Separation Anxiety in Rescue Dogs: Causes and Solutions

Separation Anxiety in Rescue Dogs: Causes and Solutions

Key Points

  • You may have to deal with the issue of separation anxiety in rescue dogs when you adopt dogs from a shelter.

  • There are many good reasons to adopt a rescue dog.

  • Separation anxiety in rescue dogs is a complicated issue, but there are effective solutions.

Do you want to be a hero? You may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but you are a hero when you save a life by adopting a rescue dog. Be forewarned that separation anxiety in rescue dogs is a common problem in these animals who have been abandoned, and possibly abused.

There is no “quick fix” for separation anxiety in rescue dogs. Trauma is deep-seated and not easily overcome. Methods for reversing its effects take time and patience. With your understanding and willingness to stay committed to the task, a dog with separation anxiety becomes more well-adjusted.

If you’re up for the challenge, the rewards are well worth the effort.

Reasons Dogs End Up in Shelters

Dogs end up in shelters and rescue facilities for a variety of reasons – usually through no fault of their own. Before tackling the task of overcoming their separation anxiety, learn all you can about their background. Remember that knowing is half the battle.

Abuse or Neglect

Authorities confiscate some dogs because they are victims of abuse or neglect by their owners. This is the worst-case scenario for any animal. A dog harmed by someone who is supposed to love and care for them has trouble trusting anyone else.

No Pets Allowed

If you rent a house or apartment that doesn't allow pets, your dog must go somewhere else. Friends or family are the best choices, but many dogs end up in a shelter. This is not the dog’s fault, but they pay the price by being separated from their owners and losing a home.

Dog in shelter

Doesn’t Play Well With Others

If your dog doesn’t get along with other members of the household, you may decide they shouldn’t stay. This aggression may stem from improper (or no) behavioral training or failure to properly acclimate to their new environment or family members.

A dog that displays aggressive behavior around other people or pets is often sent to a shelter.


Stray dogs pose a special challenge for prospective adopters because the shelter or rescue center often has no background information about the animal. Animal control services pick up strays because they are wandering around in the city limits, causing a nuisance or posing a danger to others.

If they have no identification and no one comes looking for them, they become temporary residents of the local shelter, unless taken in by a rescue organization.

Personal Problems

Other reasons for a homeless hound include a family member's allergy, a change in finances, or a schedule change that leaves no time for the dog. In all of these situations, there’s nothing wrong with the dog but they still end up homeless.

They need a hero.

Dogs end up in shelters every day. Many times -– whether because of trauma from their past or from being sent to a shelter by their owner –- they develop separation anxiety. Knowing the symptoms allows you to resolve the anxiety and prevent problems it causes.

Why You Should Adopt a Rescue Dog

There are many options available to find your new dog, including breeders, classified ads, or local animal shelters and rescue centers. A purebred dog is expensive and still needs vaccinations, a microchip, and to be spayed or neutered. Dogs from a shelter typically come with all these things when you adopt them.

Beckie Mossor, a registered veterinary technician in Wilmington, North Carolina, and executive director of 3K9 Working Dogs Inc., says there are some good reasons to adopt a rescue dog:

“Every day more than 1,700 dogs and cats are killed in America’s shelters just because they don’t have a home. Most shelters are not able to function as no-kill shelters, therefore all pets that come in are in danger of not getting a second chance. Adopting a rescue is giving them that second chance.”

Mossor also points out that adopting from a shelter helps fight against puppy mills. If you respond to an ad in the paper or go to a local breeder, you don’t know the type of care they received. Not all individuals are forthcoming about the way their animals are treated.

No matter where you get your dog, they may suffer from separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety refers to a dog's distress and behavior problems when they are separated from their owners or familiar surroundings. Symptoms include "bathroom accidents" indoors, destroying household items, barking, whining, “clinginess,” and escape attempts.

An anxious dog usually has several -- not necessarily all -- of these symptoms.

Dog at door with separation anxiety

Rescued dogs are particularly susceptible to separation anxiety because they are victims of neglect, abandonment, or instability in their previous homes. Their trauma makes them clingier and more attached to their owners, leading to anxiety when they are left alone or separated from their “favorite” person.

In some cases, a rescued dog may have never been left alone before and may not understand what is happening when their owner leaves. They don't know you are coming back.

Just because your new rescue dog chews on your shoe or has an accident while you’re gone doesn't mean they have separation anxiety. If you come home to destroyed objects but your dog is "chilling out," they are most likely just bored.

If you suspect your rescue dog is suffering from separation anxiety, take them to a veterinarian for an examination and proper diagnosis to be sure the symptoms aren’t related to an unseen medical condition.

Your vet may prescribe medications, but these are not cure-all solutions. They may temporarily alleviate symptoms but the issue is still present. Other behavior modification methods are needed to produce long-term results.

