It is difficult to witness any dog struggling with separation anxiety, but separation anxiety in older dogs is especially heartbreaking.
While there is no magical solution, there are steps that we can take to help make our senior dogs more comfortable when we leave the home.
Last Updated: Nov 25, 2023
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What is Separation Anxiety?
Before we get into any details, you may be wondering what exactly is separation anxiety? How do you know if your dog is experiencing it?
Separation anxiety is, literally, anxiety a dog feels when separated from their guardian(s).
There are various degrees of anxiety, ranging from mild discomfort to ripping the house apart in an effort to escape.
Some of the more common signs that your dog may be struggling include:
- Incessant barking
- Running from room to room, searching for their people
- Destructive behavior (chewing, digging, tearing)
- Chewing through barriers confining them
- Trained dogs having accidents
When the parent returns, they are often frantic in their greeting as though they’ve been apart for a very long time, even if it was only minutes.
This may appear to be a cute sign of their love for you. However, it is very stressful for the dog.
Plus, it can be frustrating for neighbors forced to listen to the dog barking and whining all day long in your absence.
The good news is separation anxiety can be worked through with time and patience.
Is My Dog at Risk for Separation Anxiety?
Dogs of all ages can experience this type of anxiety, yet it is one of the most common behaviors in senior dogs.
Not only can it be more challenging for older dogs to handle changes in routine, but losing hearing or sight will likely make them more anxious in general.
Add an absent owner to the mix, and you have a recipe for some severe anxiety.
But is it Really Separation Anxiety?
Sometimes, anxiety can be confused with boredom since they are both associated with destructive behavior and excessive barking.
When discussing separation anxiety in older dogs, other factors may be at play.
If you notice changes in your dog’s behavior, please see your vet. In addition to separation anxiety, several medical conditions could explain these changes.
As dogs age, many find it harder to cope, and certain medical conditions, like Canine Cognitive Disorder (or doggie dementia), can raise anxiety levels.
Some dogs may awaken their humans at night because they view sleep as separation.
Imagine losing your sight or hearing, trying to navigate the world around you, and your support person is no longer there by your side.
Previously housebroken dogs may “forget” their training or a medical issue could lead to frequent urination, causing accidents in the house.
Some pet parents resort to using a crate to confine their dog when they’re out, not understanding that crate training is a process and not something you just throw your dog into.
Your dog’s anxiety could stem from being locked up suddenly instead of separation anxiety.
Another point to consider – if you have recently welcomed a new senior dog into your home, it is quite possible their anxiety is simply caused by getting used to their new life.
What is the Cause of Separation Anxiety in Senior Dogs?
Conclusive evidence of why some dogs develop separation anxiety really doesn’t exist.
In addition to conditions like Canine Cognitive Disorder, mentioned earlier, many things could trigger separation anxiety in older dogs, such as:
- Major renovations at home
- Being bounced around from shelter to shelter or home to home
- Loss of important people in their life
- An emotionally traumatic experience
- Feeling lost in unfamiliar surroundings
- Change in schedule/routine
Determining the exact cause is often challenging. Luckily, the work necessary to overcome your old dog’s separation anxiety is essentially the same, regardless of the cause.
Tips for Fixing Separation Anxiety in Dogs
There is no quick fix for separation anxiety in older dogs.
But you can make many simple changes in your daily routine that will help prevent, manage, or overcome anxiety.
Here are a few options to help you get started:
Don’t wait until your dog is experiencing anxiety to take them for a walk.
Every dog needs more than a backyard. They need the stimulation from long walks, at least 60 minutes per day.
Obviously, the length, intensity, and frequency will depend on your dog’s age and physical condition.
If your dog struggles with mobility, that 60 minutes can be broken down into two 30-minute walks or four 15-minute walks.
Tiring your dog out before you leave the house may make them more relaxed about spending time alone.
Training, games, tracking, puzzles, and agility are just some ways to challenge your dog mentally and physically.
Again, your chosen activity will depend on your dog’s physical capabilities.
But with so many mental enrichment options available, at least one will work for your dog.
Studies have shown that mental enrichment activities like these can wear your dog out more effectively than physical exercise.
Mix Up Your Routine
Most of us have a routine we follow each time we’re ready to leave the house.
It doesn’t take long for your dog to learn it and realize that they will be left alone once you’re finished with that specific set of actions.
This can send them into full panic mode.
Their anxiety may even start building as you begin getting ready because they know what’s coming.
Try putting on your coat randomly during the day, then opening the mail or watching television. Grab your keys and move them to a different place in your home.
After a few weeks with no discernible pattern, your dog may be less anxious when you walk out the door.
Never Make a Big Deal out of Your Departure
You know the tilt of the head a dog gives you when you go out? That look that says, “I’m way too cute to leave me!”
How many times do you return when you see the head tilt? How often do you apologize for leaving and promise your dog you’ll be right back?
When you leave, don’t make a big deal out of your departure.
Many dog parents will unintentionally build up the anxiety by making a big scene out of leaving. We smother them with affection and attention before we go and again when we return.
Whether it’s guilt or because we genuinely hate to be apart from them, it’s bad all around. All this drama simply adds to their anxiety.
