cause?

And if you do everything that your google search highlighted, and your dog still develops separation anxiety, is it your fault? Before you start blaming yourself, read my blogs on How to Fix Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety and The Top 7 Things That Could Make Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety Worse. Spoiler alert – You didn’t cause your dog’s separation anxiety, but you do need to use care that you aren’t doing something that is preventing it from being resolved or being resolved more quickly. Separation anxiety, home-alone concerns, and isolation distress are terms used to describe a bundle of behaviours that only appear when the dog is left alone or cannot access its owner. Ballantyne writes, “There is no consensus on the diagnostic terminology”. 1

Separation-related behaviours fall into two buckets. Those where the dog is not used to being left alone but with some training tend to adjust quickly to be comfortable when left. The second bucket is when the dog has a negative emotional response when left, and without intervention, such as systematic desensitization will likely worsen. While we would approach both buckets with the same training methodology, generally, dogs in the first bucket adjust quickly to being left once they know that your departures are safe for them. Dogs with more of a clinical definition of separation anxiety will also improve. However, the rate of progress is usually slower, and they will often require veterinary support to help with the acquisition and retention of learning. McCrave states, “If the anxiety underlying these behaviours remains untreated, the behavior problem will not be resolved” .2

Dogs will progress through phases when left home alone. The first phase, called the ‘threshold of perception,’ occurs when the owner readies to leave or exits. Before the person leaves, the dog may become hypervigilant. The dog often becomes aware that the owner is about to leave well before the person goes. The dog is aware that the person has stepped outside the door. They may stare towards the door, follow to the door, sniff the door crack, look about quickly or start to fidget. The longer the person remains outside the door, the dog will move through other threshold stages until it hits the ‘threshold of aversiveness.’ As they approach this final phase, we will see the more obvious signs of separation anxiety, including vocalization, panting, drooling, damage to the home, and self-harm or elimination. The rate of progression up the continuum from perception to aversiveness will vary by individual. Dogs will not display all signs of separation anxiety. It is very common that a dog will only display a few signs, with the most common being vocalization, pacing, panting, drooling and damage, usually near the exit door.

Since COVID, there seems to be a marked increase in the number of dogs suffering from separation anxiety.

Has what has happened to our lives resulted in more dogs suffering from separation anxiety? Is it a correlation or causation or neither? If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears or sees it, did it really happen? Many of our dogs suffer in silence because no one sees or hears them. Often, a noise complaint from a neighbour or the owner comes home to damage or elimination problems that bring the issue to an owner’s attention. During COVID, we were all confined to our homes and spent much more time with our dogs, watching them and engaging with them. So, is separation anxiety more prevalent as a result? The experts in the field don’t believe that the uptick in separation anxiety is due to COVID. While many more homes added a pet to their family during this time, there are concerns that dogs may be more bonded to their family since the family didn’t leave their home for extended periods. The typical socialization activities have been curtailed due to COVID. The following are more likely the reasons why there is a belief that separation is more prevalent:

  1. The mainstream media has latched on to separation anxiety as a storyline, and there are more articles and interviews on the topic. Therefore, the public’s awareness of the topic has increased.
  2. Owners are home and are watching their dogs more closely than ever before and are noticing behaviour, some of which may be anxious.
  3. The use of pet cameras and other technology are common, so owners are watching their pets and noticing alone time behaviour.

Historically it is estimated that about 17% of dogs in North America suffer from separation-related behaviours. That equates to an estimated 14.4 million dogs that may potentially be affected.

What about severity?

If a dog has many of the common signs of anxiety, are they considered to have a severe case? What if they only do some minor whimpering? Is this considered mild? What do these labels mean for resolution or prognosis? Here’s the thing, the outward manifestation of symptoms bears no relationship to the internal panic experienced. In addition, it has no bearing on the rate of improvement or resolution rates. Often when an owner describes the severity of their dog’s symptoms, it is biased towards the impact on them. It is possible when an owner who comes home to a sofa chewed up or poop smeared around the home will rate their dog’s severity as higher than an owner who comes home to a dog that has paced and whined the entire time they were left. While it is not my intent to dismiss this impact, it would be wrong to infer that a dog that merely paces and whines are suffering less. Whether the separation anxiety is mild, moderate or severe, we should not downplay the inward manifestation of the chronic anxiety on the dog’s or owner’s physical and mental well-being. Unless we are dealing with a dog that needs some help adjusting to being alone, all dogs with or without separation anxiety will benefit from assistance to help adjust to being alone. Remember, dogs have been bred for generations to be pro-social to humans, so it should not be a surprise that they show varying degrees of distress with being left alone. Most trainers rank home alone training with the same importance as housetraining for when a puppy comes home. Even an adult dog in a new home may need some help adjusting to being home alone. Being proactive will help the dog make the transition more easily and quickly.

