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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety is the term used to describe dogs that exhibit stress or problem behaviors when they are left home alone.
a light coloured labrador dog sitting on a ruined sofa with the caption separation anxiety in dogs

Imagine the scene – You come home from work to find your best friend has gone into destruct-o-dog mode and eaten the sofa while you were away, ripping into the cushions and leaving foam and feathers strewn across the floor.

The blood drains from your face as you survey the crime scene and realise what’s been going on. You try to contain your annoyance whilst your pooch looks up at you appeasingly, batting his tail against the floor.

You’ve seen videos of dog owners coming home to devastation on social media, but it’s not so funny when it’s your dog. And your (now ruined) sofa cushions!

This is the last straw – especially after that note you received last week from your neighbour complaining about the barking and howling since you went back to working in the office.

If this sounds familiar, read on!

Separation anxiety in dogs is a serious problem so you are not alone.

Unfortunately, it’s estimated that up to 15 percent of all dogs suffer from some degree of separation anxiety, and it accounts for 20-40% of all behaviorist referrals. Although the condition can sometimes be resolved through behavioral modification, more severe cases may need medication or other treatments.

My first springer spaniel Jasper had separation anxiety, so I know what it’s like to live with this. As a qualified trainer, I have assisted many clients to help their dogs feel more comfortable being left home alone.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is the term used to describe dogs that exhibit stress or problem behaviors when they are left home alone. These dogs panic when they are separated from their owners, to the point of physical signs of distress.

It’s seen most often in dogs less than 18 months old, who feel insecure when separated from their humans. The behavior can sometimes subside over time as your dog gets older and more mature, but if it’s dealt with in the wrong way, the problem can become worse.

If you own a dog like this and are concerned about his or her behavior, it’s important to seek professional help. 

If you’re looking for professional help with separation anxiety but an in-person behaviorist isn’t an option right now, why not try this online course on separation anxiety from Canine Principles.

What does a dog with separation anxiety do?

Symptoms of separation anxiety may include:

  • scratching at doors or windows, in an attempt to get out or to get to their owners
  • pacing
  • vocalising such as barking, whining or howling
  • ocd/repetitive type behaviors
  • excessive drooling
  • over grooming
  • destructive behaviors such as chewing and digging
  • soiling in the house
  • refusal of food
  • vomiting or defecating when left alone.

Intensity of separation anxiety.

The intensity in symptoms of separation anxiety can vary and some dogs will show only mild signs of distress with just one or two of the behaviors described above and for a shorter period. 

Dogs with a more severe case may display more symptoms from the list with high intensity and, for the entire period they are left alone.

Dogs do not have to exhibit all the symptoms in order to be diagnosed as suffering with separation anxiety.

What types of dogs get separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can vary between breeds, but certain kinds of dogs have a higher predisposition. These include:

Dogs bred to work closely with their humans, such as

  • Gundog breeds including labradors, setters and spaniels
  • Working breeds, e.g. german shepherds, doberman pinschers
  • Companion breeds, including chihuahuas, bichons and toy poodles

It is important to note that separation anxiety is also seen in mixed breeds, so it is by no means breed specific and many dogs of the above breeds are perfectly happy to be left alone.

Separation anxiety can also occur in any dog that has experienced a traumatic event, including:

  • being hit by a car
  • having a medical procedure
  • receiving harsh training or punishment.

Disruption to routine or changes to the household dynamic can trigger separation anxiety e.g. alterations to your working hours or if your family or living arrangements change.

There is no difference in the incidence of separation anxiety based on the sex of the dog. There is also no  difference based on whether the dog lives with just one person or with multiple people.

Is separation anxiety dangerous?

Some dogs will become so distressed at being left that they may hurt themselves trying to get to their owners.

My first springer spaniel, Jasper, had separation anxiety. When he was a puppy, he would hurl himself at doors trying to reach us. Some dogs may chew objects and swallow inedible items whilst they are panicking about their owner’s absence, which can cause intestinal blockages.

Jasper would chew at anything when he was distressed, including metal door handles, a car seatbelt, and the stair spindles. On occasions when he had to be crated, he would attempt to chew through the bars. Damage to teeth is a real possibility if your dog reacts that severely.

Once Jasper was older, if we left him home alone for longer than he was comfortable with, his separation anxiety manifested as over-grooming a particular patch of fur on his front leg until it went bald and would get sore.

How can I tell if my dog is exhibiting separation anxiety?

If your dog’s behaviour meets any of the descriptions above, it’s time to seek help!

What are some behaviors that are sometimes confused with separation anxiety?

If a dog performs these behaviours when they are with their owner, then it is unlikely to be separation anxiety.

What some dogs experience is more like Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) rather than true separation anxiety. For instance, a friend of mine has no problems if she exits her property by the front door, but if she leaves via the back door and the garden, her dogs display separation anxiety type behavior – perhaps because they think she might engage in some fun garden activity without them!

What are the causes of separation anxiety in dogs?

This is a common question, and one that doesn’t have a simple answer. Very often, it is a combination of factors that cause separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety can be triggered by early experiences of being left alone before the dog had the confidence to cope with that situation.

