Separation distress

Separation distress is a common behavioral concern among pet parents. Separation distress occurs on a spectrum ranging from mild whining when the pet parent leaves to destroying doors and crates to get to the person. If your pet is showing severe behaviors such as chewing through doors, crates or trying to hurt themselves in any way, we’d recommend reaching out to a veterinary behaviorist to talk about a more intensive behavior modification plan which may include the use of pharmaceutical interventions. This guide is meant to be a brief overview of some ways you can help your dog cope with mild separation distress.

Prevention goes a long way!

The best way to work on separation distress is to prevent it! Early on in bringing your new dog home, work on separating yourself from your dog in small bits over a few days. Part of why dogs become so stressed when their person leaves is because they’ve never experienced it before and they fear the person will not come back. If you get your dog used to separation from you in small bits (a few minutes at a time), it will build up their familiarity with you leaving but coming back in a way that does not cause significant stress.

Prepare a separation space

The first step in getting your dog used to being separated from you is to prepare the space you’ll be leaving them in. Remember that this is a space you’d like them to stay in whenever you leave so think long term, not short term. We generally recommend leaving your dog in either a crate* or a sectioned-off area. You can use baby gates or exercise pens to create a space if your dog is fearful of crates. The area should be safe and free of anything that the dog can harm itself on. You want the area to be comfortable so make sure your dog has a nice comfy area to relax in, access to water, and some toys it may enjoy while you’re away. It’s also beneficial to begin feeding your dog their meals in this space to further the positive association.

*If your dog has never been in a crate before or shows any hesitation about going in the crate, see our Crate Training Guide for more detailed information on how to slowly acclimate your dog to a crate.

"I'll be back soon!"

Now that you have your space all set up you’re ready to start practicing having your dog spend time in the space and work your way up to leaving for short periods of time. Start by having your dog be in the space with a high-value item such as a bully stick, stuffed Kong, or their meal. You may have to lure your dog in with a high-value treat in the beginning if they show hesitation. Once they’re in the space, hang out either in the space or near it but don’t engage with your dog. The goal is for them to be in the space with you but not to be playing with or being petted by you. For shy dogs, you may have to do this several times before you begin leaving the space. More confident dogs may be ok with you leaving after a few minutes.

To start getting your dog used to you leaving this space start by using a key phrase such as “I’ll be right back”, give them a treat, stand up and walk slightly away from them before sitting back down where you were and praising them. In the beginning stages, you may need to just do this a few times to get them used to the term and the movement before you can walk out of the space.

When you’re ready to start walking out of the space you’ll go through the same steps of saying your key phrase, giving them a treat, stand up, and walk out of the space. In the beginning, you’ll walk out of the space for just a second before returning to them. You can praise your dog but don’t make a huge deal out of it. You’ll repeat this a few times adding a second or two on to how long you’re out of sight for each time. Remember not to add too much time too quickly such as jumping from 10 seconds to 10 minutes. The goal is to slowly desensitize your dog to your leaving without causing a spike in their anxiety. You should only practice this a maximum of 3 times in a day. When you’ve finished practicing, let your dog out of the space and take them outside or for a walk like you would do when you come back home from being gone for an extended period of time.

Tips for Success:

  • Only use your key phrase during training sessions and no other time as it will dilute the power of the phrase.

  • Try leaving music or the TV on in the space where your dog will be left, this will help them to not hyper-fixate on sounds. Research has shown that certain types of music and audiobooks can lower a dog’s heart rate and increase behaviors associated with relaxation.

  • Having another dog may or may not decrease your dog’s separation distress. Some dogs are comforted by the presence of another animal but with other dogs, it’s the separation from the human that causes the stress, not the anxiety of being alone.

  • For some dogs, the routine that you do before you leave becomes a trigger for separation distress. Consider putting your shoes on throughout the day but not leaving or picking up your keys or purse and walking around with them before putting them back down to begin to break the association your dog has to the sight or sounds of those items.

  • If there are multiple exits in your home, leave out of a different door each time so that not one particular door is associated with you leaving.

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