Back to the question of severity and resolution rates, I previously stated that there wasn’t a correlation to resolution rates based on the perceived severity of the separation-related behaviour. In my experience, I can attest that some of the most challenging cases I have worked with, i.e. cases that took a long time to resolve, would be defined as minor. On the flip side, cases where the dog has demonstrated severe symptoms of self-harm and escape behaviours have resolved quickly, noting that the definition of quickly in the treatment of separation anxiety is a relative term. The treatment of separation anxiety takes time. The dog sets the pace of the process. We typically talk in terms of months to see progress.

Since there is no benefit to classifying separation anxiety cases as easy or hard to resolve or less or more severe, I do not do it. Every person living with separation anxiety is having a hard time with it. Every dog living with separation anxiety is living with the impact of chronic stress on their health. There is no benefit to categorizing the cases. Why throw up barriers or create feelings of hopelessness? There isn’t a correlation to resolution rates. Why create false hope for the speed of resolution? The dog sets the pace regardless of whether or not we slot the dog’s symptoms into an arbitrary category.

So back to the very first question, can we prevent separation anxiety?

Well, you have probably guessed by now that the answer is no. It is not possible to prevent something when we don’t have any control over or fully understand why it occurs in the first place. But it doesn’t mean we should take our bat and ball and go home. We can still do things through proactive training and management to prevent it or ensure that we get on it as early as possible if we think our dog is struggling with being home alone.

But a word of caution here.

You may do everything right. You may proactively do home-alone training. You may research breeders and choose one who does all the correct socialization exposures, and you may still have a puppy that suffers from separation anxiety. It is easy to feel guilty that you are somehow responsible for your dog’s separation anxiety since you have loved them and spoiled them. I am here to tell you, and if you take only one thing away from this blog, it should be that you are not responsible for your dog’s separation anxiety. Please read the blog How to Fix Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety if you want to dive deeper into this topic.

The Role of Management

The one thing we can do to help our dog’s separation anxiety, whether they need time to acclimate to being home alone or to stop their anxiety from worsening, is management. Management prevents the rehearsal of the behaviour. When we are trying to change a dog’s behaviour in dog training, we come at it from three directions. Think of a three-legged stool. If the stool only has two legs, it will topple. It needs all three to be stable. Same with dog training. Trainers focus on these three dimensions:

  1. Environmental (antecedent arrangement)
  2. Management
  3. Training

We change the environmental triggers to prevent the dog’s behaviour from being cued. We put management in place to prevent the dog from rehearsing the behaviours in the short term. And finally, we train the dog, teaching the dog a new behaviour to do when in a specific situation. Environmental arrangement and management are implemented first, and the training follows. While we instill new behaviours, we do not want the dog reverting to old behaviour patterns. Management is critical to preventing this while teaching a new behaviour.

So, what does this mean for separation anxiety? Management means we need to prevent the dog from rehearsing their anxiety. Since their experience with you leaving means, they are thrust into an unsafe situation, resulting in them panicking, we need to suspend absences. Absence suspension means the dog should not be left alone except while training. And when they are left, they cannot be left for longer than they can handle. Management options include daycare, pet sitters and friends and family.

