Imagine that you're trapped in a box. You don't know why someone has put you in there or when, if ever, they'll come back to let you out. You try yelling, try prying at the walls. But there is no escape. Suddenly, the air seems thicker and the walls feel like they're closing in. You begin to panic. But nothing you do changes the situation.
This is what it feels like to be left home alone if you're a dog with severe separation anxiety.
As an owner of a dog suffering from this all-too-common condition, it can be hard to look past the scratched up door frame, shredded throw pillows, and soiled carpet to consider what emotions are really driving your dog's behavior. It can be easy to feel like your dog is trying to get back at you for leaving them alone. Or to feel like they are angry or frustrated when they can't go with you.
But the only way you will ever help your dog overcome separation anxiety is if you can accept what emotions truly drive this behavior: anxiety, fear, and panic.
When you look at canine separation anxiety in that light, it opens a whole new set of treatment options. Ones that focus on lowering your dog's anxiety and helping them learn to feel confident and safe in your absence.
One anxiety treatment, in particular, that shows a lot of promise for use in dogs with separation anxiety is CBD oil. This natural derivative of the hemp plant works with your dog's system to regulate emotions and help them learn to overcome fear responses. And it may be just the thing to help your dog turn the corner toward a life free from separation anxiety.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Before we can understand how CBD treatment might be beneficial for dogs with separation anxiety, we first need to take a more in-depth look at how this disorder arises in the first place.
We know that separation anxiety has nothing to do with vindictive canines and has everything to do with uncontrollable, negative emotions, but where does all that anxiety come from? Many dogs who experience panic when their owner leaves are rescue pups who have spent time in the shelter and may have experienced some abuse or neglect with a previous owner.
Much like PTSD in humans, trauma of any kind can leave lasting scars on the mind. Every time a traumatic memory is recalled, either through context, such as the action of you leaving, or through some discrete cue, such as the sound of your car starting, all the emotional baggage associated with that memory comes bubbling up.
Most rescue dogs have experienced abandonment in some form, whether from a previous owner actually abandoning them to fend for themselves or from being lost and taken to a shelter to be left alone in an unfamiliar kennel. If being left alone or seeing their owner leave was combined with a feeling of fear, whether directly or indirectly, it greatly increases the odds that the dog will develop separation anxiety in the future.
The same can be true of dogs who have been with the same owner since puppyhood. If a frightening thunderstorm or other stressful event occurs while their owner is away, they may anticipate the same thing happening again the next time their owner leaves them.
The anticipation of something scary happening or the memory of previous anxiety is compounded by the feeling of being trapped and unable to get to you when you leave. This is one reason many dogs with separation anxiety show increased panic when kenneled.
In this sense, separation anxiety shows similarities to multiple types of anxiety issues in humans, including PTSD, phobias, and panic attacks.
The Effects of CBD on Anxiety
While there have not been a lot of studies on CBD for dogs with separation anxiety, there have been countless studies proving its effectiveness at reducing anxiety in a variety of situations in both human and animal models.
CBD has been found to be anxiolytic, or anxiety-reducing, in both healthy individuals exposed to stressful situations and in individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders.
In healthy individuals, CBD has been shown to reduce stress responses to fearful imagery and uncomfortable situations. Remarkably, it accomplishes this while also increasing alertness. There is even mounting evidence that CBD acts to reduce the anxiety-increasing effects of THC in individuals who habitually smoke marijuana. This supports mounting evidence that it is impossible to develop a tolerance to CBD and that a consistent dose will remain effective for extended periods.
In individuals with preexisting anxiety disorders, symptoms of anxiety, and general feelings of stress have shown to be reduced by CBD. In one study, humans who suffered from generalized anxiety disorder were given CBD or a placebo before performing a public speaking test. Those who got the CBD not only reported feeling more confident and less uncomfortable during the test but also gave a more positive self-evaluation following the test.
CBD has also been shown to have profound impacts on the learning process during and after fear-inducing events.
One study used rats that had been conditioned to fear a specific context by pairing it with a foot shock. They were then given CBD before being reexposed to the conditioned context. Scientists found that the CBD decreased fear response to the conditioned context both physiologically and behaviorally.
Those who have studied this phenomenon believe CBD acts to block reconsolidation of fearful memories. Each time a traumatic memory is recalled, present anxiety levels can affect that memory, leading to a negative feedback loop of heightened emotion each time the memory is recalled. Through various pathways, CBD prevents this reconsolidation and can even work to dissociate the trigger with the memory itself.
This finding is not only great news to those who suffer from PTSD, but it also suggests that CBD could be a powerful tool in the treatment of separation anxiety.
How CBD Can Compliment Your Dog's Separation Anxiety Treatment
There are a variety of treatment methods used to help dogs overcome separation anxiety. If your dog whines, paces, or drools when you leave the house, you may only need to take simple steps to help them feel more secure. Increased exercise before you leave, a Kong stuffed with liver paté, and some changes to your departure routine may be all you need.
If your dog's symptoms are more severe, say, crashing through screen doors, destroying every piece of furniture, or defecating on the window sill, then you have a lot of work to do. Counter conditioning to teach your dog to enjoy being alone, extinction training to remove their fear triggers, and highly controlled, timed absences, are all techniques you'll need to use to help your dog overcome their anxiety.
