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What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?

Updated: Nov 28, 2022


Table of Contents


How Common is Separation Anxiety in Dogs? What is Dog Separation Anxiety? What are the Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs? Other Things to Rule Out Before Deciding it's Separation Anxiety How do Dogs get Separation Anxiety? How do you Train a Dog with Separation Anxiety? Common Separation Anxiety Dog Myths How To Prevent Dog Separation Anxiety Finding A Professional Dog Separation Anxiety Specialist Final Words


 


INTRODUCTION


Dogs make fantastic pets due to their natural desire for companionship with people, ability to blend in well in our homes, and their loving natures. While people have dogs as pets specifically for companionship and affection, dogs who suffer with separation anxiety are so dependent on human companionship it becomes disruptive and abnormal.


HOW COMMON IS SEPARATION ANXIETY IN DOGS?


In a study called “Prevalence, Comorbidity, And Behavioral Variation In Canine Anxiety” (Tiiri, Sulkama, Lohi, 2016) it was estimated that up to 17% of pet dogs suffer from some degree of separation anxiety when separated from their owners.

A dog suffering from separation anxiety becomes problematic when panic causes the dog to become extremely vocal when alone and neighbors start to complain. It can also become expensive when a panicking dog becomes destructive to furniture, doorways, windows and personal belongings.


Separation anxiety is also extremely distressing to the owner of the dog, and traumatic for the dog itself; negatively impacting the quality of life of everyone in the family. I would consider separation anxiety to be an animal welfare emergency as the dog is truly suffering.


Additionally, as a former animal shelter employee I know that it is a reason for a large number of dogs to be given up by families who can no longer handle living with a dog who makes life so difficult.



WHAT IS DOG SEPARATION ANXIETY?


There are a lot of correlations between mental health problems exhibited by people and those exhibited by dogs. In children mental health professionals differentiate between the normal developmental stage of very young children experiencing anxiety when separated from their parents, and separation anxiety disorder exhibited by children at pre-school age after they would normally outgrow it. Mayo Clinic states “Young children often experience a period of separation anxiety, but most children outgrow separation anxiety by about 3 years of age.”


Separation Anxiety Disorder in children is considered a mental health problem. According to Stanford Children’s Health “Experts believe SAD is caused by both biological and environmental factors. A child may inherit a tendency to be anxious. An imbalance of 2 chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) most likely plays a part.”

We use a definition of dog separation anxiety that is very similar to that used by mental health professionals treating children. Dogs who suffer with separation anxiety cannot cope when left alone. The anxiety completely overwhelms the dog as panic sets in.


illustrated dog in panic mode

In reality what is commonly called separation anxiety in dogs is actually dog isolation distress, vs separation anxiety which is when a dog is so strongly attached to one or two people that they panic when the person they are bonded two is absent, even if other people are present. For the purposes of this article I’ll refer to both conditions as separation anxiety.




WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF SEPARATION ANXIETY IN DOGS?


Dogs with separation anxiety will display behaviors when alone that aren’t present to the same extent as when their owners are there. A dog with separation anxiety symptoms will often perform a behavior for most of, or the entire absence of the owner. Some dogs will start with one or two behaviors and add additional behaviors as their anxiety escalates. Some dogs appear to be fine for a short while after the owner leaves, but then display anxiety.


Symptoms vary from dog to dog. Most dogs will exhibit some, but not all the symptoms listed below.


Symptoms of dog separation anxiety


  • Whining, barking, howling Vocalizations are the most common symptoms of separation anxiety. This is not the occasional alarm bark in response to a noise, but rather repeated vocalizations that begin shortly after the owner leaves and continue either continuously or intermittently during the entire absence.


  • Digging or chewing at the door or window Dogs with separation anxiety will appear to be frantic to escape in order to get to their owner and will desperately scratch or chew at exit points. Some dogs have been known to actually break glass windows in an effort to be free. Many dogs engaging in destructive behavior injure themselves in the process by breaking teeth, tearing off nails, and cutting their paws.