The better way is to not pay attention to your dog a few minutes before you leave and for a few minutes after you get back.
This will tell your dog that your absence is temporary and nothing to be concerned about.
Practice Longer and Longer Absences
Conditioning involves helping your dog learn to react to a trigger differently through controlled exposure.
When working through separation anxiety in old dogs, this exercise involves a gradual buildup of time spent with you out of the house.
For this to work, you need time, patience, and commitment.
Throughout this training, you must never allow your dog to reach that highly anxious state. Instead, work in short increments that push their boundaries but fall short of this extreme limit.
Plan to spend about 30 minutes per session, including the short periods you are out of the house and the time between.
To begin, step out the front door for just a couple of minutes, then come right back in. Remember, don’t make a big deal out of leaving or returning.
If your dog suffers from severe anxiety, you may only be able to step outside of the home for a second, literally, before coming back in.
If that’s the case, then it will have to be a second! Don’t rush the process; you will undo everything you have been working so hard to accomplish.
Once you’re back in the house, go about your business like usual, giving your dog a few minutes to relax.
Then, do it again. This time, increase your time outside and pay attention to your dog’s reaction to ensure you aren’t moving too quickly.
Within a few weeks, your dog’s anxiety should be significantly reduced.
Important Note: If your dog barks or seems agitated when you’re out at any time, you have moved too quickly.
Go back to the length of time that they were still comfortable and start again from that point.
How to Help Your Senior Dog Right Now
The above suggestions, while helpful, do take some time to work.
In the meantime, your dog will be suffering from anxiety. Obviously, this isn’t the ideal situation – you want to give your dog relief as quickly as possible!
Here are some suggestions to help your dog as soon as possible:
Contact Your Veterinarian
Consider asking your vet’s opinion about the situation.
While there is no guaranteed separation anxiety medication for dogs, they may be able to prescribe a low-dose anti-anxiety medication for the short term.
I’m not a fan of excess medication, but in this case, instant relief may be the kindest thing you can do.
Less stress might also mean a greater ability to focus on their training.
If you’re dealing with sudden separation anxiety in dogs, it could be a red flag of an underlying problem.
Let your veterinarian know when this behavior started and any other changes you have noticed so that they can rule out any medical causes.
Many pheromone products are available on the market that mimic natural dog pheromones and may relieve your dog’s stress.
They come in various formats, such as plug-in diffusers (like the air freshener you plug into sockets at home), collars, and sprays.
Made up of 5 Bach flower remedies, Rescue Remedy is formulated to help your dog deal with stress naturally.
It’s easy to use. Just add a couple of drops to drinking water or a drop to their treat or meal. You can also rub it on their paws or ears.
Many vets I’ve dealt with have recommended this product. I also know many dog parents that have had success with it.
I personally haven’t, but that was just my experience.
This specially designed garment applies gentle but constant pressure around your dog’s torso to help calm their nerves.
The Thundershirt is a popular solution for helping dogs who struggle with fear of loud noises like thunderstorms and fireworks.
Play Calming Music
Studies have shown that some musical genres can have a calming effect on dogs with high anxiety.
Put this concept to work by playing relaxing separation anxiety music for dogs, like the Through a Dog’s Ear CDs.
Play the music quietly in whatever room your dog can access while you are gone.
Calming Toys with Heartbeats and Heat
Another option you may wish to consider is offering a separation anxiety toy for dogs.
These are plush toys that mimic a littermate, including a heartbeat and a heating pad. It allows your dog to snuggle in with the toy and feel as though they aren’t alone.
Of course, if your dog tends to destroy or eat their plush toys, they shouldn’t be left alone with plush toys.
Bring In Some Company
Why not ask a neighbor, family member, or friend to help? This is a great way to give your dog company and help them cope until they feel better.
If no one in your inner circle is available, consider hiring a pet sitter or dog walker.
If your dog is anxious because of a condition like doggie dementia, having someone there with them can be especially important.
Try Doggie Daycare
A doggie daycare facility is another option if your loved ones are unavailable to care for your dog while you’re gone.
This is best suited for dogs who get along well with other dogs.
Reminders of You
Scent is powerful when trying to soothe or relax an anxious dog.
Try placing one of your t-shirts or sweaters, unwashed, in your dog’s bed. Your scent is familiar and may be comforting.
Seek Professional Help
While the above tips usually work, they aren’t guaranteed to work with every dog.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Your dog may respond to one, or you may need to consider trying a combination.
If you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work, a trainer or behaviorist experienced in dealing with this issue may be the next step you need to take.
They can guide you through separation anxiety training for dogs, with personalized advice to overcome any challenges that may arise.
Final Thoughts – Separation Anxiety in Older Dogs
If you are working through separation anxiety in your senior dog, you are not alone.
This is a common problem faced by many dog parents. Luckily, there is so much help available, from short-term fixes to lifelong solutions.
Begin by alleviating your dog’s anxiety with a “quick fix” solution, like anxiety medication, if necessary.
You can then focus on putting the time and effort necessary into training and conditioning your dog, setting them up for success in the future.