What is separation anxiety?
According to the Child Mind Institute “Separation anxiety disorder is a condition that causes a child or adolescent extreme distress when she is separated from her parents or caregivers.” The same is true of our dogs.
Dogs are social animals and do not like to be left alone. For dogs with separation anxiety being left alone, for even short periods of time, leaves them unable to cope. They might manifest this by whining and barking; they might pee or poop in the house, even if they’re housetrained; they might drool excessively; they might reap destruction on your soft furnishings, doors and furniture; they might attempt to escape and they might even self-mutilate.
Some of the symptoms that may indicate separation anxiety:
Barking and Howling:
A dog suffering from separation anxiety might bark or howl when left alone.
Some dogs walk or trot along a specific path in a fixed pattern when left by themselves.
Chewing, Digging and Destruction:
Some dogs with separation anxiety will destroy household objects like cushions and even sofas. Some will destroy doorframes and windowsills. The destruction can be very upsetting for the owners but these behaviours can also result in self-injury, such as broken teeth, damaged nails and bleeding paws.
The dog might attempt to dig and chew through doors or windows in an attempt to escape from wherever he is confined.
Urinating and Defecating:
Some dogs urinate or defecate when left alone. House soiling can occur as soon as the owner leaves, even when the dog has just relieved himself outside. If this also happens in the presence of the owner/guardian then it probably isn’t caused by separation anxiety and is likely to be a housetraining issue.
Why Do Some Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?
Recent studies show that separation anxiety can develop from a number of factors both genetic and environmental. Dogs with generalised anxiety and those that are afraid of loud noises and storms are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety. (Overall & al., 2001)
Here is a list of some of the factors that can contribute to a development of separation anxiety:
Change of Owner or Family:
Being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter or passed on to a new owner can contribute to separation anxiety. Dogs bought from a pet store are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety. (McGreevy, 2008).
Change in Residence:
Moving to a new home can be very stressful and can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
Change in Household Membership:
The sudden absence of a family member can trigger the development of separation anxiety. Dogs also seem sensitive to a new person in the house. Any important changes in a person’s life can have a significant impact on the dog. Studies also show that when more women are present in the house, the dog’s chances of developing separation anxiety increases (McGreevy, 2008). Women often treat the dog in a different way to men and a dog can become more dependent on their presence.
Change in Schedule:
Changes in when and how long a dog is left for can trigger separation anxiety. Perhaps the owner used to work at home and then gets a job that requires him to be out for most of the day.
If you are worried that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, please make an appointment with your vet to enlist their help in diagnosis and treatment. Here is a list of some of the problems that need ruling out.
Incontinence Caused by Medical Problems:
Your dog may be suffering from urinary incontinence. Dogs with incontinence problems often seem unaware that they’ve soiled. Please see your dog’s veterinarian to rule out medical issues.
Please talk to your veterinarian to find out whether your dog’s medication could be the cause of his house soiling.
Submissive or Excitement Urination:
Some dogs may urinate during greetings, play, physical contact or when being reprimanded or punished. Please only use positive reinforcement methods to train your dog.
Incomplete House Training/Urine Marking:
A dog who occasionally urinates in the house might not be completely house trained. Some dogs urinate in the house because they’re scent marking. A dog scent marks by urinating small amounts on vertical surfaces. For help with house training and/or inappropriate urine marking, please see our article, Toilet Training Your Puppy .
Many young dogs engage in destructive chewing or digging while their owners are at home as well as when they’re away. Please provide your dog with lots of appropriate chew toys and provide him with his own area to dig! Please see our article: How To Stop Your Dog Chewing.
Some dogs can be disruptive when left alone because they’re bored and looking for something to do. Please give your dog something to do while he is left alone. He needs mental stimulation! Here is an article that includes some of our favourite toys: Nine Must Have Toys Please make sure to only leave your dog with toys that you know are safe for him. Stuffed kongs and suitable chew toys are a great option!
