Separation anxiety (sep-anx) is very common in dogs in mild forms, especially during times of transition: when the dog or puppy first comes home, if they're staying somewhere away from home, or if you move to a new home, etc. Sep-anx can be from more than just home, it extends to other human and animal family members with whom the dog has bonded. Addressing the potential for this from day 1 with your new dog will help tremendously, but the protocol I'm going to outline is for any dog with mild to moderate separation anxiety.
Note: if your dog is an escape artist, digs out of an outdoor enclosure, destroys crates, and/or eliminates or injures themselves when left alone for any prolonged period of time, this protocol is NOT SUFFICIENT for you. I highly recommend we do a consult, you start with Malena DeMartini's work, and/or consult with your veterinarian or a qualified veterinary behaviorist about medication.
The main issue is a lack of object permanence, which is a core understanding that even though the dog cannot sense the presence of someone or something, that thing still exists. For dogs, if they can no longer see, smell, taste, touch, or hear you, you have disappeared from the face of the earth forever. This leads to all sorts of common behavior problems, such as over-exuberance when you return home, excitement urination when greeting people, and of course, separation anxiety. The most important thing is to teach the dog that what they value comes back. In order to do this, we must practice leaving and returning so many times, the dogs lose interest and can begin to trust we'll return. This is when repetition, not duration, is most important.
All of my dogs, when they first come home, experience me leaving the house for no particular reason every 15 - 30 minutes, depending on the severity of their sep-anx. I walk out the door and close it, then immediately return. I repeat this whenever I'm home until the dog has no reaction to me leaving or returning. It's boring and part of the norm. I can add duration for while I'm outside, such as counting to 10 or walking farther away, or stretch out the time for the interval to an hour or more. The more frequent, the more normal -- the less frequent, the more exciting. I would also do a lot of dummy leaves where I got ready to leave, but didn't leave. Dogs catch on to patterns very quickly, and putting on shoes, getting keys, putting on a coat, and grabbing a bag are tell-tale signs that you're leaving. This is my go-to starting point for all my mild sep-anx cases.
Of course, we want to keep the dog safe when we do have to be away for a long period of time. I highly recommend confinement in a crate that is sturdy (solid metal or plastic with air holes is usually most resistant to escaping/avoids self-injury). You can do Susan Garrett's crate games to get them to willingly participate in crating, as well as feed them all their meals in their crate. I made the crate the starting point for all play interactions as well, both inside and outside (from the car). I also practiced a lot of going in and out when I didn't need to leave them in their crate for very long, adding it to part of my dummy leave routine.
If a crate is not what you prefer, a bathroom or laundry room, ex-pen, or another small space may be a viable alternative. However, it is likely that the dog will chew, paw at, and scratch near the door. If so, be prepared to repair your home, and please do not get mad at your dog for doing it. Ensure the room is escape-proof, do not leave windows open where the dog could launch through a screen and venture out trying to find you.
Some dogs do very well having another canine or feline companion. If your dog is your only pet and they have mild to moderate separation anxiety, consider getting them a friend if they have a high social drive. For many dogs, however, they have no need for a companion other than their human family, or they simply are too intensely codependent on their people, and another dog or cat will not suffice to soothe their sep-anx.
While you're away, give your dog something to enjoy that will take the sting out of your absence and departure. A frozen Kong, bully stick, or marrow bone can be a wonderful chew to soothe their anxiety. There are even multiple Kong recipes to try for variety.
When you do return home from being away for an extended period, it is likely your dog will be tremendously relieved that you've arrived and will be jumping out of their skin to see you. For many of us, this greeting is part of the reason we got a dog; however, I urge you not to reward this state of mind with affection and reassurance. You will be reinforcing how valuable your return is, and contributing to their sep-anx. Please be "boring" when you return until your dog calms down. This allows them to come back into their mind and body in a healthy way. Once calm, or at least calmer, then you can resume your normal greeting routine. Once the sep-anx is resolved, you do not need to continue this part of the treatment.
Some dogs have severe separation anxiety that cannot be helped with the above outlin alone. When to draw the line:
If you have any tips I haven't mentioned or wish to get more specific, please comment below!