Details of the common symptoms of separation anxiety and possible solutions include the following:

Symptom: Clinginess or “Shadowing”

Certified pet dog trainer Andrea Arden, director of Andrea Arden Dog Training and guest on Animal Planet’s Underdog to Wonderdog, Dogs101, and Cats101, says a dog in a shelter is "presumably surrounded by staff, volunteers and other animals during the day, and other animals at night. So many recently adopted dogs are not used to being alone and this may add to their inclination to shadow one or more family members.”


Arden suggests that when a dog is attached to a particular member of the family, have a different family member handle the feeding, walking, and training for a while. Also, use “feeding toys” that give the dog the feeling they are acquiring their food independently.

These little things encourage the dog to detach from their favored human.

Temporary gates also help. While you’re doing laundry or watching TV, confine your dog to a certain room or area of the house away from their favorite person. Even if they still see you, they learn they cannot stay at your side every moment.

Little by little, increase the time they are separated from you.

Symptom: Destructive Behavior

When left alone, a dog with separation anxiety is uneasy and bored. They occupy themselves by chewing up things, scratching and tearing at pillows and furniture, and making a mess out of the trash bin.

Dog with destructive behavior


Give your dog something to do with their time while you’re gone, such as the aforementioned feeding toys or puzzle toys. These provide a “job” for your dog and give them much-needed mental stimulation.

Research the best interactive toys and puzzles for dogs with anxiety and pick out one that's best for your dog.

Hide toys with treats in them around the house before you leave so the dog has something to do. This also supports their natural hunting instincts. Fill a Kong toy with treats or peanut butter that takes time to finish off.

Staff at Lucky Dog Animal Rescue in Arlington, Virginia tout the benefits of exercise in addressing canine anxiety:

“Establish an exercise routine that provides both physical exercise and mental stimulation. Exercise helps to dissipate anxiety and is a constructive interaction between you and your dog. Teaching your dog to play fetch is a great way to burn a ton of energy in a relatively short amount of time.”

Symptom: Pacing, Whining, Blocking

A dog with separation anxiety transfers their fear of abandonment to all humans. It could be due to a past trauma, or it may just be the animal's natural fear of losing his home and family. When you leave, the dog doesn’t understand that you are returning.


Don’t make a big deal about leaving. Your dog picks up on cues that tell them you’re going somewhere. Be calm. Don’t rush around or give them a lot of attention -- negative or positive -- right before going out the door.

Dog howling

Desensitize them to signals like keys jingling, making coffee, or putting on your coat. Do these things throughout the day and not go anywhere. Eventually, the dog no longer associates those cues with you leaving.

If you know you have to leave them for a long period, prepare beforehand by leaving them for shorter periods and gradually increasing the period of absence. If possible, have someone check on them during the day or use a pet cam.

When you come home, remain calm. Don’t allow them to grab your attention right away. They are excited you’re home but ignore their behavior until they become calm. When they reach that desired state, reward them.

If you are unable to leave your dog outside while you’re gone, they may feel overwhelmed by having the run of the whole house.

To overcome this, start by confining them to a smaller room or using a gate to keep them from certain areas of the house. A smaller boundary gives them a greater sense of security.

If that is still too much for them, give them proper crate training. Dogs are den animals and prefer a small, protected area where they feel safe. Provide a crate that is inviting, comfortable, and instills a sense of security.

Be careful not to force them into the crate because they may have experienced trauma associated with such an object. Go slowly and observe your dog’s reactions.

Symptom: Whimpering and Whining at Night

Nighttime is especially triggering for a dog with separation anxiety. As Arden points out, they are around other humans and animals at night in the shelter. The shelter also most likely has many sounds and activities. Your home is probably much quieter. The silence is disquieting to them.


Give them a calming dog bed. The bed is comfortable and allows them to sink into it and surrounds them with bolstered sides and faux fur. It provides a sense of security and comfort.

Play “white noise” to soothe them. Try free apps that play various sounds or turn on a radio or TV on low volume. Some dogs respond well to classical music. And, no, it's not just the "longhair" breeds.

Dog in crate

Be Patient

Separation anxiety isn’t cured overnight. The "3-3-3 Rule" says it takes three days for the dog to test things out, three weeks to become used to the routine, and three months before they are completely comfortable.

This rule doesn’t take into account extenuating circumstances and particularly severe separation anxiety. Every dog is different and requires patience and understanding.

Who's the Real Hero

Separation anxiety in rescue dogs is a serious and complicated issue that can be resolved with a lot of patience and a lot of love. Be prepared and open to dealing with whatever their issues are. There are resources, toys, and training techniques available to give you and your dog peace of mind when you are apart.

Rescue dog with human

If you adopt one of these animals in need, you likely have a special place in your heart that only this dog fills. They've been abandoned before, so you don't want to let them down. Taking them into your home makes you their hero.

The question is, did you save them or did they save you?

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