Genetics can also play a big role. Part of the reason that some breeds seem more susceptible to developing separation anxiety is because we have bred them for many generations to work very closely with us and when a dog becomes overdependent on their owner being present, this becomes a problem.

As with all behavioral problems, pain can be a factor. A dog in pain is more likely to show separation anxiety type behaviors. When my Springer Spaniel Barney was recovering from surgery, he would panic and howl when I moved further than arm’s reach of him. As a result, I spent nearly two weeks solid laying on a camp bed with him!

Dogs who do not have outlets for exhibiting natural species- and breed-specific behaviors (i.e. doing things that dogs love to do) are also at higher risk of developing behavioral problems, which can include separation anxiety. This is especially true of high drive dogs from working line heritage with no job to do.

Digestive issues are sometimes implicated. Emerging science suggests gut flora is very much linked to behavioral issues, particularly anxiety. In a study of rodents showing anxious behaviors, when the contents of the rodents’ gut were transplanted with another group of rodents, the recipient animals took on the temperament of the donor group. Mice colonized with gut microbiota from stressed mice showed stress-type behaviors. The results suggest a link between gut flora, brain function, and anxiety/depression.

What should I do if my dog has separation anxiety?

Being separated from their humans can make dogs feel extremely vulnerable and frightened. A dog may not understand why you left them, and may feel like they’ve done something wrong.

Aim to not leave them any longer than they are comfortable with. This may mean they need to go to a friend or relative’s house whilst you are at work, or you may need to engage a dog walker or dog sitter. You might need to curtail your social life temporarily in order that you can keep your dog under their threshold.

Ensuring our dogs have had some exercise, play and attention, and that we meet all their basic needs every time before they’re left alone, is essential.

When to consult a canine professional about separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety in dogs should always receive professional attention. There are many potential reasons for separation anxiety, and each case is unique.

One of the most important things you can do to help your dog overcome its behaviour is to work with an experienced positive-reinforcement trainer. They’ll be able to properly assess your dog’s unique situation and recommend strategies to help them overcome their issues. 

What are the most important steps I can take if my dog exhibits separation anxiety?

Making your dog feel more relaxed about being left alone by starting off with brief absences of only a few seconds and building up from there is the protocol for dealing with this problem.

Desensitising your dog to your leaving cues is another part of the puzzle. Your dog may worry when you pick up your keys or go to your shoe cupboard, or when you dress in particular clothes, so we need to teach the dog that when these things happen, it doesn’t always mean you are going to leave them alone.

Building the dog’s general confidence can help give them the boost they need to become more relaxed when left alone.

Julie Naismith’s book Be Right Back is a fantastic resource for separation anxiety, which includes a schedule for working through these tactics as part of an overall strategy to overcome separation anxiety.

If you’re looking for professional help with separation anxiety but an in-person behaviorist isn’t an option right now, why not try this online course on separation anxiety from Canine Principles.

Is separation anxiety curable?

For most dogs yes. I have not yet met a dog where there has been no improvement with the correct training. That said, it can be a slow process and it may be very situation specific.

We got to a point we could leave Jasper in the car for short periods, provided he wasn’t restrained (otherwise he’d chew the seatbelts and anything else within reach), and we could leave him at home alone for a few hours.

I could never move further than 2 metres away from him without him losing his mind if I tied him to a post. When my children were small, before I realised the gravity of Jasper’s issue, I tied him up outside school and took my son to his classroom.

Within minutes, Jasper was next to me in the playground, having chewed through his lead! I had to remove the strap from my son’s school bag to make a lead in order to walk Jasper back home!

We never managed to resolve this issue because we prioritised working on getting Jasper happy to be left home alone and in the car. As with everything in dog training and behavior, choose your battles!

Can separation anxiety be prevented?

Sort of. Ensure your dog is comfortable with the amount of time they are being left alone, and gradually increase the duration of those absences. This gives your dog the tools they need to learn to relax when they are left alone.

If your dog gets to a point where they panic when left alone, this can cause setbacks in their progress, so ensure you go at their pace. Separation training really cannot be rushed, and you can only go at the speed dictated by the dog.

What NOT to do when your dog has separation anxiety.

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are not being naughty, “dominant” or spiteful. They simply can’t cope without you. Never punish your dog for exhibiting symptoms of separation anxiety as this can increase their general levels of anxiety and make the problem worse.

What are the consequences of owners’ inability to resolve separation anxiety?

Sadly, many dogs are surrendered to rescue shelters for separation anxiety from situations where it is unavoidable to leave the dog home alone.

Many people do not have the resources or support to go through the separation training, as it can take a while before a dog is comfortable to be left home alone long enough for the owner to go about their other commitments.

Therefore, if you are going to attempt to overcome this problem, it is vital to get the right advice so as not to make the problem worse, and to deal with it in the most efficient way possible.

What to do next…

If you feel like your dog might be showing signs of separation anxiety, seek out the help of a professional canine behaviorist who can guide you through the steps needed to resolve the issue.

If you’re looking for professional help with separation anxiety but an in-person behaviorist isn’t an option right now, why not try this online course on separation anxiety from Canine Principles.

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