  • Pacing Anxious dogs will have a difficult time settling down and will pace back and forth, or in a circular pattern.


  • Stiff Posture Some dogs with separation anxiety will stand at the door with a tense body posture, often staring at the doorway.


  • Lip licking This is a common sign of dog anxiety. The tongue comes out under the nose and licks the lips several times in a row.


  • Yawning Yawning outside of the context of waking up, or while lying down to sleep is a common sign of stress or anxiety.


dog yawning

  • Tail tucked and/or not moving Tail posture will many times depend on the breed of the dog, but a tail lower than normal can signify anxiety and stress. Dogs who are anxious often will have a very stationary tail.


  • Panting Dogs who haven’t just exercised or aren’t in a hot environment will not pant. Panting out of context is a sign of mental or physical distress.


  • Drooling A dog who drools without food present is typically doing so out of extreme stress.


  • Atypical grooming Stressed dogs will sometimes lick or chew on parts of their bodies. This behavior will only be exhibited with separation anxiety dogs when there are alone. In some cases the dog will groom so excessively they are harming themselves by ripping out hair, or creating open wounds.


  • Urination and defecation Some dogs that are housetrained when their owners are home, will frequently have accidents when left alone.



OTHER THINGS TO RULE OUT BEFORE DECIDING IF IT’S SEPARATION ANXIETY


Dog medical issues


Professional trainers would always recommend a veterinary visit to rule out any health issues that could present as symptoms of dog separation anxiety.

  • Incontinence could be a symptom of a medical issue such as a urinary tract infection, kidney disease, bladder stones, or any number of other medical problems.

  • Excessive grooming could be the result of an injury that isn’t visible or possibly an allergy.

  • Geriatric dogs can present with many of the symptoms as separation anxiety as a result of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, otherwise known as dementia.


Dogs that don’t have health problems and are cleared by a veterinarian, are more likely to have separation anxiety when presenting with the symptoms listed above.



Problem dog behaviors presenting as separation anxiety


  • Excessive alert barking Some dogs are more sensitive to noises and changes in their environment and respond by barking at seemingly every little thing. This type of barking occurs both when the owners are home and when the dog is alone.


  • Not housetrained A dog may not be 100% housetrained. Accidents may be more likely to occur when the owners are absent since there isn’t anyone to respond to signals that the dog needs to be let out.

  • Not trained to chew appropriate items Dogs need an outlet for chewing and need to be trained in order to know what items are appropriate to chew on, and what is off limits. Often young dogs will chew inappropriately more when left alone since there isn’t anyone there to stop them once they’ve started. Dogs may also appear to be fully chew trained, but it’s not uncommon for a dog under the age of 18 months to start chewing again after a period of several months with being “good.”

dog with a variety of toys

  • Not enough exercise High energy dogs, and young dogs need a lot of exercise. If those needs aren’t fulfilled they need an outlet for their energy and often will choose to get destructive as a result. For many dogs a 1 mile leash walk is not enough exercise for their energy level, and a place to run is necessary.


  • Not enough enrichment Dog separation anxiety or boredom? Dogs benefit greatly from things like food puzzle toys, and chew toys. Providing a variety of these items that interest your dog may resolve some of the destructive problems presented by a bored dog who doesn’t have separation anxiety. Additionally sniffy walks and opportunities to use their brain will help a dog become mentally tired. Training scent games and tricks are a great way to do this.



HOW DO DOGS GET SEPARATION ANXIETY?


There are most likely a number of reasons as to why a dog could develop separation anxiety.

  • Genetic Component Unfortunately at this time research hasn’t been done to prove that dogs developing separation anxiety are genetically predisposed to it. However, there is research with humans showing that your chance of having anxiety is 2-6 times higher if you have a close relative with anxiety. There isn’t any reason to believe this isn’t true with dogs. https://www.goodrx.com/conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/is-anxiety-genetic-or-hereditary

  • Developmental A theory based on research with rats, is that a stressed pregnant dog releases cortisol absorbed by her fetuses, resulting in anxious off-spring. https://dogdiscoveries.com/behavior/mother-dogs-stress-affect-her-puppies A stressed mother dog may also mean that a mother dog that isn’t as nurturing, and her lack of appropriate maternal behavior may end up impacting the healthy development of a puppy’s coping skills.