But, no matter what your situation or your dog's degree of separation anxiety, CBD oil can help.
It Will Help You Start With a Less Anxious Dog
To begin with, CBD oil can reduce your dog's anxiety overall and help lower their baseline stress levels.
This is key to allowing you to start the training process with a dog that is calmer and more able to learn. It will also help your dog get better rest and reduce the number of things that trigger their anxiety throughout the day, outside of you leaving.
We all experience things that cause us stress throughout the day. For your dog, these may be short-lived episodes, like when the neighbor's cat walks by the window, or you get distracted while making their dinner and they have to wait an extra five seconds to eat.
In a normal dog, these instances will be forgotten as soon as they end. But in a dog that suffers from an anxiety disorder, their stress levels may stay elevated for hours afterward. CBD will keep your dog from reacting anxiously to these situations.
It Will Break the Feedback Loop
Because CBD can block reconsolidation of aversive memories, it plays a huge role in stopping the negative feedback loop that causes your dog's separation anxiety to get worse over time.
Each time you leave your dog alone, it triggers their fears and calls to mind the negative memories associated with being alone. The anxiety they feel in that moment implants itself in those memories, making them even more powerful the next time they come up. This is one reason your dog may still shred the couch years after that thunderstorm triggered their initial separation anxiety.
By using CBD, you can stop this cycle and provide a blank slate to introduce new, more positive memories of being left alone.
It Will Help Your Dog Forget to Be Afraid
When we achieve this blank slate state in behavior, it is called extinction. You've taken the stimulus (you leaving) that your dog previously associated with a particular emotion (anxiety and panic), and you've erased that connection. Now you can build a different association with that stimulus (relaxation or, at least, indifference).
Not only does CBD enhance the extinction of anxious behaviors, but it facilitates the formation of new memories to fill that void.
One important piece of separation anxiety treatment involves controlling your time away from your dog to assure they don't experience anxiety while you're gone. As your dog begins to replace their negative memories of being alone with positive ones, you can start to increase your time away. But, if at any point you are gone longer than your dog can handle, or something scares your dog while they are alone, they are likely to regress immediately.
Because CBD enhances extinction and reduces spontaneous recovery, it can be a huge help in assuring your training progresses quickly without backsliding when something goes wrong.
How Much CBD Oil Does Your Anxious Dog Need?
When it comes to how much CBD to give and when to give it, there are a lot of variables to consider.
There have been a ton of studies looking at CBD use in dogs for various ailments including cancer and arthritis, and none have found any significant side effects, even at higher doses. However, multiple studies looking into CBD use for anxiety have shown that the effects of the oil occur in a bell-curve, with CBD being ineffective at reducing anxiety at both low and high doses. So finding just the right amount for your pooch is key.
Manufacturers of pet CBD products recommend anywhere from 1mg to 2mg per 10lbs. While holistic vets often recommend much higher doses. Since it is best to ease your dog onto this supplement anyway, it's best to start low and slowly increase the dose over the course of a couple of weeks. Once you see positive effects from the oil, you should continue to adjust the dose up or down to find the optimal dose for your pup.
Giving your dog a consistent dose of CBD daily or twice daily can help reduce their overall stress levels and set them up to learn whenever the opportunity arises. Or, you may choose to dose your dog only before training sessions or when you need to leave the house. If your dog has severe separation anxiety, you may even consider giving a consistent baseline dose daily and an extra microdose before training sessions.
As long as you are using a quality CBD oil without THC or added ingredients, there are no known risks associated with long term or intermittent use.
There is No Magic Cure
The most important thing to remember when working with your dog's separation anxiety is that there is no one cure.
When a dog, or a person for that matter, has a potent, emotional response to a situation, it will take time to change their behavior. Your dog needs consistent, positive experiences with being alone to help ease their anxiety. You need to teach them that the box they are stuck in is, in fact, their home where they should feel safe and that you will be back soon to love on them.
Adding CBD oil to your dog's training regimen won't replace behavioral training. But it has the potential to help your dog relax and learn quicker. And that will allow you both to feel better about leaving the other alone that much sooner.
Blessing, E.M., Steenkamp, M.M., Manzanares, J. et al. “Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders.” Neurotherapeutics 12: 825, 04 September 2015.
Pat Miller. “How to Help With Separation Anxiety in Dogs.” wholedogjournal.com, 09 June 2008, Updated: 25 September 2019.
Jurkus Regimantas, Day Harriet L. L., et al. “Cannabidiol Regulation of Learned Fear: Implications for Treating Anxiety-Related Disorders.” Frontiers in Pharmacology 7: 454, 24 November 2016.
Mateus M Bergamaschi, Regina Helena Costa Queiroz, et al. “Cannabidiol Reduces the Anxiety Induced by Simulated Public Speaking in Treatment-Naïve Social Phobia Patients.” Neuropsychopharmacology 36: 1219–1226, 09 February 2011.
Sara Seitz worked in the pet industry for over a decade. In addition to being a certified dog trainer, Sara gained experience working as the general manager of a dog daycare and boarding facility, as the creator and manager of a pet sitting company, as a groomer, and as a dog behavior evaluator. She also has a bachelors in animal behavior from CSU. Currently, Sara works as a freelance writer specializing in blog, article and content writing.