Sherman and Mills wrote, “The purpose of environmental management is to reduce the manifestation of signs and reduce strain in the household to permit time for behavior modification and pharmacotherapy to become effective.” 3

The dog will begin to relax once they are no longer exposed to the scary stimulus, i.e. you leaving regularly. If you go for longer than the dog can handle, the dog will start to predict that it will be put into an unsafe situation each time you leave. The dog will become sensitized to you going, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve in the desensitization training and your progress will be harmed. This is why advice such as ‘let them cry it out’ is so harmful. It is intended innocently, but without understanding how fear patterns are established, the advice results in the dog sensitizing to the absence. It is possible to establish a fear response with as little as one negative experience. The repetition of fear and anxiety only serves to develop neural pathways in the brain that become increasingly difficult to change. Ballantyne wrote in his 2018 paper, “Throughout this process, it is essential that the intensity of the stimulus is never presented at a level that elicits the fear response or sensitization to the stimulus and worsening of the fear response rather than desensitization will occur.” 1

Systematic desensitization training is the gold standard in dealing with separation anxiety.

The training done for separation anxiety requires the dog to be left for only as long as it can handle. As such, we are working continually under the dog’s threshold. Ideally, we are above the ‘threshold of perception’ but well below the ‘threshold of aversiveness .’If the dog is in the latter range, it cannot learn from the experience or retain what is learned. In fact, if we are consistently training in the ‘threshold of aversiveness’ range, we are likely to sensitize the dog to your absence. However, training below the ‘threshold of perception’ is also not productive. We need the dog to be aware that you are leaving. Training while your dog is sleeping is unlikely to give you any long-term benefit as the dog is neither learning nor retaining. However, I can understand why an owner may choose to do this as it does give them a glimmer of life after separation anxiety and for the owner, that is an enticing proposition.

Other forms of training, such as counterconditioning and teaching other behaviours such as a stay or a go to a place, while helpful in different contexts, typically do not help with separation anxiety. This training can be beneficial for management around the home, but there is no research to support their help in addressing departures. Feuerbacher and Muir’s 2020 paper states, “Interestingly, the dog that had the highest percentage of successful trials also had the owner who increased the departure duration the slowest and had the greatest number of short departures. The authors concluded that systematic desensitization was the critical component for successful treatment and that counterconditioning and other behavioral advice did not influence the behavioral outcome.” 4

McCrave found in his research from 1991, “The goal of treatment is to reduce the anxiety associated with the owner’s departure rather than to attempt to treat the symptoms of elimination destructive behavior, or vocalization directly. This is accomplished by a series of planned departures of gradually increasing duration.” 2

By increasing the predictability of the owner’s departures and working at the dog’s pace, the dog gradually learns that your leaving is safe. Dogs don’t generalize well. We use care in how we train so that the dog can adjust to real-life scenarios and the owner’s real-life leaving routine. We systematically build in more challenging variables such as the time of day and pre-departure cues to ensure that your dog is comfortable in and with these different scenarios to have the resiliency to cope with changing circumstances. We also build in easy wins and lots of them. Why? Dogs are masters at reading patterns and form associations easily. If our departures become consistently more challenging, the dog will sensitize to them. This is called ‘expectancy violation’ and is where there is anticipatory anxiety. We need the dog to learn that our absences are predictable and safe. If the dog starts to expect something unpleasant will happen, but it doesn’t, this builds resiliency in time.

In conclusion, we can’t prevent separation anxiety. You can do everything right and still have a dog suffering from separation anxiety. We know what makes separation anxiety worse, so we can proactively change what we are doing if it is making the situation worse (read the blog The Top 7 Things That Could Be Make Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety Worse). We can still provide proactive home-alone training, and for most dogs, this will help them transition to a new home easier, no matter their age. If your dog continues to show anxiety when you leave, the proactive training will not make the situation worse. The good news is that separation anxiety is treatable. Through management and systematic desensitization and the support of your veterinarian, it is possible to resolve separation anxiety for many dogs.


1 Ballantyne, K.C. 2018. Separation, Confinement or Noises. What is scaring that dog? Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice Vol 48 Issue 3 P367-386 May 2018

2 McCrave, E.A. 1991. Diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety in the dog. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 21 (2). P247-255

3 Sherman, B.L., & Mills, D.S.2008. Canine anxieties and phobias: an update on separation anxiety and noise aversions. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38 (5), 1081-1106.

4 Feuerbacher, E., & Muir, K. 2020 Using Owner Return as a Reinforcer to operantly Treat Separation-Related Behavior in Dogs. Animal Journal.

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