  • The dog has never been left alone A dog who has never or rarely been left alone may not have learned how to be comfortable by themselves. With Covid creating a situation with people in lockdown, a lot of dogs became used to having their people with them all the time. When the pandemic slowed down and people returned to work and school, many dogs panicked because they had not developed the skills to feel safe when left alone.

  • Trauma A traumatic experience the owner is aware of can trigger separation anxiety in a dog, such as a break-in at the home, earthquake or other severe weather. There could also be a traumatic experience that isn’t apparent, such as a loud car accident in front of the home when the owners were away. Something as insignificant as a smoke detector battery dying and producing a beeping sound could create a separation phobia.

  • Loss of human or animal companion Dogs grieve the loss of loved ones as much as we do. The death or even removal of a beloved animal or human companion can trigger separation anxiety.

  • Change Moving with your dog to a new home with unfamiliar surroundings and then being left alone without an opportunity for acclimation can be scary for a dog. Another trigger could be a change in schedule, or implementation of an unpredictable schedule.


HOW DO YOU TRAIN A DOG WITH SEPARATION ANXIETY?


Once your vet has determined that your dog doesn’t have any health issues that may be causing separation distress, you can start the training process to help your dog feel safe when left alone.


Management - how often do you leave your dog alone?


During the training process it’s highly advised that your dog is never left alone except during training sessions.


The goal with separation anxiety training is to teach your dog that they are always safe from this point forward whenever you leave. If you leave your dog longer than they are capable of coping, they’re getting mixed signals that sometimes it’s safe, and sometimes it isn’t. The lack of consistency will make it much more difficult to make progress.


Options to prevent your dog from being left alone include doggy daycare, pet sitters, rearranging work schedules, or arranging to work from home.



Separation anxiety dog training plan


The method used when helping dogs overcome separation anxiety is called systematic desensitization. It is commonly used by mental health professionals when treating patients suffering from phobias.


According to WebMD “Systematic desensitization therapy is an evidence-based therapy. When a treatment is evidence-based, it means it's gone through documented scientific testing and extensive research, and has been shown to be successful.”


Additionally, trainers needing to know how to deal with dogs with separation anxiety have found that desensitization works better than any other method.


Desensitization works by identifying when dogs have anxiety by observing behaviors, otherwise known as the threshold point. Training exercises consist of working the dog at the level just below the threshold point, when the dog is still able to cope.


Every dog’s starting point is different. Some dog’s exhibit anxiety before the owner actually leaves the house as the owner is approaching the door. Some dogs can start with an absence of a few minutes after the owner leaves before dog anxiety body language is displayed.


Each exercise in which the dog successfully remains below threshold results in a small increase in duration the next time the owner does a training exercise. For instance, if a dog’s starting point is 30 seconds and the dog is able to successfully remain under threshold for that entire duration, the next training session’s duration may be set at 35 seconds.


It’s not uncommon for dogs to have bad sessions and need to go back to an easier duration with the next training session. Dogs have bad days just like we do, and training isn’t linear, but more like going up and down hills in order to eventually get to the top of a mountain.



Corgi resting on window seat



Identifying the anxiety threshold


When determining the anxiety threshold, we’re looking for tiny little signals that indicate the dog is starting to feel anxious. Earlier I listed quite a few symptoms that indicate a dog may have separation anxiety, and these are the behaviors we’re looking for that tell us the dog is no longer feeling safe and is over threshold.


While our goal is to never see these behaviors during a training session, it’s not unusual for a dog to have a bad day and go over threshold on occasion. When anxiety behaviors are exhibited the owner needs to return immediately so that the dog doesn’t experience any more anxiety than necessary.



Watching dog remotely on camera


An important part of separation anxiety training is observing the dog in real time during training sessions. This is really important, as a remote camera is going to be the most reliable way to watch the dog in real time when the dog is by itself.


