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Managing Separation Anxiety & Phobias in Dogs

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Even the happiest of dogs may have certain times when they feel anxious, nervous, or fearful.

If your pup ever shows symptoms of nervousness when left alone or during thunderstorms, for example, they’re not alone.

Fortunately, there are ways to help your dog develop better coping skills and more confidence during these times.

Helping Your Dog Through Separation Anxiety, Fireworks, and More

We love dogs for their happy and affectionate natures, and their boundless joy for life.

But, it’s important to remember that dogs experience different types of emotions—and that includes fear.

Common ways for fear to manifest include separation anxiety and noise phobias.

Here’s what you need to know about these conditions, and how to help your pup if they are affected:

What Is Separation Anxiety?

With separation anxiety, a dog becomes fearful or anxious when their owner isn’t with them, especially when home alone.

Symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe, and may include:

  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Trembling
  • Whining, howling, or barking
  • House soiling
  • Destructive behaviors (scratching, chewing, digging, or knocking objects over)
  • Attempts to escape the home (so be sure all doors and windows are secure)

Since these things occur when you’re outside the home, you may or may not actually observe them.

But, once you get home, you may notice “clues” such as your dog trembling, potty accidents in the home, signs of digging, or neighbors complaining of barking.

What Are Noise Phobias?

“Noise phobias” is an umbrella term used to describe fear-based behaviors that occur in response to loud noises.

The most common culprits are fireworks and thunderstorms. Symptoms are nearly identical those seen with separation anxiety, as listed above.

Unfortunately, it’s possible for a dog to have both conditions; the animal may be doubly fearful when left home alone, during a thunderstorm.

What Do These Conditions Mean for Your Dog?

If you feel your dog may have separation anxiety or a phobia, it’s important to address it because the condition isn’t good for a dog’s mental or emotional health, and can negatively impact quality of life.

Plus, panic behaviors can lead to accidental injuries, or to a dog escaping the home and getting lost.

The earlier you intervene, the better. Over time these behaviors can become learned habits—which makes them harder to change.

A Veterinary Visit Is the First Step

If you suspect your dog may be affected by one of these conditions, it’s important to confirm the correct diagnosis prior to beginning treatment.

The symptoms listed above could be caused by other conditions. For example, destructive behaviors can be a sign of boredom. Or, urinary accidents may be due to a urinary tract infection.

If your dog does have anxiety or fear-based behaviors, it will be important to develop a treatment plan yourself or with professional help.

Here are some common pieces of the treatment plan:

Desensitization Helps Your Dog Adjust and Develop Confidence

Almost all treatment plans for separation anxiety or noise phobias include some form of desensitization.

Desensitization uses small steps to help your pet slowly, incrementally get used to the “scary thing”, whether that’s a loud noise, or being left alone, so they are no longer scared of it.

It’s a gradual process that can take weeks to months—but it’s time well-spent. This is what truly addresses the root issue and helps your pup feel better.

Gradually Reducing Your Dog’s Fear of the “Scary Thing”

The key is to start small.

For example, maybe picking up your keys or putting on your coat is a trigger that tells your dog you’re about to leave the home—and they may start to whine, tremble, or feel anxious.

Your dog will need to be able to handle this small trigger before they can handle you being gone for an entire workday.

Help your pup by picking up your keys and putting them back down. Do this a few times per day, until your dog shows no reaction at all.

Then, move onto the next step. For example:

  • Open the door but immediately close it again
  • Once your dog is used to that, step outside for a few seconds, then step back inside
  • Then, step outside for a minute… 5 minutes… 10 minutes… an hour… and so on

If your pup ever reacts with fear, go back to a previous step that doesn’t elicit any reaction, and start there again.

Patience is key!

One Important Thing to Note…

While your dog undergoes desensitization, it’s important they don’t experience a full-blown episode of fear or panic.

That could undo all the progress you’ve made.

So, try to have someone stay with your dog if you need to be gone for work. Or, consider doggy daycare.

Desensitization for Noise Phobias

It’s possible to do this same process for noise phobias, by playing sounds of fireworks or thunderstorms on VERY low volumes for short periods of time, then gradually increasing the sound and length of time.

However, it’s best to do this during a season with no fireworks or storms, so your pup can adjust gradually before the real thing happens.

Your Dog Will Follow Your Lead

Your dog loves receiving your attention. Maybe you give extra attention when you know your pup is scared or anxious.

Dogs are smart, and they can learn to repeat these behaviors to get more attention from you. Despite your well-meaning intentions, this can actually reinforce the behaviors you don’t want to see.

Avoid this by acting calm and quiet around your dog, especially during stress triggers like you coming or going from the home, or during a storm.

It is recommended to be sure to give your pup extra attention when they behave calmly, too.

Provide a Safe Space

A “safe space” is somewhere that is your dog’s personal space, where they feel safe and secure—for example, a crate, bed, favorite blanket, or inside your closet.

To help your pup warm up to this space, encourage them to use it all the time, not just during stressful situations.

Offer lots of praise and a special treat when your dog is in their safe spot, so they make a positive mental association that soothes them any time they sit or lie down there.

Use Positive Distractions

Offering a favorite toy can help your pup pass the time and stay focused on the fun thing in front of them rather than the “scary thing.”

Durable rubber toys and puzzle feeders are great options, as they provide both treats and mental stimulation.

Supplements, Medications, and Other Calming Aids

There are many natural calming supplements available for dogs. These may help, but it’s best to check with your veterinarian whenever you give your dog something new.

Your dog may feel calmer if you provide dog pheromone products—plug-ins or sprays that disperse a comforting scent signal for dogs.

Also, check out calming apparel like, specially designed vests, wraps, shirts, and coats. These typically mimic swaddling, applying gentle, constant pressure which can help comfort a nervous pup.

Prescription medications for anxiety are available with a veterinary prescription. In general, these are for severely affected dogs, and either given short-term during the desensitization process, or on an as-needed basis, like during storms or fireworks.

Additional Training Options

Specialty trainers and professional behaviorists can provide additional help. Some trainers can even provide instruction from the comfort of your home.

It can be easy to perform an internet search for who is available in your area, or ask a friend or fellow pet parent if they have someone they recommend.

Supporting Your Pup’s Mental and Emotional Health

Dealing with a phobia or anxiety may be frustrating, but it’s important to remember that it’s challenging for your pup, too.

After all, they don’t want to feel afraid. They just need help learning they are safe and have nothing to worry about when alone or when loud noises happen.

Patience and gentle support are key to helping your dog through these conditions—and soon, the few stressful times will be outnumbered by lots of happy, fun times together with your pup.


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