Excessive Barking or Howling:
Some dogs bark or howl in response to various triggers in their environments, like unfamiliar sights and sounds. Please see our article, How To Stop Your Dog Barking .
What to Do If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety.
When treating a dog with separation anxiety we want to teach him to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being left alone. If your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety, counterconditioning might reduce or resolve the problem by changing his fearful, anxious reaction to a relaxed one. We want to associate being left alone with something really good, something the dog loves, like delicious food. Every time you leave the house, you can offer your dog a puzzle toy stuffed with food that will take him at least 20 to 30 minutes to finish. A frozen kong can be a great choice, as getting all the food out takes even more of your dog’s time. Here is an article from the ASPCA on How to Stuff a KONG Toy. Leave him with an extra special toy that he only has access to when he is by himself! If your dog doesn’t eat while you are away from home, he is suffering from more severe separation anxiety and will need extra help.
Moderate or severe cases of separation anxiety require a more complex programme of desensitisation and counterconditioning. If your dog starts to get anxious as you’re preparing to leave him alone, you can begin by teaching him that when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, it doesn’t always mean that you’re leaving. You can do this by picking up your keys, putting on your coat etc. several times a day without actually leaving (just go and sit on the sofa, watch the television, pick up a book). You are teaching your dog that just because you pick up your keys etc. it doesn’t mean that you are going out. You need to do lots of work on this before you start to leave your dog alone.
The next step to getting your dog used to being left alone is to start with many short separations that do not make him anxious. You may initially only be able to go into the next room for a few seconds! You will very gradually increase the duration of the separations over many weeks of daily sessions! Fear must be avoided at all times. If your dog is becoming anxious, you are progressing too quickly! Once you are able to leave him in the next room, very gradually increase the length of time you wait on the other side of the door, out of your dog’s sight. Add your “predeparture cues” to the process. Put on your coat, pick up your keys and go into the next room while your dog continues to stay. You can slowly progress to doing out-of-sight stay exercises at a bedroom door, and then later at the front door. You can then start to incorporate very short absences into your training. Just “leave” for one to two seconds, and then slowly increase the time you’re out of your dog’s sight. When you’ve built up to separations of five to ten seconds long, start to give your dog a stuffed food toy just before you step out the door. Remember to behave in a very calm and quiet manner when going out and coming in so that there isn’t a big difference between when you are there and when you are gone.
While working on your dog’s separation anxiety it is very important he isn’t left alone except during your desensitisation sessions. If possible, take your dog to work with you or arrange for a friend to “babysit”. You could perhaps leave him at a pet sitter’s house or in doggy daycare.
What about leaving your dog in a crate? Crate training can be a good option for some dogs if they learn that the crate is their safe place to go when left alone, however, for other dogs, the crate can cause added stress and anxiety. If your dog shows any signs of stress while using a crate when you are at home then crate confinement isn’t the best option for him. To learn more about crate training, please see our article, Puppy Crate Training .
I would highly recommend contacting a Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist, a board certified veterinary behaviourist or a Certified Force-free Professional Dog Trainer, who is both experienced and qualified to help you. Desensitisation and counter conditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out!
Give your dog at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity (for example, walking, running, swimming, a game of fetch) every day. Try to exercise your dog right before you have to leave him by himself. This might help him relax while you’re gone. Make sure that all activity is appropriate for your dog’s age and physical well-being.
Talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medications. Some dogs are so anxious that counter conditioning and desensitisation programmes simply can’t be implemented without the help of medication. Many dogs need a combination of medication and behaviour modification.
What NOT To Do!
Please do not scold or punish your dog. Anxious behaviours are not the result of disobedience. If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.
Please only engage professionals who use positive, science based training and behaviour modification techniques.
I recommend trainers who are listed by the following organisations:
The author assumes no liability for the content of this article. This advice is not a substitute for a proper consultation with a vet and is only intended as a guide.
I wrote this article for Strongdogz UK but thought it important to share it through my own blog too.