Fortunately today’s technology provides quite a few low-cost options for dog owners so that they can watch and make sure their dog is remaining under threshold during training sessions.



Departure Cues (Is the dog anxious as I get ready to leave?)


dogs know when owner leaving

Dogs are very good at identifying patterns, which can be problematic for a dog with anxiety issues. Dogs with separation anxiety become very good at knowing when an owner is about to leave, well before the owner walks out the door.


Dogs notice such things as an owner who wears certain shoes or clothing when they’re about to go to work and leave the dog behind, versus shoes and clothing worn when the dog will be going with them. Picking up a purse or wallet, grabbing keys, or putting on a jacket are among the behaviors that dogs take note of before the owner leaves them behind.


What this means is that many times dogs become anxious when these departure cues are performed, since they are predictors that the owner is going to leave.


A good separation anxiety training plan includes a method for desensitizing the dog to departure cues so that they no longer trigger anxiety.



Noise Reduction


Because our goal is to help the dog be calm when left alone, it’s important to set up an environment that is going to be more likely to support that. If your dog barks at everything out the window, or at neighbors in an adjoining apartment, or, finding ways to train your dog not to react at noises will help your dog separation anxiety plan.


How to stop dog barking at noises in house when training doesn’t seem to be working?

Masking the noises or preventing access to areas that seem to trigger the barking can be helpful.



Training other than Desensitization


Most cases can be resolved through desensitization alone. However dogs that have other anxiety or behavior issues besides separation anxiety can benefit from treatments to address those concerns.


Additionally it can be helpful to work on things like teaching your dog to settle on a mat or bed, and training to dog to perform behaviors that help build confidence.



Dog Separation Anxiety Treatment - Medication


Owners many times are resistant to giving dogs anti-anxiety medication because they feel it is an extreme measure, are concerned it will change their dog’s personality or make them sleepy, or feel it should be a last resort.


Anti-anxiety medication is actually very beneficial in the treatment process for separation anxiety. Canine professionals working with dogs who suffer with separation anxiety find that dogs taking anti-anxiety medication typically make faster progress than dogs that don’t.


Anti-anxiety medication by itself will not cure separation anxiety, and veterinarians will frequently require the implementation of a dog separation anxiety plan that includes training as a condition of prescribing medication. However, when both anti-anxiety medication and training are combined it increases the rate of progress and makes resolution of the anxiety more likely.


World renowned Veterinary Behaviorist Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, ABS states “The best treatment of separation anxiety involves the combined use of medication and behavior modification.”


“The best treatment of separation anxiety involves the combined use of medication and behavior modification.”

There are two categories of anti-anxiety medication. One is situational that would be given prior to an event that would trigger anxiety. These types of medications are routinely prescribed for dogs that are thunder phobic, and can also be used for times when an owner is going to be absent.


The other category of anti-anxiety medication is called maintenance medication. This medication is given daily and needs several weeks to build up in the system before it starts to make an impact.


Anti-anxiety medication needs to be prescribed by a veterinarian and should be taken as instructed. These medications have been thoroughly researched and are safe for use.


Sometimes owner are concerned that medication will make their dog sleepy, or will change the dog’s personality. However anti-anxiety medications are not sedatives, and the only impact on behavior will be a reduction in the amount of anxiety the dog experiences.




COMMON DOG SEPARATION ANXIETY MYTHS


There is a lot of bad information being given out as to how to fix separation anxiety both on the internet, and by well-meaning people who don’t have extensive experience treating separation anxiety. Some of the more common dog separation anxiety myths include:


  • Using food to treat dog separation anxiety This is great advice for a bored dog, but isn’t as effective for a dog with separation anxiety as many dogs with anxiety will not eat. And if an anxious dog does eat, it only masks the anxiety until the food is gone.

  • Crate training dogs for separation anxiety Most dogs with separation anxiety become even more anxious when crated. Crating by itself will not cure the anxiety.

  • Exercise Exercise can be beneficial to the overall health and mental well-being of any dog. While exercise by itself will not cure separation anxiety, it can help lower stress levels overall.